Navigating Transitions when you struggle with Executive Function
Updated: Mar 3
How many times have you seen your child motivated to clean their room, and then they make their bed and then get lost going through a drawer? Or you've seen your child wake up in the morning, splash water on their face, and then you find them half dressed looking for an assignment? Or you've asked them to take out the trash while they're doing their homework, and they get sidetracked by their phone? Or you hear them complaining or anxious about the first day at a new school?
These are all parts of transitions that we see people struggle with every day, not just kids. But - we may notice these struggles are worse in kids who are neurodivergent.
Here are some examples of other tricky transitions, why they're a challenge, and how we can work past them.
Examples of transitions:
Transitioning from bed to getting ready
Transitioning from Elementary school to Middle School
Transitioning from High School to College
Transitioning from playtime to schoolwork time
Transitioning from homework to chores
What are the core causes for issues with transitions?
1. Flexible Thinking
Switching from one task to the next doesn't look the same every single time. If you're trying to build in a routine of getting out of bed at the same time every day so that you're not late for your obligations, there could be a multitude of factors that interrupt this transition. If the weather is cruddy, if it's cold outside, if you had a rough night of sleep, etc. The problem with building a routine is that switching from task to task - sleep to waking up to getting out of bed - might look different on your "good" and "bad" days and that might get us stuck, or avoidant with the task.
2. Task Initiation
Flexible thinking deficits can be a really difficult thing to overcome when we're trying to switch tasks because, without the ability to think of a solution, we're unable to start a task. If we're unable to start the task, we're stuck in the limbo of transitioning and can become avoidant, or overwhelmed by the task at hand.
If we're unable to start a task because we can't see a solution, then we're not only struggling with task initiation and flexible thinking but we're also stuck with problem-solving. For example, if we're aiming to get out of bed on time, but the weather is cruddy, the only solution we're seeing immediately is the fact that once we get out of bed, we're going to be cold and avoid the task. We get stuck in the problem-solving stage not out of defiance or out of the lack of desire to get to where we're going on time, but in the desire to avoid being cold.
4. Sustained Attention
The ability to see alternatives to the desire to avoid a certain outcome requires sustained attention to the problem we are trying to solve. The example of getting out of bed is one of the easiest to see this with. If we're in bed, and it's cold outside of the bed, we'll probably just fall back asleep and avoid the problem we're trying to solve - therefore sustained attention is unreachable.
So how do we work around these EF skills in order to get better at transitioning between things?
1. Provide a "palate cleanser" between tasks. The brain struggles with switching from task to task because they aren't directly connected. So what we can do to ease this transition is provide a neutral activity between the steps/tasks. For example, if you're struggling to transition from waking up to brushing your teeth, you can prove the palate cleanser that engages the senses in a soothing way - listening to music, lighting a candle, touching something soft, getting water/breakfast, and keeping the lights dim. If you're struggling with something larger, like transitioning into middle or high school, or even into college, sometimes this palate cleanser might look like a community activity at that school the summer before you begin!
2. Clearly outline what the steps are between steps so there isn't any guessing to be done. The brain can struggle with flexible thinking of understanding what the next step is in any given task. So what we can do to facilitate these transitions is to outline what can be expected as a next step.
Step 1: Get out of bed
2: Walk to the bathroom
3: Turn on the faucet
4: Pick up your toothbrush and put toothpaste on the brush
5: Brush your teeth for at least one minute
6: Rinse your mouth
7: Leave the bathroom and continue getting ready.
Some brains may need this broken down into even more steps, but knowing exactly what is coming next will help tremendously with getting tasks done.
3. Provide a community. Let your child, partner, or friend, know that whatever happens you're there to support - not embarrass or reprimand. This is a process that we're learning how to adjust to and we need support. Not just step 1 and 2 to be done. Make sure they know who they can lean on during the steps if they get confused or stuck. Remind them that there are trusted connections in the new building they're walking into for the first time - and if they don't have them now, they will soon!
4. Engage the Senses. Sometimes transitioning or task switching is a challenge because we're over or under-stimulated. So what we need to do is figure out how to find our sensory balance. Do we need to hype ourselves up with our favorite snack and song? Or do we need to mellow out with comfy clothes and a candle? Remember to use all 5 senses for this, here's an example from our Empowered Student Circle group last week:
5. When all else fails, take a break. Sometimes our brains simply need a break between tasks in order to reset. Think about it, if you've been at school all day and then come home to more work to do, it's hard to keep going! When the brain is overwhelmed it's going to look for an easy out (distraction), so when that's happening, it's best o just take a break before trying again. There's no harm in taking a break before beginning your next step. Late policies exist for a reason, and late enrollment does too. We can't expect everyone to be on the exact same timetable for everything. Remember to give yourself some grace in the process.
Check out our College Prep Program, where we support our rising seniors in preparing for their next huge transition -- high school to college!