What do we mean by Flexibility and Adaptability?
Flexibility describes a person’s ability to choose from a range of options to achieve the outcome required.
Adaptability is a person’s ability to cope with changes that are imposed.
Children that are more adaptable tend to move smoothly from one activity to the next, they adjust more quickly to change. Children with this temperament seem to go with the flow and be more flexible. They look forward to new schedules, activities and ideas. Parents may need to encourage them to slow down and think before they act.
Children who are less adaptable have a more difficult time coping with changes in routines and schedules. They may have tantrums or cry more often than others their age. They may be slow to adapt to new activities, ideas or outings. They may be less comfortable around new people or even new items in the home. Children with this temperament thrive on predictability of routines, which means they are less likely to rush into dangerous situations and less influenced by peers.
Why daily schedules and routines are important for toddlers.
Routines are important for toddlers and family life. Not only do they keep family days running (relatively) smoothly from a logistical perspective and cut back on last-minute panicking and stress. They help your toddler thrive by supporting her need for predictability and routine.
When you establish a daily routine for your toddler, you:
Create a sense of safety. A regular daily schedule and routine gives toddlers (and adults) a feeling of predictability, which allows your toddler to feel comfortable and secure in her environment.
Give a feeling of control and confidence. Does your child love calling the shots? (Yes!) Then she’ll delight in knowing what comes next — and telling you all about it. Plus, knowing her role in the family routine can give her a sense of belonging and support her developing self-esteem.
Help your toddler adapt to change.
It might seem counterintuitive, but having a sense of routine can actually make it easier for your toddler to cope when something shifts. If your partner suddenly has to start doing day care pickup instead of you, for example, your toddler will be able to take comfort in knowing that the other markers of the afternoon and evening (playground time, dinner, bedtime routine) have stayed the same.
Routines are also important for older children because they help form security, stability, and structure. They teach children to be self-reliant, patient, form good habits, and build strong family bonds. When children don’t know what’s happening and what to expect next, children may become scared, insecure, and emotional.
How You Can Help Your Child Adapt to Change
- Young children are often rigid, inflexible, or resistant to change for no clear reason.
- Rigidity decreases as children develop the ability to cope with new and/or unpredictable situations.
- Parents can help children to adapt to change by using evidence-based strategies to increase a child’s flexibility.
Rigidity, inflexibility, and/or a resistance to change are common in young children. For example, your child may insist on using the same plate and cup at every meal with no clear reason for this preference or they may insist that you go through their bedtime routine in the exact same way every night. Failing to honour their specific request or deviating from their preferred routine may result in emotional meltdowns or challenging behaviour that seems out of proportion given the situation.
As children’s brains develop (particularly the prefrontal cortex), they typically gain the cognitive flexibility and emotional regulation skills to cope with unwanted changes in their environment. Their rigidity will then only be remembered through cute anecdotes of their toddlerhood (that are somehow funny only in retrospect). Still, although it may be developmentally normal, rigid or inflexible behaviour in children can be frustrating and disruptive for families. So what are some evidence-based strategies to address your child’s rigidity or resistance to change?
1. Prepare your child for any different or uncertain situations by telling them exactly what to expect. Use visual aids to help (such as a book that you made or purchased or even YouTube videos that depict the situation).
2. Although it is important to validate and accept your child’s rigidity, you do not want to accommodate it by avoiding any situations that make your child uncomfortable. Instead, you want to gradually and incrementally introduce changes into their day, starting with those that would be least upsetting and building up to more significant changes. These changes should be communicated to your child before they happen. For example, if the family will only eat one meal for dinner, alter the meal one ingredient at a time, and warn them about any menu changes in advance.
3. Teach your child some coping skills to manage their frustration and anxiety related to rigidity. For example, a younger child could be encouraged to do some deep breathing or go to a “calm down” space. If your child is older, you could help them challenge their own thinking and see the “bigger picture.” For example, help them learn to ask themselves whether they will still be upset about this change one week from today.
4. Help your child to develop a “Plan A” and “Plan B” for any uncertain situation and discuss in advance how they will manage their frustration and disappointment when “Plan A” does not work out.
