Organizing Your Child

Adapting to Change: Go with the Flow

It’s hard enough for children with attention deficit disorder (ADHD) to get organized and stick to schedules. Can kids with ADHD also learn to adapt to change? Try these tips to help your child learn to adjust when routines change.

ADHD student raises hand in class
ADHD student raises hand in class

Flexibility requires being able to revise plans in the face of obstacles, setbacks, new information, or mistakes. A young child can adjust to a change in plans — a substitute teacher coming in when the regular classroom teacher is absent — without distress. A high school student can accept an alternative, such as a different job, when the first choice is not available. For some kids with attention deficit disorder (ADHD), though, dealing with unexpected change is a problem. Many can’t deal with open-ended tasks — ones for which there are no single right answers, no well-defined starting points, and no obvious end. They can’t determine what’s important and what isn’t, making it hard for them to take notes or to study for tests.

Adapting to Change in the Classroom

Prepare students for changes in schedules and routines whenever possible. If you know you’re going to be absent, lay down some ground rules for behavior in your absence.

Put in place a “default” strategy if a routine has to be changed unexpectedly. The strategy might be having the student check in with a designated person, so that he can be walked through the revised plan.

Adapting to Change at School

Hand out an outline before you start a lecture. List key concepts or topics, but leave room for students to fill in details. When the lecture is over, hand out the completed outline, with all the important details, so the student can compare his note-taking with yours.

Teach students how to study for tests. Have them use study strategies in class; talk about which ones work best. Provide detailed study guides, so they know where to invest their time.

Show, don’t tell. Walk the child through tasks step-by-step, making each transition explicit, rather than expecting her to get it.

Schedule “take 5” breaks to avoid meltdowns. Some teachers put together individual “take 5” bags, where kids keep stress balls or sketchpads and markers to use to calm down during the break.

[Free Download: Sample Schedules for Reliable Family Routines]

Teach kids to identify when they are becoming upset. If they feel their faces flush or their hearts beat faster, they should use a coping strategy you’ve given them to prevent an impending upset.

Creating — and Disrupting — Routines at Home

Keep daily routines. Children who have trouble dealing with change are comforted by routines and feel less stressed when they are followed.

Give extra support for homework assignments that are open-ended. Some kids genuinely don’t know how to approach the tasks. Getting them started, or sitting with them to provide guidance when they get stuck, may be enough.

Reduce the complexity of tasks. Inflexible children panic when they think they won’t remember everything they have to do, or when they think they won’t succeed at what they’re expected to do. Breaking tasks into smaller steps will reduce the panic.

[How to Teach Sequence and Schedules]

Use visual cues when changing a routine. If your child won’t be coming home straight from school during the next couple of weeks, have him draw pictures of the changes — he might go to soccer practice or take guitar lessons first — and arrange them to show the new schedule.

Disrupt the schedule in fun ways. To get kids used to unexpected change, introduce small changes into their schedule. Most kids are happy to go out for an ice cream sundae on a school night.

Give them coping strategies for changes that cause them the most upset. This could be as simple as counting to 10, walking away from the situation, or asking a specific person to intervene.

Give your child a script for unexpected change. Role-play the situation, with you playing your child, to show him how he can talk himself through it. Then have him play himself. Give him positive feedback about how he handled the situation. Practice role-playing briefly several days in a row, so that your child can learn the process.

[Free Webinar: Ready, Set, Work: Help Students Fight Procrastination and Get to Work]