Children differ in their rate of development of self-regulation. Because of this difference, it can seem that some children won’t follow instructions when in every other way they seem perfectly capable of taking direction and completing tasks. Children can even seem disrespectful or lazy—but in fact their executive functions simply are not “online.” The situation looks like won’t, but it’s really can’t (or at least can’t without help).

Let’s look at an example. Say that Susie is a child who can immerse herself in video games and playing soccer, two activities that require a fair amount of knowledge and skill. Yet Susie’s parents feel frustrated when they give her a series of verbal instructions, and she won’t follow through to perform them. The instructions seem easy enough to the parents: “It’s time to take your bath, brush your teeth, and get ready for bed.” Susie, then left alone to do the three things, does not follow through. It seems as if she is choosing not to get ready for bed. She is not paying attention to her tasks at hand. Because Susie can immerse herself just fine in the video games and soccer matches, it seems to her parents that “She pays attention only when she wants to pay attention.”

The truth is that paying attention is a function of working memory. When a child has to rely on only internally represented information, such as a series of verbal instructions, working memory is challenged in different ways than it is when a child is playing video games or soccer. With these activities, immediate and ongoing external cues and feedback happen in the moment or at the point of performance.

External moment-to-moment cues and feedback are unavailable when Susie is left alone to get her pre-bedtime jobs done. She can only translate the instructions into some sort of internally represented information. If Susie needs external cues and feedback to follow a verbalized list of instructions and doesn’t get them, then Susie can end up responding to available external cues, such as playing with the family’s new puppy. She may not even make it to the bath.

Even when children know what they need to do and have the skills to do so, they may not be able to perform in line with their knowledge and skill. Children will need external cues and feedback at the point of performance to compensate for weak self-regulation.

Sometimes your presence or a gentle and affectionate reminder touch can be the only cue needed to help a child follow verbal instructions.