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Trouble With Sequencing: What You Need to Know

By Peg Rosen

At a Glance

  • Sequencing is the ability to arrange language, thoughts, information, and actions in an effective order.

  • Many kids with learning and thinking differences have trouble with sequencing.

  • Sequencing issues can affect a child’s ability to follow instructions, speak properly, and complete multi-step tasks.

Picture this. Your 10-year-old with executive functioning issues has been taught how to set the table—numerous times. But every night, your child can’t remember all the details: First put down the placemat. Put the fork on top of the napkin.

When doing math problems, your child can’t follow the specific “order” of steps to solve them correctly. And a story about what happened at school today is jumbled and hard to follow.

What’s going on? Like many kids with learning and thinking differences, 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 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 first if it needs to end up under the fork.

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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 . 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 thinking differences 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.” Kids who don’t have a natural sense of sequence may show up with the spoon and then go back for the milk. Or they might freeze up because they don’t know where to start in the jumbled order.

Add to that a working memory issue, and kids might forget about the milk altogether. It looks like they haven’t “followed directions.” Other family members may mistake this for laziness or a lack of cooperation.

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, you can work with the school to develop an (IEP). Your child may need to work with a speech and language therapist. , like having class instructions written out, or extended time on tests, can also help.

If your child isn’t eligible for special education services, there are other ways to get help at school. For example, a 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 the steps—what was done first, second, third, and so on. Read or watch TV together and then encourage your child to tell the story back to you. If your child can’t come up with a clear beginning, middle, and end, you can help put it in order.

Try using a checklist or a picture schedule that shows all the steps for completing a task. Then your child can keep track of the steps. (Bonus: Creating your own checklist will often help you see just how complicated the task really is.)

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.

If you’re concerned that your child may have ADHD or another reason for sequencing problems, be sure to talk to your child’s health care provider. Together, you can figure out what’s going on and come up with strategies to help.

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 your child’s teacher on finding strategies that might help your child in class and with homework.

Key Takeaways

  • Most sequencing problems are the result of language, working memory, or attention issues.

  • A full evaluation can show if your child has a sequencing issue or something else.

  • Speech and language therapists can help kids with sequencing issues strengthen their skills and develop coping strategies.


executive function:

Individualized Education Program:


504 plan:

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Share Trouble With Sequencing: What You Need to Know

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
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  • Text Message
  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom