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Inside: Let’s look at transition strategies and calming techniques to help prevent meltdowns and annoying behavior in kids. This article is relevant for transitions in preschoolers and transitions in the classroom too. These 9 tips for transitions in kids will be worth more than gold.
Many kids struggle with transitions.
And this statement is especially true if they are playing with their cool T-Rex dinosaur that makes really cool roaring noises and you are pleading with them to come for boring old dinner.
(I mean, ew, who likes icky broccoli and chicken).
And here’s the unbelievable part:
You’d expect trouble coping with a transition like moving from Alaska to Mexico, but kids can (and will) bust-up at the seams for something as simple as transitioning from T.V. time to teeth brushing time.
The resulting behavior from this battle can range from just annoying (like whining or complaining) to an all-out meltdown.
And it’s important to note:
If your kiddo suffers from autism, sensory issues, and/or ADHD, transitions are extra tough.
There are many ways for parents (and teachers) to help kids with transitions and I’m going to give you 9 awesome transition strategies for kids.
(Tried and tested by this very mom)
What are Transitions in Kids?
Perhaps you’ve never even heard of transition strategies for kids.
So what exactly do we mean when we say transitions?
Basically when your child has to move from one activity or location to another.
They have to stop doing something and start doing something else, Think:
- Getting ready to leave the house
- Putting away toys
- Turning off the television or computer
- Getting out of the bath
- Leaving school
- Going to school
- Coming for dinner
- Leaving the park
- Leaving a play date
Mastering transitions is an important developmental step.
Why are Transitions Hard for Kids?
Transitions are hard for different kids for different reasons.
(The behavior that arises might look similar but the actual underlying cause can be very different)
1. Flexible thinking
Transitions require shifts in flexible thinking, and this is hard for many young kids (and even adults).
Johnny dreamed about going to the park all day at school. That purple slide was calling his name. After school, when mom says, “Sorry Pal we have to head home and start dinner.” Johnny begins to escalate and panic.
Instead of creating a “new plan” like, “I’ll just play in the backyard”, he is struggling with flexible thinking. He can’t switch gears quickly and find a new solution when things change without warning.
This rigid thought process can cause a lot of transition-related meltdowns.
Inflexible thinking is especially prevalent in kids with autism. These kids need predictability and any deviation from routine can feel incredibly confusing for them.
This is cognitive inflexibility and it literally disrupts their entire equilibrium.
2. Toddler life is all about fun
Toddlers live in the moment, and isn’t this amazing!
But the problem is:
They don’t have any real concept of time and they don’t understand that separation and change doesn’t last forever.
This causes a ton of transition-related problems for parents.
…thank goodness for the transition strategies below..
3. Lacking language and communication skills
Young kids are lacking the proper language skills to articulate exactly how they are feeling.
Instead of comprising and saying, “Hey mom, just give me five more minutes” Kids might throw a tantrum instead.
4. Temperament and lack of emotional regulation
Temperament also plays a big part, some kids are strong-willed (oh my word, have you met my son?!) Some kids are impatient, and some kids are fiery, like a Scottish ticking time bomb.
Does your child ever get angry?
If your kiddo suffers from BIG emotions, you’ve just gotta check out this life-saving tool, the Anger Rescue Kit for Kids. With over 60 pages this will quickly become your new go-to for helping your child develop appropriate coping strategies.
Kids with ADHD have a tougher time regulating their emotions, and they find it difficult to turn their attention to something they are expected to do rather than something they find rewarding.
So many kids are suffering from anxiety in today’s day and age. Many kids are scared of the unknown and just want to stay in their environment they’ve become comfortable with.
Inflexible thinking that we discussed above also causes immense anxiety in kids.
We’ve got you covered there, we’ve got an entire guide on how to overcome anxiety in kids, we’ve also got an Anxiety Kit for Kids which includes over 70 worksheets, quotes, coloring pages, and exercises.
Anxiety Kit for Kids
Our one of a kind Anxiety Printable Kit for kids is now available. You’ll get a collection of worksheets, posters, activities, and coloring pages designed to help children squash anxiety and worry and bring fun and freedom back into their lives.
So now that we’ve looked at why some kids struggle with transitions, let’s look at ways to ease transitions in kids. Be sure to bookmark these transitions strategies for later!
