Jennifer’s teacher is concerned with her performance in school. She seems to be in her own little world during class. When called on, she responds by asking for the question to be repeated or saying she can’t remember the answer, even though the answer was just given by someone else. She puts her head down on her desk and  often seems tired. Given an independent assignment,  she freezes, asks for clarification, and still drops her eyes and mutters, “I don’t get it.”

Does this child’s situation sound familiar?

Many children who can’t follow directions are labeled ADD/ADHD*, and that is a possibility.  However, Jennifer’s struggle is not attention, it’s working memory, an entirely different issue. While ADHD may be a cause of a child’s inability to follow directions, other possibilities should be ruled out first. Poor working memory, poor auditory process, and a hearing deficit are three possible culprits.

* ADD is now recognized as a type of ADHD. Read more about it here.

Poor Working Memory

Working memory is the part of our short-term memory we use consciously to think and recall information for everyday tasks. Children with poor working memory are constantly overwhelmed; their brain’s ability to hold the amount of information needed to perform the specific academic task required of them just isn’t there.

In class, they forget directions, shutdown. These children may seem tired or distracted during class; they’re often caught day-dreaming, appear agitated, or frustrated. Unlike children with Predominately Hyperactive/ Impulsive Type ADHD who talk a lot and can’t sit still, children with working memory problems just get lost. They give up, not because they want to or are lazy. In reality their poor working memory does not allow them to process the information adequately.

Poor auditory processing

A child with poor auditory processing has difficulty with verbal directions because his central nervous system is not properly wired to process the information he hears. As a result, he struggles to distinguish similar sounds and may ask for directions to be repeated. Children diagnosed with auditory processing disorder perform better in learning environments with more visual or hands-on learning and less lecture.

Hearing deficit

Children with hearing deficits are unable to hear decibels in the normal range. Typically, hearing deficits are diagnosed in infancy, but can also be discovered in early childhood. Your child may not follow directions simply because they do not hear everything that is said.

Get the facts

So, parents wonder, “How can I know if my child potentially labors to learn with a limited working memory, inadequate auditory processing abilities, or a hearing deficit?”

One way, that does not require appointments with a neurologist (to identify working memory), a speech-language pathologist (auditory processing), or audiologist (hearing deficit) is to take an Assessment Battery, administered by a licensed school psychologist. The Assessment Battery she administers and interprets identifies the root cause of these disorders and the degree to which the weakness impacts learning and life in general. In severe cases, a visit to a medical specialist may be in order; however, more often than not, changes in educational methods or specific educational therapies correct the problem.

SailAway’s staff psychologist and educational consultants work with parents to forge workable solutions to overcome a student’s deficits so he follows directions and improves academic outcomes. SailAway offers a wide range of assessments, combined into Assessment Batteries, that generate an accurate profile of your child’s learning abilities and academic achievement. These nationally normed, widely accepted assessments are offered at SailAway to discover why your child struggles with following directions:

  • Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children-IV (WISC-IV)
  • Kaufman Test of Educational Achievement II (KTEA-II)
  • Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-4 (PPVT-IV)
  • Woodcock Reading Mastery Test (WRMT)
  • Test of Variables of Attention (TOVA)
  • Test of Memory and Learning 2 (TOMAL-2)

For detailed information about each test, please click here.

To learn more about which battery will benefit your child’s learning situation, contact SailAway at or (865) 376-7005 ext. 4 to schedule a 30-minute free consultation.



Alloway, T.P. (2011, January 15). 1 in 10 students have working memory problems: Find out why it matters. Psychology Today. Retrieved from

Attention deficit disorder, (n.d.). Retrieved from

Bellis, T.J. (n.d.). Understanding auditory processing disorders in children. Retrieved from

Gathercole, S.E. (2008, May). Working memory in the classroom. The Psychologist. Retrieved from