Tips for Helping Kids with ADHD Manage Transitions

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

In my previous post I discussed the reasons why so many kids with ADHD struggle to successfully transition from one activity to another throughout the day. The good news is that while transitions are much more difficult for kids with ADHD than kids without ADHD, with some targeted support and accommodations, transitioning between activities can become much easier.

  1. Provide a 5-minute warning. 5 minutes (or more) before the end of an activity, let the child know that the transition will be happening soon. Make sure the child heard you by making eye contact before giving the warning and asking the child to verbally repeat the number of minutes that are left in the activity.
  2. Break the transition down into small manageable steps. If the transition requires the child to complete more than 2 steps (e.g., put your materials in your desk, put your completed work in the bin on the teacher’s desk, get your backpack, and line up by the door), then give the child instructions that break the instructions down into just two steps at a time. For example, “Put your materials away and then put your completed work on my desk. Nice job! Now go get your backpack and line up at the door.” If the transition is one that happens routinely, then post the steps on the wall, create a checklist, or give the child the instructions 2 at a time until the steps become a habit.
  3. The fewer steps a child needs to follow during a transition time, the more smoothly things will go. Think about your most difficult transition times and consider whether there are any steps that can be removed or completed ahead of time. For example, when it comes to transitioning from play time to homework time, making sure the child’s homework station is organized, well stocked with supplies, and has his or her backpack (and daily materials) sitting nearby can actually take care of many little steps that get in the way of getting started on homework.
  4. Give instructions slowly. For kids with ADHD who process information more slowly, make sure you provide the instructions with enough time (about 10 seconds) in between for the child to start following through. Often instructions are given rapid-fire during transitions because everyone is in a hurry. But, this fast pace ultimately just slows things down when a child can’t process the information quickly enough to be able to follow through.
  5. Allow extra time. Most kids with ADHD cannot transition between activities quickly, and when you try to rush them they only seem to move more slowly. Instead, allow extra time either by giving the child with ADHD a head start on the transition activities, or by building in an extra few minutes for everyone during the transition time. At home this may mean allowing an extra 5 or 10 minutes in the morning to transition from finishing breakfast to getting out the door, for example.
  6. Stay calm. Kids with ADHD often struggle to manage their emotions during transitions – and so do their parents and teachers who worry about being late or feel frustrated because the child is not doing what they want them to do. When a child’s emotions are escalating, help the child calm down by staying calm yourself. Practice deep breathing and/or walk away and come back in a few minutes when you’re feeling more calm and clear headed. Rather than spending too much time during the transition talking to the child about why he or she is upset, instead focus on problem solving. Is the child overwhelmed? Help him or her complete one or two tasks to provide support as he or she gets started on the new activity. Is the child frustrated because he or she didn’t want to stop playing video games? Give the child a few minutes alone to calm down before he or she starts the next activity. It can be helpful to have conversations with kids about why they are so upset or frustrated, just save these conversations for a less stressful time when they aren’t transitioning between two activities.
  7. Use praise and rewards. Think about the behaviors you want to see from the child and provide specific praise to keep him or her motivated. For example, “Great job following my instructions right away.” “I like how you stayed calm even though you were disappointed that you didn’t finish the assignment before the time was up.” For kids who need extra incentives to stay on track, consider providing small rewards for successful transitions.
  8. Stick to a routine whenever possible. Surprises and changes in schedules will always be a part of life but sticking to a routine as much as possible will go a long way in helping your child transition between activities smoothly. Many kids with ADHD benefit from having the routine or schedule posted on the wall, especially if they are prompted to look at it throughout the day.

Kids with ADHD will always face some challenges navigating transitions throughout the day. But with the proper support they can be successful and transition from one activity to the next smoothly most of the time.  


Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


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