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Classroom Management, Teaching Tips & Tricks   |   May 16, 2013

How to get students to follow directions the first time

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

How to get students to follow directions the first time

By Angela Watson


By this point in the school year, you’re probably having some moments when you feel like you’ll lose your mind if you have to repeat yourself one. more. time. Some of you have probably felt like that since September! And that’s perfectly normal. A big part of a teacher’s job is teaching students to listen, follow directions, and be self-directed and independent in their work, and that means LOTS of repetition and reinforcement. It can be exhausting, for sure, so here are some tips to help kids listen to your directions and follow them the first time:

Speak up and say exactly what you need.

There have been many times when I gave directions and heard my students whispering to each other afterward, “What’d she say?” even though I was certain I’d been perfectly clear. Eventually my husband pointed out my habit of trailing off mid-sentence and assuming people  know what I’m talking about. I realized that I’d often given the first part of a direction to the class, and when the classroom began buzzing with the background noise of students getting materials from their desks and whispering to each other, I assumed they knew what to do and didn’t command the same attention for the remainder of the directions. I’ve had to be very mindful about enunciating and making sure I’ve given the full directions very clearly.

Use a magic word so students don’t move or talk until you’re done giving directions.

This is a wonderful trick for elementary-aged students that I picked up from a co-teacher. Choose a silly word like “pepperoni” or a fun vocabulary word and teach students not to lift a finger until they hear you say it. For example: “When you hear the magic word which is? [class says “pepperoni”), you’re going to get out your math journal, pencil, and eraser. [Pause] Pepperoni.” Young students will listen intently to everything you say in anticipation of hearing the magic word, and you can let kids take turns choosing the magic word for the week to keep their interest up.

Have students repeat directions back to you.

There are several ways you can do this, and I like to switch it up to keep kids on their toes. Sometimes I’ll say, “Tell your partner what the directions are for this activity” and hold up 10 fingers, slowly putting my fingers down one at a time until I’m at zero, then I release students to begin the activity. Other times I’ll have students repeat the directions back to me in unison: “I need you to take out your math book and turn to page 67. Which page? [67] Thank you, go ahead.” I’ve also known teachers who give students a moment of silence to think about the directions and visualize themselves following through.

Write important information in a special place on the board.

Anytime you mention a page number, a time, or any other detail students are likely to forget, make a note of it in a designated section of your board. Then you can simply point to the board or poster instead of repeating yourself. Many students find this extremely helpful, and over time, they will learn to check the board before asking you to give the directions again.

Use a backwards countdown or timer to keep things moving.

Isn’t it funny how something as simple as cleaning up math manipulatives can take ten minutes if you allow it to drag on? The timer is your best friend. Tell kids they’ve got 2 minutes to get everything put away and be prepared for the next activity. You can use a real timer and put it under a document camera for students to see, or project an online timer or timer app on your IWB to display the countdown. For really short time periods, countdown verbally and show the amount on your hands: “When I get to zero, I need you to have your backpack on and be ready to line up. 10, 9, 8…” When time is up, move on to the next activity just like you said you’d do, and let stragglers catch up without acknowledging them except to help as needed. If you’re consistent with this, students will learn you mean what you say and they have to keep pace!

Give students a purpose for following the directions.

If you want students to open their novels prior in preparation for a discussion, say, “Please turn to page 214 and find the word quintessential. I’d like you put your finger on that word and be prepared to talk about what it means in the context of the paragraph. Ready? Okay, page 214. I’ll know you’re ready when I see your finger on the word quintessential.” If you want groups of students to prepare for a science experiment, ask them to assemble the materials they need and hold up a specific item when they’ve found it–they’ll work more quickly because they won’t want to be the last group to find it.

Ask, “What should you be doing right now?”

When students are off-task, it’s tempting to repeat yourself or nag. Instead, prompt students with questions that require them to think about their choices and the task at hand. Most of the time, students know the correct answer and will either tell you or simply get on task.

Use the 3 Before Me rule.

When students have a procedural question that’s not related to instruction, teach them to ask three other students before they ask you. It’s a great way to get students the information they need without having to say “Yes, I said you can get a drink right now. Yes, you can read your book when you’re done,” over and over again. If you model and practice this effectively, then the next time a student asks “What are we doing right now?” you can simply smile and hold up 3 fingers.

Talk less.

The more students hear your voice, the more likely they are to tune you out, and before you know it, you’ve become the teacher on Charlie Brown. The wake up call for me was when I was actually tired of hearing my own voice. It’s a challenge, but try to speak only when you have something important to say, and resist the urge to fill every moment of instruction with commentary. Remember: the person doing the most talking is the person doing the most learning, so that role should go to the kids.

How do you help students follow directions? What tips and tricks work in your classroom?

