A girl goes to the doctor for advice on losing weight. 


Doctor: "Okay I want you to eat regularly for two days then skip a day. Repeat this for two weeks. You will lose at least 5 pounds" 


Off she goes and comes back after a few weeks having lost an amazing 20 pounds


Doctor: "Wow, you look great! Did you follow my instructions?"


Girl: "Yes but I thought I was going to die"


Doctor: "From hunger?"


Girl: "No, from skipping"


That may be funny but it's no joke when your child struggles with following instructions



There are many possible reasons for difficulty following instructions

Just as there are many types of dyslexia and many underlying causes for dyslexia, there are also a variety of reasons for a difficulty in following instructions. We will cover each in this article. Knowing that there are a variety of causes our tendency might be to "diagnose" the exact cause. This has some value but not as much as we might think. Causes can overlap. So it is best to take a holistic approach rather than an atomistic approach (Treat them all instead of diagnosing and specifically attacking one)


With that in mind, it is good to have an understanding of each possible cause and then do exercises which work each individually in a variety of ways as well as work them in combination. This overall holistic approach gives the brain the variety it needs to generalize the skills and overcome the difficulty.


So let's dive in.



A Weakness in One or More Learning Micro-Skills


Micro-Skills are the foundation of learning. We tend to think of intelligence as one specific thing. However, it is actually a combination of a variety of smaller skills we call micro-skills. Each learning or remembering task is dependent on, and made up of, these micro-skills. 


For example, if we try to remember a sequence of numbers or letters we might rely upon auditory memory or visual memory. Try this out for yourself. Try to remember the following sequence and look away from the page.





Now, how did you do it? 


Did you repeat the numbers auditorily internally?


Or did you see the numbers in your head?


Okay, now try this one





If you are auditory dominant and you tried to store it in your mind that way you would have a lot of difficulties. That's because trying to store the capitals and lower case letters just doubled the amount of information. The same number of symbols but far more information.


To do this efficiently we would actually use both. Auditory memory is very good for sequencing while visual memory can be easier to recall and store more information. So we could remember the sequence in our auditory memory and remember capital or lower case in visual memory. Working together these two forms of memory are quite powerful. And, as you can see, a weakness in either could cause a difficulty in remembering sequences of instructions. Hence, a difficulty in following instructions.


Let's use another example. Say I gave the following instructions:


"Go to the store and get bread, mayonnaise, a can of tuna, pickles, lettuce, and milk"


You might tromp off to the store repeating that sequence over and over auditorily. Or you might just visualize a nice tuna fish sandwich and know to get everything for that. So, in that case, you would be storing two pieces of information, the store and lunch, rather than seven pieces of information. You can see how using these two micro-skills, visual memory and auditory memory, are far more powerful together than individually.


It's not always about the strength of these skills. Sometimes we can be strong in a micro-skill but simply not "remember" to use it for a given task. This is why it's important to practice the strong skills as well. Because doing so can "remind" the brain to use them. In other words, a skill can be strong but compartmentalized. The solution to this is variety in exercises. And not necessarily looking for the challenging micro-skill exercises. Certainly, you would want to do the challenging ones, just not at the exclusion of the easy ones. Everything works together.



Kinesthetic and Proprioception


The above example is actually, for simplicity, leaving out a third, very important, category of micro-skills. The kinesthetic.


We don't typically think about kinesthetic memory and proprioception as having much to do with following instructions, reading, or any other type of learning. But that is a big mistake. Proprioception (our awareness of our body in space) has an incredible connection to memory and learning skills.


If you look at this from a neuroanatomical perspective you will find that proprioception and logical thinking both start in the same place in the brain, the hippocampus. The pre-frontal cortex is involved as well but the origination of these two things seems to happen in the hippocampus. Many movement experts such as myself, have recognized the correlation between improving proprioception and improving learning ability. Now neuroscience is showing us why. 


Another interesting thing about the hippocampus is that when it grows the amygdala shrinks. The amygdala is the fear and anxiety center. Of course, we all know that when fear and anxiety is high learning and remembering is near impossible. So developing proprioception has both the benefit of growing the logic and sequencing center of the brain but also quieting the fear center. 


It's a bit counter-intuitive but there is a strong connection between proprioception and all forms of learning, remembering, and following instructions. 


The ancient Greek orators knew this well. These famous philosophers and politicians used what was called The Method of Loci. This was also called the memory palace. This method entailed mentally walking through a known area, such as their house. Each area of their mental picture would be associated with a section of their speech. They were using spatial memory to remember sequences. This method has been used by World Memory Champions to remember long lists of names, numbers, etc. 


