Trouble sequencing: Why some kids do things out of order

At a glance

  • Sequencing refers to following steps in the right order.

  • Not following steps in order is different from not following directions.

  • Young kids who struggle with sequencing may say words in the wrong order.

It doesn’t make sense. You’ve told your child the steps for setting the table many times: placemats first, napkins next, then forks on top of the napkins. But your child still asks what the right order is. This happens with other tasks, too.

Following simple steps in the correct order seems pretty basic. Why doesn’t your child know what comes first, second, and third in the process of doing things? 

Learn more about trouble with sequencing and how to help your child improve this skill.

What trouble with sequencing looks like

We all forget to follow the sequence of steps sometimes. We get distracted and do things like put the eggs in the pan before the butter. But we know what the right order is, and we can describe to others the steps for making eggs.

Not all kids understand sequencing, however. And that can impact them in all areas of life — school, sports, social situations, afterschool jobs.

Not following steps in order is different from not following directions. The end result may be the same: The task doesn’t get done or is done incorrectly. But the problem is with doing things in the right sequence. 

The challenges show up in many ways. In school, kids might not follow the right steps to solve a math problem. In social situations, they may tell stories that are jumbled or hard to follow. At work, they might pass the tools to their boss in the wrong order when they’re fixing something. 

The first thing kids learn to sequence is language. So signs of trouble usually appear early, as kids learn to talk.

For example, a preschooler might say “milk I want” instead of “I want milk.” After kindergarten, using the wrong tense of a word (“I wented to the store”) could be a sign. Or if kids jumble the order of words in a sentence: “Mommy yesterday to the store went and then I got a ball.”

As they get older, that difficulty comes into play in other ways besides language. Kids have a hard time putting actions and thoughts in the right order, too. 

What causes trouble with sequencing

There are many reasons kids struggle with doing things in the right order. They might not have paid attention to the steps in the first place. Or they may have trouble remembering them. Having difficulty with organization in general can also play a role.

Kids who have a hard time with these skills (known as executive functions) often have trouble with sequencing. That includes kids with ADHD.

For some kids, it’s a processing issue. They may need more time to take in and make sense of the steps. Other kids may have language challenges than make it hard to follow steps. 

How to help your child with sequencing

You can help your child get better at following steps in the right order.

Do activities together that involve sequencing. These include cooking, doing laundry, and planting in the garden. Talk through the activity as you do it and ask your child to explain the order of the steps you took.

Talk about TV shows or movies you’ve watched. Have your child retell the plot or a certain scene. You can do this with books, too. If your child can’t come up with a clear beginning, middle, and end, help put them in order.

Give a visual aid to see the steps. Try using a checklist or a picture chart that shows all the steps involved in completing a task. Your child can check it before or during an activity, without having to ask what to do when.

Use graphic organizers for writing. These simple tools can help older kids practice writing and telling stories with all the elements in the proper order.

If you notice that your young child is mixing up the order of words, talk with your pediatrician. Doctors and other health care providers can help you make sense of what you’re seeing. Teachers are also great resources. They can share information and help to get the best support for your child at school. 

Key takeaways

  • Sequencing is part of a group of skills known as executive function.

  • Trouble sequencing can show up in lots of ways, from solving math problems to telling stories.

  • Practice sequencing skills with your child at home, and tell your child’s teacher or doctor what you’re seeing.

About the author

About the author

The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Ellen Braaten, PhD is a child psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital where she is the Founding d Director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program (LEAP). She is also an Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Braaten's research focuses on ADHD, dyslexia, processing speed, and resilience in children. Her clinical work is in the field of neuropsychology, where she assesses children with learning disabilities, ADHD and developmental challenges.