Is your child having trouble switching from one activity to another?

Is your child:

  • As flexible as a brick wall?
  • Saying, “Don’t stop me. I am in the middle of this!”
  • Seeming to get stuck on activities or ideas?
  • Taking a while to catch on to a new task?
  • Unable to deal with surprises or changes in schedule?
  • Always asking what is coming next?
  • Insisting on doing things an old way, even when a new way works better?
  • Standing firm in his ideas rather than being able to bend in a new direction?


Some children have trouble ‘shifting.’ Shifting means changing from one activity to the next, or from one approach to another.

Children with these difficulties often have trouble adjusting when things change, particularly when the change is unexpected.

If the child is expecting to play one game but that the game is unavailable, he becomes upset. When learning a new procedure, children with these difficulties often get stuck.

They may either insist on doing the task the old way or may take a long time adjusting to the new method. For example, if the teacher shows the children one way to do a double digit multiplication problem and then shows them a new way, children who struggle to ‘shift’ will often refuse the new procedure or take a long time learning it.

Your child may insist on having his own way. He may refuse any diversion from the schedule or from familiar routines. Children with these challenges may feel like ‘traffic cops for the whole world.’ They may be rule followers to a fault.

They might be quick to give up or to quit playing when they decide ‘it’s not fair.’

Shifting from a preferred task to a non-preferred task can be particularly hard for some children. For example, switching from computer time to coming to the dinner table may result in a major meltdown.


Clinically, ‘shifting’ or ‘flexibility’ falls under the executive functions. Mental flexibility can be defined as,

Flexibility is

“the ability to easily shift from one idea, train of thought, activity, or way of looking at things to another” [7].

Mental flexibility is required for almost all school tasks and for many of the tasks of life. A child has to be able to ‘shift’ from one set of instructions to another to take a test or to learn to read a new book.

Shifting is needed for stopping one project and putting it away in order to work on a different assigned task in the classroom.

Shifting includes many skills, such as establishing mental set, which means determining a pattern or way to solve a problem, tolerating change, or being flexible when something changes, and shifting attention or changing from one task that has your attention to something different.

Establishing mental set means learning the rules of a game. For example, when playing cards, you learn that the rule of “war” is that the higher card wins. A child who has trouble establishing mental set would have trouble learning the rules.

A child who has trouble shifting set might play war and use the rules from the go-fish game he was playing earlier because he has trouble changing the rules. On the playground, your child may get very upset when kids change the rules of the game if establishing or shifting set is hard.

With regard to tolerating change, there is a term in psychology called insistence on sameness, or intolerance of uncertainty, which is defined just as it sounds. Some individuals struggle when plans are changed or when they do not know what to expect. New research reveals that intolerance of uncertainty may be an inherited trait [1].

Children with this ‘intolerance’ do not adapt well when introduced to new situations, new teachers, or changing plans. A strong link is present between intolerance of uncertainty and anxiety. People who struggle with change and uncertainty tend to worry a lot.

They may worry that something bad will happen when the plans are suddenly changed. They desire some level of control over events in the future so as to protect themselves from potential harm.

Flexibility is just the opposite. Flexibility refers to the ability to shift fluidly between activities and problem-solving approaches. Flexible people do not insist on things going exactly as planned. Flexible people tend to be well-adjusted and less anxious.

Finally, the skill of shifting attention is involved with flexibility. Shifting attention refers to the ability to change from one focus to another.

For example, center time in kindergarten might require flexibility. If the child is doing iPad time and has to put that activity away to go to reading center, an inflexible child may become very upset.

A popular author on cognitive flexibility refers to this challenge as having ‘rock brain’ [2]. ‘Rock brain’ is when the child is so stuck in one activity that he cannot fluidly shift to another.


If your child struggles with flexibility, he or she is likely to need some support. First, children with difficulties in shifting are likely to be anxious. If your child worries a lot, it may be necessary to seek out psychological support.

Secondly, children who have trouble shifting attention may have broader problems with attention. They may struggle to get started on tasks, to focus on their work, and to complete tasks. In this case, an evaluation for ADHD might be necessary.

Finally, some children with difficulty shifting may have extreme problems adjusting to change and may have poor social skills. In this case, symptoms of autism should be evaluated by a psychologist.

If your child’s problems with shifting are more minor, it may be possible to help him or her through education [2-5, 7] and parental modeling.

Often, when adults are chronically inflexible or nervous, their kids tend to be also. In that case, downshifting [3], and modeling positive coping skills can help. Downshifting is the parenting skill of helping your child calm down while also allowing him or her to negotiate a solution to the problem.

A great example of ‘downshifting’ is offered in “Llama Llama Mad at Mama” [7]. In this children’s book, the little llama throws a tantrum because he wants to leave the shopping mall. The ‘mama’ shows empathy for her little llama, indicating that they are on the same team.

