Following Directions

My version is shorter.

Follow the directions.

Simple, huh?  Apparently not.  My older child, who has a good-sized dollop of ADHD/inattentive type and more than a smidge of 13-year-old grumpiness, can’t seem to do this.  Yes, I know executive functions like planning are affected by ADHD.  And I’m painfully aware that no medication exists that helps with that particular ADHD challenge.  And I know that following the directions is, at least according to my older, boring.  But still, it seems like NOT following them only should have to bite you so many times in the derriere to make direction-following preferable to assignment-repeating. 

But that’s not so.  This homeschooling year has challenged him more than he cares to be challenged (and I’m not sure that right now he wants to be challenged at all).  His work load is heavier but certainly doable.  I’ve already blogged about planning and organization and this child, so I’ll not belabor those issues, except to say we’ve seen no improvement on that front.  And direction following issues aren’t new for him, but with three on-line courses where I’m not making the assignments, it’s essential to learn to do on his own.  It’s just not happening, however, and I’m getting grayer by the day.

As I see it, following directions takes a few simple steps:

  1. Awareness:  The realization that there is a specific plan for the process in question.  I’m all for creativity and independent thought, but much angst in this house goes toward concerns that the task is in completely uncharted territory.  Go easy on yourself.  You may not have to start from scratch.
  2. Realizing Relevance:  The understanding that the directions matter.  Hey, they may even tell you what the outcome of your work should be.  So many times, I read a paragraph, essay, or chemistry set answer and note to the child that the directions were not followed.  The child may have created a gorgeous essay on the essence of the Hobbit mind, but if the assignment was to compare and contrast Merry and Pippin of Lord of the Rings, the desired result isn’t there.  So back to the drawing board he goes.
  3. Taking Time to Read:  Okay, this might seem like a no-brainer, especially if you’re aware the directions exist and realize that they are intended to be followed by you, but (unless you’re a mom, dad, or have people under you at work), this step is not to be taken lightly.  No skimming for the main idea here, please.  If the question asks for the average number of cups of coffee in a week it takes your sleep-deprived mom to sustain consciousness at the wheel, please don’t give me the total number of cups.  Read carefully enough to answer the question.
  4. Just Do It!:  Again, this isn’t the time for creative process to bloom (unless the directions tell you to think creatively).  Don’t answer the question you wish you were asked; don’t omit the parts of the trig problem that you simply don’t like;  just answer what you’re asked.  More is fine.  Less is not.
  5. Take Time to Read (again):  Yeah, this is #3 again.  But really.  Take the time to check if you answered the question asked.  It’s a bold step, because if you followed your wishes instead of the directions (or if you really didn’t read them at all at all), you’re apt to find you’ve wasted time and need to return to the top of the list.  You may be angry with yourself.  You might even wail and gnash your teeth, a common response to failure to follow directions in biblical times.  But lest a plague of locusts or boils occur to you (or worse yet, and irate mom repeat herself ad infinitum that directions are there for a reason), read the directions again and confirm that you followed them.
  6. Ask questions:  Really.  Teachers say that all the time.  So do homeschooling parents.  We’re home, in part, to customize education for our kids.  I want you to ask me questions.  Granted, I may reply with every kids’ least favorite response, “Did you read the directions?”  If you didn’t, return to step #1 with a succinct acknowledgement of your inattention to that detail and get to work.  If you did, ask away.  That’s why I’m here.  That’s why we’re home.

Faced with my personal shortened version of  “Following Directions for Dummies,” I’m wondering how well I follow those steps myself.  As a knitter, I am often faced with directions.  Some projects require only innovation, but tricky stuff, like knitting socks, requires quite a bit of attention to directions, at least until the hang of that toe, heel, and cuff are firmly in mind.  I’ve knit two pair of socks recently, and I’ve followed loads of directions.  Or at least parts of loads of directions.  I found a toe-up, two-at-a-time, magic loop socks pattern I though would work for me (Yeah, I fish for the directions I like.).  I knew I needed a pattern, having never made socks, realized they’d be useful and existed, kinda read them, didn’t like the way they did the heel, looked for an easier way to turn the heel, read a dozen more directions (kinda), found a YouTube video I could follow, knit the darn heel, and never reread any of the directions.  Perhaps that’s not model direction following, but I ended up with socks.  Not the socks in the picture, but…  Hmmm.  Let’s try another example.

Faced with too many apples and a fine butternut squash, I googled squash soup and scoured my cookbooks for ideas.  Meanwhile, I roasted the gargantuan squash, turning it to a scoopable, delectable mass.  I finally winnowed the recipes down to two, my usual number for any cooking endeavor.   I ignored the ingredients I don’t have or don’t want to use, pulled down what I want to use, and plowed in.   Much apple and onion chopping later, I came to the detail of the squash preparation.  Cube the squash.  Really?  They really can’t mean that, I decide, looking at the definitely un-cubeable roasted bowl of yellow I’ve scooped.  I checked the other recipe, which seems to have made the same mistake as the first:  who would want to cube this hard-to-cut beast?  So I shifted gears, cook the mass of ingredients I’d decided were relevant, roasted mush included.  An hour and a whirl with the  food processor later (gotta break up those apples, after all), I had a delicious soup.  Not the soup in the recipe, but who cares?  I didn’t.  It was delicious, directions be damned.

Hmm.  Perhaps I don’t model the best of direction following, at least not in those domains.  And, I’ll admit, improvisation can lead to beautiful results.  And while I wouldn’t compare my efforts at cooking and knitting to the masters of the art world, it’s not like Rembrandt painted by numbers.  Creativity and direction-abandoning have their place, and I’m happy to illustrate that flexibility to my kids.  However,  I’ll also point out that, in the end, I had a pair of socks in the desired size and a meal that was quite tasty.  While they’re likely to disagree on the second count, squash not being in their food repertoires, I think there is a difference.  I can improvise because I’ve followed many directions in the past for knitting and cooking.  I know where I can make changes and still come out with the right product.

Alas, many of the situations they face now and in the next many years, at least academically, demand attention and adherence to directions as written.  They may not find the process of following them particularly fun, exciting, or creative, but there are many times when it just must be done.   Say I suck the joy out of life:  you’d not be the first or second to do so.  When I calculate a dose of medication for a patient, adjust the blade on the reel mower, or assemble yet another bookcase from IKEA, following directions increases my chances of aiding the sick, keeping my fingers attached to my hands, and preventing a book avalanche that could crush a child. 

But when I’m knitting a sock, cooking a stew, making a Halloween costume, or even soothing a tantruming child, creativity and intuition can reign.  For these and many other tasks, the directions (if they exist) are but a launching pad.   Knowing the difference seems to be the challenge, at least for my older, and it’s making him miserable most days.   While I’ve not formally presented him with my version of “Following Directions for Really Smart Kids with ADHD,” I’ve given him snippets many times when he presents problems that could clearly be solved by (join the chorus) following the directions.  Perhaps tomorrow…

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One thought on “Following Directions

  1. I’ve got a child with executive function issues, so this post struck a chord. I’m reading a book right now called “Smart but Scattered”, which I’m hoping will have all the answers about how to help him. We’re not dealing with ADHD, but certainly AMPS (Absent-Minded Professor Syndrome), and I’m going rather gray myself….

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