Author: Siyang Sun, Speech-Language Pathologist

Some students may appear to ignore their teacher’s directions. Or they may exhibit behaviors that seem disobedient. Consider the following case studies, which show that some behaviors may be due to language difficulties instead.


Case 1: Tom is ignoring me!

It’s time for lunch, and the children are doing handicrafts. The teacher says, “Lunchtime!”. Children take their spoons and bowls off the shelf and queue up for lunch. Tom continues to sit on his chair and play with the play dough.


Tom has a hearing impairment and mild receptive language delay. He isn’t ignoring the teacher – he simply didn’t hear what the teacher said. Some children whose hearing is normal also struggle with following instructions promptly—they may be concentrating on what they are doing instead.

How do we support Tom?   

To get Tom’s attention more effectively, you might ring a special bell to indicate that it is now lunchtime (only using this bell for lunchtime!). You can teach the “bell rule” at the start of a semester. Starting by ringing the bell while saying, “tidy up everyone—it’s lunchtime!”, with a bowl and a spoon in hand, allows the children to associate the bell sound with the visual stimulus. Explain (multiple times) the rule to the children who struggle to follow it. If you have to remind Tom individually, you could say, “Hey, Tom! The bell just rang, what should we do?” This can develop Tom’s awareness instead of relying on teacher instructions.

Case 2: Lucy doesn’t listen!

Lucy returns from the playground. The teacher asks her to wash her hands, and she does. Without drying her hands, she enters the classroom with wet hands. The teacher says, “You haven’t dried your hands! Go back and wipe your hands with a tissue!” Lucy washes her hands, and again she comes back without drying her hands.


Lucy has autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and severe expressive/receptive language delay. She isn’t misbehaving, she just didn’t know that “washing your hands” involves “drying your hands” afterwards, this process chain has to be taught to become a routine.

How do we support Lucy?   

You can adjust the environment by putting the tissues near the sink. Give Lucy a two-step instruction: “Wash your hands and then dry your hands.” If she still fails to follow the instruction, you can provide visual aids (such as pictures of the water tap and tissues) and explain them to her multiple times. Model the correct behavior for Lucy and let her watch others do it so she can then imitate. Positively reinforce Lucy’s success!

If parents or educators are concerned about a child’s behavior, consider the possibility of a language/communication disorder. A speech-language therapist can conduct an evaluation to determine if the behavior is due to a communication difficulty and can provide helpful strategies for supporting the child at home and at school.

Siyang Sun will be presenting a free seminar in Chinese, Play: Have Fun and Develop Your Child’s Communication Skills, on Wednesday, December 13, 2017. For more information, or to register for the event, click here.