9 Smart Transition Strategies for Kids
1. Give Warnings (On The A+ Transition Strategies List)
If your child is engrossed in a make-believe world of magicians and monsters, you can’t just say, “Hey, let’s go.”
Time is a blurry concept for toddlers.
We need to give warnings, so many warnings in fact, that you might think you are morphing into a weather news reporter.
It’s crucial to prepare your kiddo for what’s coming up.
And don’t just think about giving warnings for when moving from one activity to the next, provide an overview of the entire day!
In our house, each morning, we review the entire day’s plan. We have a family calendar that shows what each member of the family is doing.
To help with warnings, use timers and/or visual schedules (jump to number 2).
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2. Use a Timer or a Visual Schedule
Children do amazingly well with visual cues.
A visual schedule shows what is happening next, it creates predictability.
Mornings and evenings are often the worst time of day for transitions, but by using visual schedules you can prep your child for each activity that is coming. (And it’s fun too)
See our morning and evening routine charts here.
Along with visual schedules use timers!
Remember to bring your child’s attention to the timer, and even take it one step further, let your kiddo know when there are five minutes left, two minutes left, etc.
This is the EXACT timer we have, and let me tell you, for only $18 it has earned its cost 100 times over. We use it to get out the door in the morning, (snag our exact morning routine here) to ensure a stress-free bedtime routine, to monitor screen time, and I use it for cooking too! Can you say, $18 well spent!
If you are playing a game and need to transition to say dinner, you can also offer turns, like three more turns, then we stop.
3. Allow More Time Between Activities
Are you guilty of jam-packing too much into your child’s day?
Perhaps you need to space our activities or take a red pen to the calendar.
We as parents are often guilty of feeling like our children need to be entertained in some manner during every part of every day.
Mom, you aren’t perfect, you don’t need to try to be perfect and your kids don’t need to be perfect either.
Kids need downtime, just like we need downtime. They need to chill, pretend play, be silly, and just, well — be kids.
So reconsider if a piano lesson and a swimming lesson on the same night is a good idea.
Are your expectations sky-high in relation to the age of your child?
Eyeball the schedule for the entire week and re-evaluate.
Set the stage for success!
4. Make Transitions Fun and Positive
You could also call this transition strategy the magic art of distraction.
And mastering distraction will be your magic secret weapon.
Of all the transition strategies for kids I use, this might be my favorite:
I’ll often say, “Let’s hop like a kangaroo to the car”, or, “let’s sing this fun song while we put on our coats and mitts.” More recently we pretended we were butterflies fluttering to the car.
(…before the butterfly fluttering, my son was starting his usual fussing over snow pants, but once we turned the transition into a fun game the fussing stopped, instantly).
The funner (is that a word?!) the transition the easier and less anxious your kiddo will be.
So get creative and think of some amusing games you can play while moving throughout those key transitions in your day.
Another great tip to make transitions fun is to point out the positive side to the transition, this can help direct them away from whatever is making them fuss up and get them excited about what’s coming up.
- We’ve got to go because we are going to Suzy’s birthday party, there will be a clown there!
- Why don’t we play eye spy on the way to school?
- Hey, once we get to the car I’m got a big secret to tell you.
- Let’s shut the TV off for dinner, and after dinner, we will make ice cream cones.
- After we brush your teeth, you can pick out 3 stories.
Make transitions even MORE fun with these 10 transition songs from teaching mama.
You could also use the first-then transition strategy where you tell your child what they need to do first, (usually the less preferred activity) followed by a then task, which is a motivating activity.
First, we get dressed for school, then we can play hide-n-go-seek for five minutes before school.
When talking about transition strategies for children, the first-then strategy is used by therapists around the globe.
5. Choose your Timing Carefully
This one is often missed by parents, but put on your Nancy Drew cap because it can make a BIG difference.
Can you stop the activity and suggest the transition you’d like during a natural break in your child’s activity?
-Can you wait until your child’s cartoon is over to ask them to come for lunch?
-If your child is playing with dinky cars and doesn’t want to get ready for school, perhaps allow an extra few minutes until they bore of bashing their dinky cars together. (I assure you they will tire and move onto another activity at some point.)
