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helping kids with transitions

5 Tips for Helping Kids with Transitions

Many children, with and without disabilities, have difficulty managing transitions. This is especially true when you’re moving from a more preferred activity to a less-preferred activity. Who hasn’t had the battle of bedtime, especially when kids are involved with a fun project, watching tv, or playing right before? Here are some practical tips to help with transitions.

  1. Use a visual schedule or checklist

I live by checklists and schedules for myself, and have found that many of my clients have a reduction in stress, tantrums, and meltdowns when a schedule is provided to them. If your child can’t read yet, a combination of pictures and words (to reinforce reading!) can be really helpful. Try a wipe-off board where you write (and check off!) the list for the morning, or a folder with laminated pictures velcro-ed to it.

  1. Use a timer

Many kids have success with visual timers and 10 or 5 minute warnings. If your child can’t read an analogue clock, use a digital one, or use an analog that has a colored portion that ticks down, so they can see how much time is left.

  1. Think forward

In behavioral circles, this is known as FIRST-THEN, as in “first put your toys away, then we’ll go make lunch.” Setting it up this way helps ease anxiety about what’s coming next. You can also do this by reminding your child when they will have the opportunity to engage in the activity you’re asking them to transition away from again. “We have to put up the toys now, but after dinner, you will be able to play again.” I sometimes pair this with an IF-THEN. “If you can show me how quickly you can clean this up, then you’ll have more time to play later!”

  1. Make transitions fun

This can be especially helpful when you have to move from one extreme of activity level to another, i.e., a very active event to a very quiet one. As you transition, you can have your child pretend to be an animal or use their imagination to sneak to the next activity. If we have to go from playing outside to naptime, I build in about 10-15 minutes to pretend that we’re mice and we have to sneak past a cat, or pretend that we’re sneaking into a bank to jump in the vaults, Scrooge MacDuck style. It works similarly in reverse—pretend to be an airplane, careening down the hallway, or a T-Rex, stomping to your next destination.

  1. Provide choices

Another tip from the behavioral sphere: forced choices work well, and aren’t as horrible as they sound! Essentially, as the parent or teacher, you give two options that are equally palatable to you. “Do you want to use this pencil or that one to do your math?” “Do you want to take your shower before or after dinner?” The key is holding the child accountable for the choice that they made, and following through. We all like to feel like we have choices, and this is one way to give your children choices without letting them run the show.

  1. BONUS TIP! Teach calming skills

None of us are born knowing how to self-regulate. We all have to be taught how to calm ourselves down when we are over-stimulated, upset, angry, or sad. When children are small or have neurological challenges that make it difficult for them to follow multi-step directions, we have to co-regulate with them. Researchers Grolnick, Kurowski, McMenamy, Rivkin, and Bridges[1] identified multiple ways caregivers can co-regulate with children:

  • Prompting/helping: Caregiver physically or vocally prompts and scaffolds child (e.g., physical prompting with toy if child becomes frustrated)
  • Following the child’s lead: Caregiver is sensitive to child’s interests and follows the child to his/her desired toy/activity (e.g., Caregiver may appear to wait for child to choose a toy and then insert herself into interaction)
  • Redirection of attention: Caregiver distracts the child or directs the child’s attention away from negative stimulus (e.g., pointing out other toys in room)
  • Active ignoring: Caregiver actively ignores child during distress episodes (e.g., mom may continue to play with a toy or purposely turn away from child)
  • Reassurance: Caregiver reassures or encourages child surrounding frustrating or negative activity (e.g., It’s okay. You can do it!)
  • Emotional following: Caregiver’s reflection, extension or elaboration upon child’s distress or preoccupation (e.g., I know you want the toy)
  • Physical comfort: Caregiver initiates behaviors to comfort child (e.g., hugging, kissing, picking up the child, rocking)
  • Vocal comfort: Caregiver initiates vocalizations to comfort the child (e.g., sshhing, singing, sing-song voice)

[1] Grolnick, W. S., Kurowski, C. O., McMenamy, J. M., Rivkin, I., & Bridges, L. J. (1998). Mothers’ strategies for regulating their toddlers’ distress. Infant Behavior and Development, 21(3), 437–450. http://doi.org/10.1016/S0163-6383(98)90018-2