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. Great tips! I constantly write directions like key page numbers on the board, and I have a “When I’m Done, I Can…” section of the board to avoid the constant question of “What do I do now?”

    For the end of the year listening troubles that are creeping up, I’ve started rewarding close listeners. I give a normal direction but add something special, like, “Write your score at the top and then draw a star by it.” The students who notice the special direction and do it get to move up on our classroom clip chart. I’ve only done it 3 times, but today every student but 2 got to clip up for following the special direction. It already has them paying attention MUCH better to offer a little recognition! Increasing the positive reinforcement really helps at this time of the year- and it makes things a lot happier for me.

  2. You have good suggestions here, I have tried them all, but not in school. You see I get the kids after they leave school, as employees. My work is labor intensive. I have blamed schools for the very problem you are describing, it’s almost as if they are taught not to listen in school, and when I get them they must be trained to listen.

  3. I’ve tried most of the suggestions listed and some are more effective than others, sometimes depending on the teacher or the personality of the class. I use the 3-2-1 often for clean up and reorganize times, a signal bell for ready to start and listen (Ding the bell hold up a hand to signal Give me 5: eyes on me, ears ready, mouth closed, body turned to me, hands still. In the gym it’s the whistle and the hand.)
    In a school I’ve worked in the JK and SK teachers used a clap signal (Clap! Clap! Clap-clap-clap) which the students had to echo back. It kind of stuck and more teachers used it. With all-school assemblies, the leader would clap, the whole school knew the echo, and then we’d be ready to start.

  4. I do a lot of narration. “I see Calvin has turned to the right page. Jenna has her book out, but hasn’t opened it yet. Lizzy already has her book out and her finger on the right paragraph waiting patiently.” I find it works really well, gives them someone to turn to if they still aren’t sure and gives immediate acknowledgement to those who are on task.

  5. I have the echo page numbers back to me (Open to page 56. What page? KIDS: 56!) or we do I say/you say (I say 50, you say 6! 50! KIDS: 6! – repeat 2-3 times then say What page? KIDS: 56!).

  6. I use a trick that a camp counselor used when I was a yung-un…… When I (the leader) raise my hand up into the air…. you must also raise your hand into the air & be quiet — anyone seeing a hand in the air needs to do the same. I used this in my Special People Encounter Classroom of between 15 to 30 this year — worked like MAGIC 🙂

  7. The magic word idea is just what I needed! In first grade there is always a few that think they do not need to listen to complete directions…and those few develop followers! Your idea is simple and fun! Thank you

  8. Thank you! I have a student this year who is not able to process verbal instructions very well. I will try the magic word, 3 before me, and use a countdown timer on my Smartboard for his needs. I am going to try the other suggestions also.

  9. i loved this article, especially as a(n overwhelmed) first year teacher. I have tried several ideas listed, and am looking forward to trying out the magic word.
    I am still wondering about the last two suggestions: ask 3 before me and talk less. how do you teach them to ask 3 when you don’t really want them talking during class?
    For talking less, i have been trying it, even using a softer voice as I find that I speak loudly hoping everyone will hear me, but what can i do when they don’t hear me the first time? If I keep going for those (most) who did hear, the others will not be able to follow along? Even more frustrating is that they didn’t hear me because they were either talking or distracted. What is a fair, logical way to fix this?
    Thanks so much!

  10. In order to teach to both auditory and visual learners, I put page numbers on the board in a specific place. It also gives a quick reference to ADHDstudents.
    I have found that counting is useless. I give students a certain number of seconds. They can count. It helps them start immediately.

  11. These are such great tips! I really have been so tired of hearing myself talk and repeat everything over and over. Thank you for the great ideas and for helping me realize I’m not the only one!

    1. Great Tips! I am a science teacher and having hard time with 4th graders. I am tired of hearing my own voice.Thank you so much for the great ideas.

  12. At the beginning of the year as part of my expectations I tell students I give directions once so they had better listen. I start with “I am giving your directions now” so they are paying attention and following instructions. I actually give directions verbally, directions written on the assignment, and walk them through an example, also do instructions on Smart Board. I have “experts” – students who are first to finish and I have checked the their work – they wear an expert name badge and do peer support. They also get a reward at the end of class. This is middle school, but could be adapted.

  13. My kindergartners clean up in under 2 minutes after free play centers, without me saying a word. I just play the (free online) theme song from “Mission Impossible.” I don’t even think they know what the song is, but it works. And it always makes me and other adults chuckle.

  14. I found this idea a while ago and it has worked wonders in my middle school classroom. It’s called the page bell. I tied a very small cowbell to the end of the dry erase marker. I only use that marker when I’m writing a page number on the board. Kids know by the sound of the bell that there’s a page number going up and I do not get the constant question, “What page??” A few times a student may ask, but others tell them “Didn’t you hear the bell?

