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Understanding — Sequential Reasoning

Sequential Reasoning in Childhood

Little girl walking up steps.

Marcy Willard


Last modified 19 Oct 2023

Published 17 Jan 2022

What is Sequential Reasoning in Childhood?

Sequential reasoning in childhood is the ability to solve problems step-by-step. 

Your child must understand the big picture and segment the task into steps or a sequence to solve problems this way. Sequential learning is a popular learning strategy in computer science. 

Sequential reasoning is the ability to do things in order. This skill requires the ability to understand the procedures in the first place (comprehension) and to recognize whether or not you are on track in your efforts (metacognition). Sequential reasoning is also required for storytelling (narrative coherence) and social interaction. If your child is having trouble with sequential reasoning, they may have social or academic problems as well.

Symptoms of Sequential Reasoning Issues in Children

  • Struggling with step-by-step directions: You may notice your child get frustrated when asked to perform a series of steps without a visual checklist or frequent prompts. Your child’s teacher may say they ‘seem lost,’ ‘never finish their work,’ or ‘do not follow directions.’
  • Not following the steps in a math problem: Your child may not be able to show their work on multiple-step math problems. 
  • Writing stories or essays that do not make sense: Your child may have trouble writing as paragraphs may be out of order. They may get low grades in school for ‘organization’ or ‘conventions,’ even though the writing content may be accurate.
  • Not understanding when your child retells a story: Your child may struggle to tell a story that makes sense. They may read a short story. When asked to retell, they may give you the ending first, and then a smattering of details. 
  • Getting confused on multi-step instructions: Your child may do the last thing you ask but forget previous requests. When asked, ‘Can you brush your teeth, put your shoes on, and get in the car?’ they respond by slowly strolling to the car, one shoe on, and no toothbrush in sight.
  • Not getting started: Your child may be unorganized due to a lack of clarity about how to get things done in a logical order. They may fail to start assignments because they are unsure how to go about them.
  • Appearing unorganized or inattentive: Your child may have a messy room or backpack because they struggle to know what tasks to do to get things in order. They may appear inattentive or have attention challenges that make ordering and remembering steps hard.
Find out what sequential reasoning is in this short video from Dr. Anna Kroncke.

Causes of Sequential Reasoning Issues in Childhood

  1. Comprehension: It could be that your child does not understand the procedures in the first place. This difficulty would be a cognitive or receptive language problem.
  2. Monitoring: Your child may have trouble making plans or keeping track of how they are doing on a task, often clinically referred to as ‘self-monitoring.’ Monitoring is the ability to recognize when you are on track in your efforts [1,2].

For example, a child with good self-monitoring can say, “I am about halfway through my homework. I did my math and reading. I just have some writing left, and I’m done”.

  1. Working Memory: Your child may have trouble holding information in their mind and often forget the instructions. With multi-step directions, your child would have to remember the second and third steps while performing the first step. Thus, your child may not be able to follow directions because he doesn’t remember them.

What to Do about Sequential Reasoning Issues in Childhood

  • Visual sequence instruction: When reading books aloud or preparing for a book report, draw out the visual sequence of the story. Use a storyboard approach or a comic strip to show the characters’ actions. Your child may have a visual learning style or a process of learning that requires them to see the steps, so providing a visual sequence can help in this case.
  • Use a ‘First, Then’ board: Provide a First, Then board for expected behaviors and routines. This board uses dry erase or other changeable media to show the task’s first step and the next step. Reward the child after completing the steps. Often, the ‘First’ activity is something undesired (finishing a math page), and the ‘Then’ activity is something your child desires (play with blocks). Teaching the order of activities helps teach your child to prioritize tasks by doing important things first.
    • The teacher can use this approach to help your child get work done in class. The teacher might put ‘Do the first 3 problems on this page’ as the ‘First’ and write ‘Take a break’ on the ‘Then.’ For children with challenging behaviors, the First-Then board can show the expected behavior (First), and then the anticipated reward (Then). This approach can help teachers teach appropriate behavior, even when the child has significant behavioral problems.
  • Chunk assignments: Teachers and parents can help a child get organized by chunking out assignments into achievable tasks. For example, you can help them break down an essay into ‘choose a topic, write an outline, complete the first paragraph….’ This approach can teach your child to sequence the steps for completing longer projects or assignments.
  • Graphic organizers: Another appropriate intervention is to talk to the teacher about providing your child with visual checklists and graphic organizers. Often, through this type of ‘scaffolding,’ children can begin to develop their sequential processing skills.
  • Model and teach strategies: If your child has poor sequencing skills, it will be essential to learn to use strategies. Children who struggle to plan and organize the sequence of steps needed to solve a problem tend to require explicit teaching in strategy use. Parents and teachers can write out the steps of a task on a piece of paper or whiteboard. As each step is completed, check it off with enthusiasm. A direct approach like this can go a long way to help a child learn sequential reasoning skills.
  • Think aloud: One way to teach strategy use is to model strategies as a parent when solving problems. This technique is often referred to as a ‘think aloud.’ For example, “Okay, I want to bake a cake. 
  • “First, I will get my recipe out. Then, I will get all the ingredients, measuring tools, and mixing bowl. Next, I will preheat the oven…”. In this way, the child sees a problem-solving approach.

When to Seek Help for Sequential Reasoning Issues

If your child’s skills are very low in sequential processing:  a consultation with the school may help. A 504 plan or IEP may be necessary. The 504 and the IEP can provide accommodations such as ‘extra prompting and process time’ and ‘provide visual checklists and graphic organizers.’

A School Psychologist or Clinical Psychologist may be able to do an IQ test. An IQ test such as the KABC looks directly at sequential processing. The WISC-V IQ test has a measure of Working Memory. If the school psychologist cannot do this IQ test, several private practice psychologists do IQ tests, and the service tends to be affordable.

Further Resources on Spatial Reasoning

  • Psychologist or Neuropsychologist: to consider symptoms in a mental health context
  • School Psychologist: to potentially test IQ or to consider academic issues (generally only in the context of an IEP evaluation – parents cannot necessarily request an IQ test from the school psychologist)

Other Similar Conditions to Sequential Reasoning Problems

  • Verbal Comprehension: problems with following a sequence of instructions may be related to poor understanding of verbally presented information
  • Auditory Processing: issues with following a series of instructions may be related to difficulty accurately hearing and understanding verbal information
  • Working Memory: problems with following a series of instructions may be related to difficulty remembering information
  • Metacognition: problems with following a sequence of instructions may be due to poor executive functions in terms of meta-cognitive strategies or the way neural networks in your child’s brain are configured
  • Self-Monitoring: problems with following directions may be due to poor self-monitoring, or the inability to track one’s own progress on a task
  • Intelligence: problems with following a sequence of instructions may be due to deficits of overall cognitive ability

References on Sequential Reasoning In Childhood

[1] Dawson, Peg & Guare, Richard (2009). Smart but Scattered: The revolutionary “executive skills” approach to helping kids reach their potential.

[2] Dawson, Peg & Guare, Richard (2010). Executive skills in children and adolescents: A practical guide to assessment and intervention, second edition

Book Resources on Sequential Reasoning In Childhood

Reid, Robert, & Leinemann, Torri Ortiz & Hagaman, Jessica L. (2006). Strategy instruction for students with learning disabilities, second edition.Mather, Nancy & Goldstein, Sam (2015). Learning disabilities and challenging behaviors: Using the building blocks model to guide intervention and classroom management, third edition.