Remembering Multiple-Step Instructions

Develop Working Memory Skills

Use Mnemonics

You may notice that your child remembers only two of the four small chores you requested or doesn't remember simple multiple-step instructions. When you're cooking together you might say, "Put in the eggs, then milk, then sugar," but she doesn't remember those three steps. As a result, she has to ask you to repeat the ingredients, or she refers to the recipe again and again. In school, when the teacher gives multiple step instructions, your child misses steps if she doesn't write them down. She then doesn't complete assignments in class.

Most school children occasionally forget instructions they just heard because they were preoccupied with another activity or their thoughts were elsewhere. But if your child chronically forgets multi-step instructions, then she may be struggling to develop working memory skills. Working memory is how the brain keeps information actively "online" so that your child can use it. 

Working memory is one of our executive functions: the set of skills that let us effectively execute daily tasks.

Solution: Using a mnemonic for multi-step instructions

A mnemonic is a cognitive trick for remembering a group of items by using an association, such as the first letters of a string of words. A piano player might know the famous mnemonic for remembering piano keys: Every Good Boy Does Fine. A mnemonic becomes a easier/smaller unit of information to remember that is a prompt for the longer/more complicated activity.

Your child can start using mnemonics in her general life, not just in the classroom. This will let her complete a series-oriented task. She can think of the initial letters as a set of instructions or facts, then develop a quick association — a silly one works, too.

Don't do this: "Put the eggs, milk, then sugar into the bowl."

Try this instead: Ask your child to think of a simple, quick mnemonic, like "Eat more sugar," to remember the order of eggs, milk, sugar.

Remember: Your child's failure to complete a series of instructions may not be a matter of her paying attention; it may be a result of problems with her working memory.

It is perfectly normal for children to experience some degree of difficulty and frustration as they learn to execute new tasks. Toddlers can tantrum, school-aged children can yell and argue, and teenagers can ignore instructions. When deciding if executive function weaknesses require intervention, ask yourself: “How frequently is this occurring? How intense is the experience/significant the impact?” If your answer to these questions is “too much,” “too often,” “I don’t know what to do to change this,” or “it’s only getting worse,” you may benefit from a face-to-face conversation to help problem-solve your concern. Effective problem solving will help you clearly identify the problem, goal, steps it will take to achieve your goal, possible barriers, and available supports.

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What to Expect

You and your child or adolescent will meet with a pediatric neuropsychologist for approximately one hour. 

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Executive Function Interventions

These interventions aim to create new habits that can sidestep or override a child’s cognitive challenges.

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