Be patient and mindful. (Oh, and mindfulness is our main motto, so check out some super tips here)
And to reinforce point #1, give warnings before ANY change in activity. I’ll often say you have five more minutes. Then I’ll count down when we are at two minutes, and then again at one minute.
I love this book the Color Monster: A Story About Emotions. Teaching kids about emotions can help then keep calm and collected, even when they feel frustrated!
6. Offer Sensory Breaks
Kids often get overwhelmed, especially kids with sensory issues, autism, and/or ADHD.
If you are trying to transition an overwhelmed child, well, you might as well put a lion in an elephant’s den. There’s going to be a scrap.
Here’s the bottom line:
If your child is feeling overwhelmed, transitions will be especially problematic and they will be especially prone to meltdowns. No amount of transition strategies are going to work at this point!
Don’t wait until your kiddo is in the red volcano zone. When you notice they are getting frustrated, silly, tired, and/or argumentative (all signs they are escalating to the red zone), take a sensory break.
Perhaps you have a calm down room or just sit quietly and read a book or do a mindfulness exercise from Mighty Mindful Kids.
Have you considered using calm down cards?
Breathing breaks are also wonderful to help calm an overwhelmed child.
7. Be Consistent and Be Calm
Try to keep your routine as consistent as possible.
Kids thrive on consistency and routine. They actually like structure. (Even if they don’t know it).
For transitions that must occur every day like turning off the TV to brush teeth, routines can pay off for parents – big time!
Shoot for making the same set of transitions at the same time each day, as much as you possibly can.
And most importantly, be calm.
If you are escalating to the red zone (think yelling, stomping, arguing) then how are you going to keep things moving peacefully along? World War 3 is going to erupt.
Anytime I escalate, the situation with my child becomes 10 times worse, and in the somber aftermath of this civil war, I’m left feeling like a terrible parent.
Use our three-step process to stop mom anger in its tracks (and this process takes under 1-minute)
When speaking with your child or trying to get their attention, be sure to come down to their level. Bend down and look them straight in the eye. This has a huge impact on getting kids to focus and listen.
8. Offer Choices
Giving your child choices can make them more co-operative. Kids like control, I bet you do too.
Is it possible for you to give up a little control, and let your child make more decisions?
You might be surprised at how their willingness to cooperate changes.
Is it really the end of the world if your daughter wears a purple tutu with a fluorescent green top to school?
My motto is this: if something isn’t putting my child in danger or harming their development, then who cares!
When offering choices, don’t give them the option to completely defy the request, you need to be clever here.
Instead of saying, “Do you want to put on your mitts? Say, “Do you want your fuzzy mitts or your bear mitts?”
Our little people are smart, but we are smarter.
9. Give Praise and Avoid Threats
Always, always, always tell your child when they are doing a good job.
Kids will strive to do better if they think they are doing well. Kids actually want your approval, despite what it may seem sometimes.
I love these 101 Positive Things to Say to Kids. And why not grab this free poster here?
Try to avoid threats! Threats are for bullies.
Instead, you could consider using rewards as a motivator.
Some ideas are stickers, snacks or a point system that leads to a reward. Once your child is used to transitioning then you can work to phase it out.
One of our biggest struggles has always been getting to the car to leave for school. We have a big green bucket in the car with treats and little toys. On good days my son picks one item from the big green bucket.
It works wonders.
Good luck my friends, parenting a high spirited child is not for the faint of heart! But there are ways we can win, and with these transition strategies, we can win and keep it positive!
I hope you love these 9 ways to ease transitions in kids. Leave a comment below and tell me what your biggest transition struggles are, and what you do to sail smoothly through.
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I appreciate the advice about making amusing games for your child for transitions in their life. My son is really shy and I’m worried when I put him in preschool later this year. I’ll have to ask the teacher to keep an eye on him to make sure he’s making friends.
I really enjoyed reading this and it gave me some insight on how to handle transitions the appropriate way. I am a mother of a 2 year old who is currently struggling between transitions that result in a tantrum. The biggest one is when she is playing outside and will have a tantrum when it is time to come in or any favorable place we are at. No matter what we say or do nothing seems to work in our favor. I am hoping that some of these strategies will work for her.