Picture this. Your 10-year-old with executive functioning issues has been taught how to set the table—numerous times. But every night he struggles with what to put down first and where everything goes.
When he does math problems he can’t follow the specific “order” of steps to solve them correctly. And when he tries to tell you about his school day, his story is jumbled and hard to follow.
What’s going on? Like many kids with learning and attention issues, your child may have trouble with sequencing.
Sequencing is the ability to arrange language, thoughts, information and actions in a certain order to get things done. Without this skill, it’s hard to complete tasks correctly. And it’s often the reason why some kids can’t seem to follow directions.
Sequencing and Language Issues
Language is the very first thing kids learn to sequence. They know that when they use words and sounds in a particular order, they get certain results.
For example, “I want milk” gets them something to drink. On the other hand, “milk want I” won’t be as effective. Over time, learning the order of spoken language trains the brain so it can sequence other concepts and actions.
Most kids with sequencing issues show problems with spoken language early on. They may be slow to talk. They may use the wrong forms of words—“I wented to the store.” And most notably, they may jumble word order and thoughts when they speak—“Mom yesterday to the store went and then I got a ball.”
Trouble with sequencing language can create problems down the line. Without those early skills, kids have a harder time developing a natural sense of how other things should be ordered. For example, they might not simply “know” to put the napkin down before they put the fork on top of it when setting the table.
Sequencing and Working Memory Issues
Language issues aren’t the only reason for trouble with sequencing tasks. Working memory issues cause some kids to lose hold of the proper order for doing things.
Working memory is an executive function. It allows us to hold on to new information while we’re in the middle of an activity. For instance, working memory helps kids remember the order and number of steps in a math problem. Or a list of tasks they’ve been asked to do.
Many kids with learning and attention issues have trouble with working memory. That alone can make sequencing hard. But most kids with sequencing challenges have trouble with both working memory and language.
Consider this dinnertime request: “Please get the milk and the serving spoon that’s in the drawer and bring them to the table.” Without a natural sense of sequence, a child may show up with the spoon and then go back for the milk. Or he might freeze up because he doesn’t know where to start in the jumbled order.
Add to that a working memory issue, and he might forget about the milk all together. It looks like he hasn’t “followed directions,” and his parents are frustrated.
Other Reasons for Sequencing Problems
Not all kids who have trouble following instructions or completing tasks have sequencing problems. Attention issues can make it hard for kids to focus on what they’re being told. As a result, they may not know what to do or may only do some of what’s been asked. They also may become distracted while doing the work itself.
Other kids may actually have receptive language issues. Kids with these issues may have trouble making sense of what others are saying. They might miss the meaning of basic “concept” words like “on,” “under” and “around.”
How You Can Help
An important first step is to arrange for a full evaluation at school or from a specialist like a neuropsychologist or speech-language pathologist. That way you’ll know if your child’s issues are due to sequencing problems or to something else. If it’s a sequencing problem, you’ll find out what’s behind it. That might include trouble with language, working memory or attention.
If your child is eligible, work with your child’s school to develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Your child may need to work with a speech and language therapist. He may also need accommodations like having class instructions written out and extended time on tests.
If your child isn’t eligible for special education services, there are other ways to get her help at school. For example, a 504 plan could be an option.
There’s a lot you can do at home, too. Early on, encourage your child to participate in activities that involve sequencing. This includes following recipes, doing laundry or planting in the garden.
Talk through each activity as you do it. Then, have your child explain what he did first, second, third and so on. Read or watch TV together and then encourage him to tell the story back to you. If he can’t come up with a clear beginning, middle and end, help him put it in order.
Older kids can benefit from graphic organizers. These tools can help them practice telling and writing stories that have all the key elements in the proper order. (You can find graphic organizers online.)
You may also want to talk to your child’s doctor about ADHD medication. Kids with executive functioning issues often benefit from taking it. Medication might not improve the sequencing problems fully. But it can often help with attention and working memory issues.
The more you understand the reason for your child’s sequencing problems the better you’ll be able to help him. Learn more about language issues and how working memory is tied to attention. And work with his teacher on finding strategies that might help your child in class and with homework.