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Monday, July 5, 2010

Helping children adapt to change

"The ability to monitor and accurately evaluate performance and to make changes. Ability to learn from experience and feedback." (Queensland Health, 2007)
"The ability to recognise when the actions you are taking are ineffective, to stop, re-evaluate, and to formulate a plan." (Queensland Health, 2007)

Struggling with change

It would be simplifying things far too much to draw a direct link between executive functioning issues and children's difficulties adapting to change in their environment. However, it can play a significant part in this. But before I discuss the problem-solving and self-correction element of executive functioning, I want to look quickly at changes that children may find difficult to deal with, what behaviour they may display, and some other key factors that can contribute to difficulties adjusting to change.

What changes can cause difficulties?

There are many changes that can cause children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, anxiety disorders, depression, ADHD and even children who are chronically tired to feel threatened or anxious. These can include:
  • New people
  • Familiar people behaving differently
  • Interrupted routines
  • A favourite toy missing
  • New sounds
  • Moved furniture
  • Complex, unpredictable interactions
    (Dodd, 2005; Oates and Grayson, 2004)

In fact, almost any change that a child with these difficulties is not prepared for will cause them distress.

What might you see?

Every child will have their own individual way of demonstrating that they aren't coping, or don't know what to do, when dealing with a change. Some examples:

Executive functioning, self-correction and problem-solving

These elements of executive functioning, alongside the ability to plan and self-evaluate, help us adapt to the changes and complexities of life. As Oates and Grayson (2004) discuss, "the ability to switch flexibly between planned actions and different approaches to a task, without losing sight of the goals that are being aimed for, is a high-level cognitive function that is critically important in everyday life." (p214) That is, in order to cope with the many complexities of life - social, academic and physical - we need to be able to constantly evaluate, identify what is/is not working and adjust our behaviour accordingly.

When the executive functions aren't developed appropriately, then children will have difficulties adapting to change unexpected behaviour.

For example, imagine you are a child who loves playing in the sandpit with your two close friends. Ever since you have been at school the three of you have gone directly to the sandpit as soon as the recess bell has rung. Then one day you are heading out to the sandpit and one of your friends decides they want to join the hand-ball games instead.

You want your friend keep to your routine, so you say, "Come on! Aren't you coming to the sandpit?"

Your friend replies, "Nah. Today I feel like playing in the sandpit."

You say, "Aww. Come on! Let's play in the sand pit. We always do!"

Now, if you have a well-developed ability to self-analyse, self-correct and problem-solve, once you start noticing that your friend is becoming annoyed, you think about previous experiences, what you have been taught, how your behaviour is effecting them. You then correct your behaviour and problem-solve based on your goal of maintaining friendships ... which could mean you join the hand-ball game or go to the sandpit with your other friend.

If you have executive functioning difficulties, you would probably keep insisting that your friend maintain the routine. You may become aggressive in your attempts to maintain the routine (eg. pulling the child towards the sandpit) or have a meltdown as you are unable to work out what to do next since your routine has been broken.

Other reasons why children may struggle with change

  • Theory of mind or social imagination (as discussed in a previous post) ... Not being able to interpret and respond appropriately to your social context will lead to difficulties with problem-solving and self-correction, or the ability to be flexible and adapt to your environment.
  • Intellectual Disability ... a person's IQ is only one element of diagnosing an intellectual or developmental disability. The other element is an assessment of adaptive behaviour. As the American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities states, adaptive behaviour is about the ability to use language, social, conceptual and practical skills to live independently and according to the social expectations of our culture. It is therefore recognised that a person's cognitive development influences their ability to problem-solve and self-correct.

Next time....

Next time I will talk about ways to help children self-correct and problem-solve.


Dodd, S. (2005). Understanding Autism. Sydney: Elsevier.

Oates, J. & Grayson, A. (2004). Cognitive and Language Development in Children. Blackwell Publishing: Oxford.

Queensland Health. (2007). Executive Function and Capacity. Retrieved 8th May, 2010 from


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