Following instructions requires remembering sequences. As you can see, there are many underlying ways of remembering sequences. It is not simply memory, but instead various forms of memory that all work together. If one or more is weak, not used, or not working well with the others then poor sequencing will be a symptom of those underlying problems.


These skills are so subtle and so fundamental that most of us are simply not aware that we are doing them. They are usually below our level of consciousness. Yet taken together they make up memory skills, sequencing skills, and many other learning skills. It is these fundamental skills that we need to work on to develop the over arching skills.


But not remembering a sequence of tasks is not the only cause for difficulty following instructions.


Understanding the Instructions

Micro-skills can also cause difficulty in understanding the instructions.


Just like difficulties in remembering, this can be caused by a number of micro-skill issues. For example.


If auditory discrimination is a problem then a child may not be able to perceive the instructions well. An auditory discrimination problem is when a person is unable to differentiate between certain sounds or even hear certain sounds. This is not a problem with the ears, this is a perception problem. When this occurs messages may be confusing or garbled. Or there just may be so much cognitive overhead that there is simply too much to process.  


An auditory closure problem may have similar results. Auditory closure helps with auditory processing by mentally finishing off unheard words.



Another problem may stem from a difficulty in visual form constancy. This is the ability to visualize forms in three dimensions and from different angles. It is very related to spatial memory. This ability helps a person mentally walk through a sequence as it is given. Seeing themselves doing it in their mind so it can be repeated later.


All of these things can seem complicated and overwhelming. But that's just jargon. In reality, the exercises to work on them are extremely simple and can easily be done at home by a parent. Don't let the seeming complexity fool you. These are simple developmental skills. Skills that are normally picked up by common childhood experiences and games but for one reason or another might have gone slightly awry.


The brain has amazing plasticity and almost any brain has the ability to develop these skills strongly with a little practice. A little work on them now has life long benefits.


Just as there are many types of dyslexia and many underlying causes for dyslexia, there are also a variety of reasons for a difficulty in following instructions.

Difficulty with Abstractions

It is very common for dyslexics to have difficulty with abstract concepts. As a matter of fact this is a hallmark of phonological dyslexia. If you think about it, words, numbers, and letters themselves are abstractions. 


Because they can have difficulty with abstract concepts they will often take things very literally.








There are numerous strategies for helping them to better understand abstraction. All of them relating to using the other forms of memory and senses. In other words building up other micro-skills and adapting them to help with abstractions. This is why a multi-sensory approach is helpful.


This video is a good example of using a visual strategy to understand an abstract concept. Sir Richard Branson, famous businessman and billionaire explains that he didn't understand net profit until someone drew a picture for him.


When giving instructions it's a good idea to have the child repeat them back. If there is an abstraction take that as an opportunity to work on that abstraction in a new way.


Of course practicing clarity in words is a good practice for yourself as well.



Attention Problems and Emotional Issues


Attentional issues such as ADD or ADHD can also cause issue. Many of the same solutions can be helpful here. Also consider diet. Some foods and food allergies can cause ADHD symptoms. If you feel this might be an issue grab a free copy of our books on the subject. Just right click the links to download:



None of us can learn or remember things when under emotional stress. Anyone who is struggling with a learning difficulty is under emotional stress. Self-esteem is probably in the toilet and memory problems can be exacerbated from emotional issues. That's why the Learning Success System is full of tactics to develop self-esteem. It is critical to learning.






Key Takeaways:

Micro-skill weaknesses can cause poor sequencing skills
Micro-skill weaknesses can cause difficulty in understanding instructions
Children with dyslexia may process instructions literally
It's a bit counter-intuitive but there is a strong connection between proprioception and all forms of learning, remembering, and following instructions.

Signs of Difficulty

Your child may exhibit different signs of difficulty. these may include


  • Mixes up the instructions. Wrong sequence
  • Takes longer than expected to respond
  • Misses important details
  • Difficulty understanding what the important details are
  • Can only remember the first or last thing in the sequence


any of these things can be caused by a variety of language processing problems, memory problems, emotional problems, or attention problems. However by closely observing you can find clues as to what the core issue is. even when you narrow it down, working on all of the micro-skills together is always the best solution.


The world is a little bit different for a child with dyslexia. They recognize this and depending on their situation may interpret it in different ways. They may decide they are incapable or capable. The reality is that they often have many special skills.


As parents and educators it is our responsibility to help them find those skills as well as build up the areas they may be weak in so that they may thrive in the world. 

Do You Need help with a Learning Difficulty?

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Understanding how to help someone with a learning difficulty starts with understanding which micro-skills are affected. When you learn which of the micro-skills is the problem, you will then be on your way to solving it.

You'll also learn how to:

  • Build confidence
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  • Eliminate avoidance
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