She requires that they clean up his mess together. She promises that they will go for a treat afterwards if he can hold it together until they finish shopping. Then, she follows through on that promise and takes him out for ice cream. This example illustrates how a parent’s calm and kind reaction can lead to a better outcome.

Even though the child is still required to calm down and clean his mess, the parent did not resort to threats, yelling, and an unyielding, inflexible demeanor. Rather, she partnered with the child, and they solved the problem together.

Parental modeling involves showing your child how to handle situations more flexibly. For example, “Oops, I made a mistake. I thought we had to drive that way, but it’s this way. That’s okay. We will find it.” Strategies for parental modeling can be found in the Learn More section [6].

A final parenting strategy that can encourage your child’s flexibility is giving preparation for transitions. Provide the “5 more minutes” reminder kindly, and be sure your child hears you. Many meltdowns can be prevented by building in more time for transitions.

Extend your morning routine by a half hour, allowing time for your child to transition calmly, rather than the harried rush to the car. Warn your child gently, “pretty soon you will need to put that away. We are leaving when the big hand reaches the 12.”

Just like adults, children do not like to be surprised by a sudden transition, particularly when they have to stop doing something they enjoy to transition to something less desirable.


If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.

  • Inhibiting: trouble thinking before they act or stopping oneself when upset could be related to cognitive flexibility issues
  • Rigid behavior: problems with getting ‘stuck’ on having own way or adherence to routines is often due to poor cognitive flexibility
  • Behavior problems (Behaving): poor frustration tolerance, anger, and aggression can be related to problems with cognitive flexibility
  • Emotional regulation: consistent problems with crying and meltdowns when plans are changed may be due to poor cognitive flexibility
  • Social problems (Socializing): friendship problems are often associated with cognitive flexibility problems


Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.

  • Autism: challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, and sensory problems
  • Specific Learning Disability (Educationally Identified Disabilities): inflexibility can impede progress in reading, writing or math
  • Anxiety: difficulties shifting and tolerating change can cause anxiety
  • ADHD: difficulties shifting attention and establishing mental set


If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.

  • Clear Child Psychology: to obtain a customized profile of concerns for your child, or to consult ‘live’ with a psychologist
  • School Psychologist: for learning problems or emotional issues at school
  • Psychologist or Neuropsychologist: for symptoms of anxiety and attention

These professionals may recommend or administer the following tests for this symptom:

  • Wisconsin Card Sort: adapting to changing rules and shifting attention
  • TOVA: continuous performance test of sustained attention and impulse control
  • Tower of London: tests visual planning, rule following, and problem solving
  • RCMAS-2: self-report anxiety screener for children
  • BASC-3: emotional screener that considers anxiety, adaptability, social stress, and behavior
  • Vineland-III: adaptive test of coping skills and externalizing/internalizing behaviors


[1] Nicole Kreiser, Ph.D. ‘Intolerance of Uncertainty’: IMFAR conference (May, 2016: Baltimore). Conference notes.

[2]: Madrigal, S., & Winner, M.G. (2008). Superflex. A superhero social thinking curriculum. Think Social Publishing. San Jose.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Superflex-Superhero-Social-Thinking-Curriculum/dp/0979292247/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1468762462&sr=8-1&keywords=superflex

[3] Greene, Ross W. (2001). The explosive child: A new approach for understanding and parenting easily frustrated, chronically inflexible children.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Explosive-Child-Understanding-Frustrated-Chronically/dp/0060931027/

[4] Huebner, Dawn (2005). What to do when you worry too much: A kid’s guide to overcoming anxiety (What to do guides for kids).

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/What-When-You-Worry-Much/dp/1591473144/

[5] Seigel, Daniel J. & Bryson, Tina Payne (2014). No drama-discipline: The whole-brain way to calm the chaos and nurture your child’s developing mind.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/No-Drama-Discipline-Whole-Brain-Nurture-Developing/dp/0345548043?ie=UTF8&hvadid=4162156440&hvbmt=be&hvdev=c&hvqmt=e&ref=pd_sl_3tktpckj2d_e&tag=mh0b-20

[6] Dewdney, Anna (2007). Llama Llama mad at mama.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Llama-Mad-at-Mama/dp/0670062405/

[7] Lewis, Jeanne & Calvery, Margaret, & Lewis, Hal (2002). BrainstarsBrain injury: Strategies for teams and re-education for students.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/BrainSTARS-Brain-Injury-Strategies-Re-education/dp/B0026GZ8HG/

Image Credit:
Description: preteen handsome boy…watching tv
Stock Photo ID: #82534241 (Big Stock)
By: Ulianna
Previously Licensed on: May 20, 2017
Stylized by Katie Harwood exclusively for Clear Child Psychology.

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