  15. First year 7th grade science teacher and I’m having a hard time getting my students to listen. I’m hoping a few of these ideas will help. Any other ideas to get them to stop talking and listen for a moment? I am also down with hearing me talk. I did find a method online where it’s mostly student led. Going to start this in a few weeks when we start are new unit

  16. Another one I use is the timer. If I’ve tried to get them to listen or follow an instruction (lining up, getting ready etc) I get my stopwatch out, turn it on and hold it up. They see it and start telling the others ‘quick!! The timer is on!!’ And things usually go quickly from there. I tell them they need to make up their learning time during break. Usually I don’t actually do that if it’s under a minute or two, but they still hustle every time I do it.
    Being silent often works (and they do the same thing – ‘she’s waiting!!!’). Another thing is explaining why it’s important for them to be following instructions. I tell them often that I care about them, their safety and their learning and I’m not saying things because I like the sound of my own voice!

  17. Plan your instructions before class begins. Make “crip” notes for yourself to be sure you don’t “overspeak” the instructions. BUT, before you begin the instructions for the activity; first, have the students clear their desk of everything. THEN, tell them what they will need to follow your instructions and have them put those items back on their desk. Give precise and concise instructions. When you have finished, ask for questions. Wait quietly for a full two minutes for questions before you let them begin. If they ask for instructions after work begins, pleasantly remind them the time for questions has passed and turn away to a task that breaks the engagement with that child. I had many colleagues who used the ask three before me rule. I’m not convinced that teaches children to take responsibility for paying attention during instructions.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Do you find that students get frustrated when they ask you for directions and you tell them that the time for questions has passed and turn away? What do they do at that point to get their question answered?

      I would assume they either just try to figure it out on their own (essentially asking themselves what the instructions were) or they ask a friend. This is the same thing that the 3 Before Me Rule teaches: ask yourself, then ask others. The only difference is that instead of telling the student they can’t ask you a question right now, you’d be giving them a strategy they can use to figure out what to do.

  18. There is a failsafe which I did not mention. Except on tests, they have a redo option available. When a paper clearly demonstrates that they did not follow instructions, I wrote “Redo. Please see me for instructions.” I will then privately go over the instructions again. Also, during instructions, I teach them to code instructions that are on the paper, I will have them underline the word “underline” in the instructions, draw a circle around the word circle in the instructions, or write the word “words” where it is fill in the blank. On math papers, we coded the instructions using the operational sign above the instructions. I don’t recall a single student having more than one redo for instructions. I was amazed, however, that we had very few redoes after the first week. When we had a new student transfer in, we did a class wide orientation where the students told the new student what was so important to know about classroom expectations as they explained the class rules. I came to that after seeing it in the class of one of my co-operating teachers in my teacher ed program. It really taught them to take power over their learning opportunities. Their questions, after the first week of school, were really thoughtful and sometimes even showed me omissions in my instructions. When that happened, I always thanked them for pointing it out to me and we discussed the improvement I needed to make in my instructions. Their subsequent teachers always knew my students because of that. The year I had to take maternity leave after only six weeks into the year, the supply teacher complained to me because they reminded her of the coding routine. She was not happy with me but my regular subs loved it.

  19. Hi Angela,
    Another trick I learned from my master teacher (13 years ago) was, when the class needed to come back together from group work or when the noise was getting a little too juch, is to stand near the front, or middle, of the classroom, and say in a soft conversational voice, “If you can hear my voice, clap once”. Usually, five or six close students will clap. Then I say, “If you can hear my voice, clap twice”. Usually half the class will clap twice. Rare are the moments when I have gotten to “If you can hear my voice, clap three times”. By this time, most students are waiting what other interactive, low-risk activity will come next. To change this up, I’ve asked them to stand up, turn around, jump once, twice, sit back down, etc.

    Thank you for your suggestions. I have five periods of high school seniors coming at me in four weeks. I need all the help I can get.
    -Dann Lealos

  20. Great tips both for the classroom and home! A strange question but there is a picture with the article that had dividers for missed work. Do you have that? If so, where did you get it? Thanks again!

  21. Loved all this! The one thing I didn’t see in your article or comments was write the directions down. I work in a low income middle school and kids struggle with independence. I keep directions on the overhead as well as next steps. I make my own graphic organizers and “stuff” and so I can write directions there, too. They should be simple and easy to follow. The thinking should be the hard part!

    Thanks for the great info!

  22. Hi my name is Macey I work with an after school program, and have 26 students who are always loud and bouncing off the walls refuse to listen while walking down the hall no matter how many times I say “ remember be silent other teachers are working” it still doesn’t help nor does it help at restroom breaks either. How do I get them to be silent in the halls?
    I also have trouble keeping them silent during homework time. How do I do that?

    1. You could try splitting them into, say, 4 groups and then getting each group to walk down the corridor and rate them as to which group was the best behaved.

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