I think your preschooler is an example of a child who is having difficulties with sequencing - the ability to put together a purposeful pattern of actions, behavior, ideas, or thoughts. When a child has to go to the bathroom, the process of getting there is actually a very complex pattern of sequencing. The child has to get up, walk to the door, open the door, and then go out the door to the bathroom. When you think about it, four different steps are involved.
A child who has a problem with sequencing might not be able to piece together that four-step sequence. The pressure in the child's bladder hasn't connected up with an action plan. After the first step - getting up - the sequence stops, so he just jumps up and down.
The easiest way to tell whether a child's sequencing ability is limited is to watch the child play with a toy. He may pick up the toy and simply bang it, which would be a two-step sequence. Pick up, bang; pick up, bang. A three- or four-step sequence would be the child exploring the toy and figuring out how it works by spinning one dial and pushing another dial. A child who completely figures out the toy might then go through a five- or sixstep sequence.
Sequencing and Learning to Read
Sequencing is very important in learning to read. A child has to first perceive a letter, then associate a sound with the letter; look at the next letter and do the same. And after all that, he must run those two letters together, such as in reading the word ma. So reading that two-letter word turns out to call for a high-level, five-step sequence, with perceptual as well as motor activity. If a child is going to read a whole sentence, she has to move her eyes across the page, from one word to another word, to another word, to another word.
More sequencing is needed for comprehension. Without sequencing, a child can get lost on the way to sound out a word. Let's go back to the word ma. A child may start off by saying "mmm," but before he gets to the a, he becomes distracted, looking out the window at a tree or getting an image of "mother" in his mind.
One of the reasons these children find it hard to attend when listening to a read-aloud, for instance, is that they don't sequence well. If you can't sequence, you've got to remind yourself what to do next each step of the way. A special-needs child may follow the first step but not the second or third. He may end up looking distracted, but his attention problems are actually secondary to his inability to sequence.
Sequencing is only one piece of what's needed for literacy. Children need to have developed language to be able to perceive shapes and then relate sounds to shapes in order to read with understanding. And putting all those skills together also involves sequencing. General sequencing ability is needed for all academic learning. A range of experiences is also required.
I recommend not trying to master all the letters, the whole alphabet, at once. Instead, take a few letters that make a specific word, like the child's name or cat or dog, words that the child would be excited to recognize. I think the best approach for children with a history of special needs is phonemic awareness, as opposed to whole language. And remember that not reading by the typical reading age does not mean never reading. For these children, the pattern of growth may just be slower.
How You Can Help
Recognize that the problem exists. A teacher may believe a child is competent because she has seen that child follow a set of instructions. For instance, when she asked the child to "stand up," the child stood up. Next she said, "Go to the door," and the child went to the door. After that she asked him to "open the door," and he opened it. In actuality, the child didn't have to sequence because the teacher was telling him what to do each step of the way. Another example would be the child who memorizes a certain script because he's been there and done that, not because he's sequencing.
Observe how the child takes care of his needs and how he plays. Does he do one-step action, two-step, three-, four-, five-step actions with his toys? How does he communicate what he wants? How complex are his nonverbal problem-solving skills with toys and with getting his needs met?
Get a sense of where the child is. Divide kids into those who can do one- to two-step actions, those who can do two to eight steps, and those who can do even more. This last group is really quite interactive. Through their gestures and behavior, they show adults what they want, figure out how complex toys work, and use two or three toys interactively. Children who have many special needs are going to be in the first two categories, with a minimal capacity to sequence.
Extend sequencing abilities by finding learning opportunities based on children's strong feelings. Let's say you have a child who really loves banging a certain toy. If the teacher puts her hand over the toy, she may get the child to look for the toy. If the teacher actually covers half the toy, the child may try to pull it from under her hand, which adds a new step. If, the third time, the teacher covers the toy a little more and waits for the child to pull her fingers away, we're getting into another step sequence. By creating challenges that require extra steps that the child is motivated to do, you begin to increase his ability to sequence. At the same time, carry on a verbal play-by-play about what's happening: "Oh, you're going to have to take my fingers away to get it!" I definitely recommend playing with the child to entice him to get a little more sequencing going.
Make up little treasure hunt games in which you take something the child really loves and entice her to do a little planning to get it. Initially you may put the desired toy in a box she can see through. Then gradually make it harder and harder, adding more and more sequences.