5. Teach your child the concept of their brain feeling “stuck” and model how you would cope with feeling “stuck” yourself. For example, you could say “I can’t stop feeling angry at myself that I burned dinner tonight. I must be feeling ‘stuck.’ I’m going to take some deep breaths and then remember that everyone makes mistakes and that it was no big deal since we were able to order pizza.”
6. Finally, remember that a tendency to be more rigid is also associated with many important strengths, such as an ability to pay attention to minor details and to focus on one topic for an extended period of time. Although it can be frustrating at the time, it may eventually help your child to achieve their goals.
What is transition?
Transitions are “changes”. Within education, these are the moves children and young people make from home to an early learning and childcare (ELC) setting, from there to primary, from stage to stage, from primary to secondary, between schools and from secondary to further education and beyond.
Transitions and changes are part of everyone’s life. The vast majority of children and young people look forward to moving on. However transitions can be challenging and support from parents and staff can help transitions go more smoothly.
What can I do as a parent?
It helps children and young people at all transitions if parents:
- talk with them about what is going to happen
- encourage them to ask questions
- encourage them to talk about any concerns they may have
- listen carefully to their concerns and consider sharing them with other relevant people
- help them to become familiar with the new school or setting and what will be expected of them.
This resource covers practical tips and tools to help pupils, schools, parents and carers to manage changes and transitions throughout their time at school.
When is there a problem?
If your child’s rigidity or resistance to change is so severe that it causes disruptions to their learning, social relationships, or activities of daily living or significantly alters your family’s functioning on a regular basis, consult with a mental health professional. For some children, such as those with autism spectrum disorder, an anxiety disorder, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), rigidity may be more pronounced and persist well beyond the preschool years.
Everyone experiences ‘demand avoidance’ (resistance to doing something that is requested or expected of you) sometimes. However, here we use demand avoidance to mean the characteristic of a persistent and marked resistance to ‘the demands of everyday life’, which may include essential demands such as eating and sleeping as well as expected demands such as going to school or work.
Although demand avoidance is widely acknowledged as a characteristic experienced by and observed in some autistic people and potentially other neurodivergent, but not autistic, people, there is very little research into it and the research that does exist is generally of a low quality.
Because of this, many aspects of demand avoidance – including how it is best defined and identified; how common it is; why it happens; and support strategies for someone experiencing it – are under-researched and often contested.
Think about how best to communicate with the person, consider their cognitive ability, how attentive are they, what phrases they understand. How settled are they? A person’s arousal level, the impact of their environment and even how tired they are will influence communication. If your child/young person is struggling with a direct demand, avoid using the word ‘no’ and try to offer requests in a non-confrontational manner. Think about how much spoken language you use. We live in a world with a strong preference for verbal communication. For some people who are neurodivergent this can be a disadvantage, especially when they are feeling anxious or unsettled. This can be compounded by not fully understanding what has been said to them, or mis-understanding the language and the context it is used in.
Words are often quickly forgotten and can be misunderstood. Visual supports are concrete and consistent. They can provide structure and routine so the person knows what will happen at that time and help to move the person onto the next item or show when something preferred will occur. This helps reduce frustration and anxiety.
Use social stories/comic strip stories to explain about what is expected in a situation, especially something new or something the person may be getting confused about. Such as how rules can be applied differently.
Reference: National Autistic Society. For more information go to:
Concept of time
People who are neurodivergent may struggle with the concept of time. Use timers/countdowns so they know how long they have left of an activity, or when something fun is about to start.
Think, how full is your child’s tolerance jar likely to be today. Consider how anxious they are and how many demands/requests you are placing on them, try to match the level of demand with their ability to manage at that time. Try to introduce demands in a less confrontational manner.
Try to help the person to manage their anxiety using relaxation and energy accounting techniques. Try to plan activities which they find more tiring with the chance to relax and re charge their batteries.
If a person has lost their composure, they are telling you that they are struggling at that time and need support or help to manage the environment/task being presented. Try to reflect on any unsettled episodes and consider using a behavioural diary using the ABC method.
If your child/young person has experienced developmental trauma you will need to adapt methods used particularly around preventing a feeling of shame in them. Methods such as PACE parenting are very useful in these circumstances as is considering how broad their window of tolerance is at the time.
Support in hospital
If a person is going to hospital find out about the acute liaison nurses. They can help to support and also provide information about what could happen in an appointment.
See the next section “More Information” for more detail around helping to manage change