This is a guest blog post by Holly, a school-based SLP, all about teaching how to follow 2 and 3-step sequential directions!
Teaching Sequential Directions
Do you have students on your caseload that can follow one-step directions pretty well, but–as soon as the complexity increases–that accuracy goes out the window?
If that’s the case for you and your students, you’re not alone! There are plenty of factors that influence the ability to follow complex directions: hearing/vision, executive function skills, language comprehension, grammar, student level of interest, task complexity, and sequencing, just to name a few. These areas were reviewed in further depth in a previous post on following simple directions — a lot of that info applies here, too!
Complex instructions are relevant for students across the grade-span. Like many domains of communication, the milestones related to following directions are geared towards younger children:
– Between 1-2 years of age, kids generally follow familiar one-step directions with support (Linguisystem, 2014)
– Between 2-3 years, children can follow two-step commands (Linguisystem, 2014)
– Around 4-5 years old, kids typically understand sequential terms (e.g., first, next, last) and respond to three-step directions at home or school (ASHA)
We know, of course, that the importance and complexity of instructions don’t end at age 5. Whether you work at an elementary, middle, or high school, following instructions serves as a major foundation for learning. These skills are also incredibly valuable for students working on vocational skills and transition plans. (Imagine your first day at a new job! There are countless tutorials to follow and procedures that you’re expected to get the hang of!) So how can we support our students no matter what level they’re working at?
In a previous post on following simple directions, we outlined the process of assessing this skill, selecting meaningful targets, using visuals and strategies, plus designing structured and contextualized intervention.
Now we’re taking it a step further by teaching how to follow multi-step, sequential directions! We’ll review different types of complex directions, plus how to teach and strengthen this skill in therapy.
Types of Complex / Multi-Step Directions
Not all directions are equally complex — that’s why it’s important to figure out what strengths and challenges are impacting a student’s ability to follow along with instructions. Here are a couple examples:
Conditional Directions: If you ride the bus after school, line up here.
Spatial Concepts: Take a seat at the nearest table and face your chair towards the front of the room.
Temporal Concepts: Before you sit down, hang up your bag on the wall.
One Action, Multiple Objects: Grab a packet, glue stick, and a pair of scissors from the table.
Multiple Actions, One Object: With your pen, circle the word you don’t know, then underline any clues that will help you figure out what the word means.
Multiple Actions, Multiple Objects: Pick out a book, bring it to the checkout counter, and present your student ID card to the librarian.
The more concepts embedded into a set of instructions, the higher the demands placed on language and working memory will be.
For a deeper dive into assessing these skills, check out the prequel to this blog post and browse through the assessment materials available through the SLP Now membership! There’s a Smart Deck to quickly probe students’ accuracy in following 1, 2, and 3-step directions.
Teaching Multi-Step Directions in Therapy
How do you feel about using anchor charts, visuals, and compensatory strategies in therapy? From kindergarten through high school, I’ve found that these kinds of support make a huge difference for students.
When teaching a new skill, it can be helpful to use visual aids to represent a concept. This is because many of our students are already challenged by auditory or written comprehension (Law et al., 2017), so we can use this teaching phase as an opportunity to play to any strengths! This might involve using pictures, symbols, photos, or other visual supports when teaching a skill. Here are some of my favorite visuals to use with complex instructions:
When helping students strengthen skills in an area, it takes time and practice. Strategies can be taught, practiced, and used the very same day — that kind of success can be really motivating for our students when they’re starting out! Over time, using rehearsal/visualization techniques has also been found to improve students’ abilities to follow directions (Gill et al., 2003).
These handouts (included in the SLP Now membership) are great for partnering with teachers and working on self-advocacy skills for students.
Targeting 2 & 3-Step Sequential Directions (In Therapy & Beyond!)
Once you’ve selected your targets and reviewed the skills and strategies you’ll be working on with your students, now comes the fun part… Practice!
Introduce a new game or tweak a familiar one, emphasizing the importance of listening to the instructions
Can you think of a multi-step activity that is more functional than following a recipe? Our speech-language rooms don’t often come equipped with extra space, so your recipe could be as simple as making trail mix. However, if your school has an area dedicated to cooking skills or a kitchen space that you can borrow, try incorporating it into your therapy activities!
Try filling out a planner, agenda, or calendar with students. The working memory demands are high here (e.g., note that your spring break is from April 4th-8th, and your book report is due the following Monday), so it emphasizes the importance of using external strategies, such as writing down details!
When working with older students and developing transition plans, identify what kind of job skills involve complex directions (e.g., bagging groceries involves sorting items based on weight/shape/temperature, organizing them into a bag, and placing the bags into the cart). This is a great opportunity to incorporate your students’ interests!
Other Curriculum-Based Activities
To support carryover throughout a student’s school day, collaborate with other teachers to see what activities involve complex directions. In a framework developed by Wallach (2014) and Kamhi (2014), we see that a contextualized approach to targeting these skills can be the most effective!
I hope this post has been helpful for you! Do you have any other questions or ideas for targeting multi-step directions? Feel free to comment below — thanks for stopping by!
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (n.d.) What should my child be able to do? Four to Five Years Old. Retrieved from https://www.asha.org/public/speech/development/45/.
Gill, C. B., Klecan-Aker, J., Roberts, T., & Fredenburg, K. A. (2003). Following directions: Rehearsal and visualization strategies for children with specific language impairment. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 19(1), 85-103.
Kamhi, A. G. (2014). Improving clinical practices for children with language and learning disorders. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 45(2), 92-103.
Law, J., Dennis, J. A., Charlton, J. J. V. (2017). Speech and language therapy interventions for children with primary speech and/or language disorders. Cochrane Database Systematic Review.
Wallach, G. P. (2014). Improving clinical practice: A school-age and school-based perspective. Language, Speech & Hearing Services in Schools, 45, 127–136.