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The Art of Clear Instructions

We work with students at a wide array of schools with a wide variety of learning differences. I frequently explain the importance of a personalized approach, the philosophy we depend on as a company. However, I am going to break this rule right here right now.

One tactic for improvement works for every student, regardless of age, learning difficulties, or any other factors: clear, concise instructions. I know this sounds simple, but it is one of the most overlooked contributors to student underperformance.

Often, when meeting a student and his or her family for the first time, I spend the first ten minutes listening at least three times more than talking. I am listening for one thing in particular.

At some point in the conversation, one parent gives the student instructions to retrieve a backpack or get a glass of water for the new house guest. For example, a mother says to her daughter, “Sally, please bring your school stuff down. I don’t know where your backpack is. It might be in the laundry room. While you are in there, please take out your gym clothes from this afternoon.” Then, as Sally jets up the stairs mumbling her mother’s instructions under her breath as a reminder, mom fires off more tasks. She says, “also, tell your dad to come down here. And tell your brother to get off the Xbox.”

Without fail, Sally returns three to four minutes later, having completed a third of the massive to-do list. Dad stumbles down ten minutes later because he didn’t receive the message. The obnoxious sounds of the Xbox can still be heard upstairs. One of the parents comments, “See? She can’t focus or follow instructions.” Sally looks dejected, unable, and unwilling to actively participate in the rest of the discussion.

Sally isn’t the problem here; the instructions are. Unfortunately, this debacle of unclear instructions takes place a dozen times throughout the average school day, increasing frustration for students, parents, and teachers. So, how do we fix this? How do we master the art of clear instructions?

Rule of Three

Human beings love the trifecta. Triples are easier to remember, easier to tackle, and they seem to just roll off the tongue (see what I did there?). When giving instructions to a student, provide no more than three cognitively demanding tasks at a time. Remember, the average student has one minute of 100% focus per each year of age. In other words, minimize the chance of failure by reducing the number of items in the batch.

The Checklist Manifesto

Dr. Atul Gawande, a surgeon and public health researcher, published The Checklist Manifesto to highlight the simple checklist’s astounding success. From the Japanese subway system to the stress of the operating table, the humble checklist prevents failure. If providing your child with more than three tasks at one time, provide a checklist.

Play the Pauses

Music teachers often implore students to “play the pauses.” The same goes for giving instructions. Just wait five seconds between sentences. Give your student a moment to absorb and internalize. If you ask a child to do something simple, wait before giving him or her another task to do. For example, a teacher hands out a worksheet and explains, “please complete ONLY the odd numbers, but first, please pass up your homework from last night.” I guarantee you at least one student in that classroom completes the even numbers as well as the odds. Play the pauses.

Clear, concise instructions are the bedrock of student success. To help your student at home, employ the three tactics above. If students are struggling with an assignment’s directions, utilize these principles to create your own clear, concise instructions.

For more tactics to help your student succeed, please check out our other articles. Better yet, find the right support for your student with this awesome guide!

Evan Weinberger


Staying Ahead of the Game offers unique academic coaching & tutoring services to help good students achieve greatness.

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