Ask the Experts

Q: “How Can I Teach My Child to Smoothly Transition Activities?”

Transitions are tough, especially if you’re asking your child with ADHD to move from video games to homework or from TV to piano practice. Here, learn how to smooth transitions.

Q: “Any advice on helping my children with ADHD transition from one activity to the next? And how can I teach them what they can do to make transitions smoother?” —  HawaiiMom

Hi HawaiiMom:

Let me start by saying that managing transitions is generally more difficult to navigate for children with ADHD than for neurotypical children. And here’s why.

A crucial concept to understand is the “time horizon.” This is basically how far you can look into the future to plan or even think ahead. When you’re a very young child, your time horizon is super short — say about an hour or so. As you get older, it gets further away. This is what allows you to “see” into the future.

Here’s what I know: Most (not all) children with ADHD live in two worlds. The “now” and the “not now.” Now means right now. Whatever is happening today, or in this very moment. It could be 2:30 pm wherever your child is, and he is ONLY thinking of enjoying what he is currently doing with no thought as to what might be next.

And then way over there (so far away you can’t see it) is the “not now.” That’s where the future lives. Two hours from now. Tomorrow. Next month. Or even 5 minutes from now.

[Click to Read: Warning: Contents May Be Explosive]

As a result of this binary view, transitioning to the next activity is brutal for these kids. Imagine if you were “in the moment,” immensely enjoying your favorite television show while sipping your favorite tea, and someone abruptly shut the television off, grabbed the cup of tea out of your hand, and said, “Time to go…NOW.” Exactly! That’s how your child feels. If they’re enjoying what they’re currently doing, it’s hard for them to understand why there might be a good reason to stop. It’s just too difficult for them to see into the future.

So what can you do to make transitions easier? Here are a few of my tips.

  1. Build in rewards. Our kids crave rewards, and if an activity doesn’t offer one, it’s incredibly difficult for them to self-motivate. So a simple, organic reward, such as a picking out a favorite cereal at the supermarket, can do the trick.
  1. Structure the transition time. I found that when my son was younger, and he was forced to switch gears abruptly, he became very overwhelmed. Knowing what was going to happen during the transition helped keep the resistance at bay. For example, if your child is playing video games and it’s time to do homework, make sure there is planned and structured time in between the transition. Perhaps a fast snack or a quick game of hoops will help.

[Click to Download: A Routine That Works for Kids with ADHD]

  1. Create a visual schedule. I always say, “If your child can’t see it, they can’t manage it.” So post a clear schedule of the daily routine. This will allow your child to pause and pace himself, know where he is in the day, and most importantly, what comes next.

And a tip within a tip? Make the chart or schedule interactive. Allow him to check an item off the list, place a marble in a jar or move the sticky note to the next column. Anything that clearly indicates a move to a new activity.

  1. Use alarms and timers. They help your child see time count down and therefore make for smoother transitions. Make sure to set the timer for an odd number of minutes. Setting a timer for a typical amount of time, say 15 or 20 minutes is boring and unmemorable. Try 17 or 22 minutes. Why? Because odd is different, and different is fun and fun is memorable. It will provide your child that extra “kick” to get him moving to the next activity.

Good luck!

[Read This Next: “ADHD Makes Adapting to Change Difficult, But Not Impossible”]

ADHD Family Coach Leslie Josel, of Order Out of Chaos, will answer questions from ADDitude readers about everything from paper clutter to disaster-zone bedrooms and from mastering to-do lists to arriving on time every time.

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