Tips For Helping Children Cope With Transitions

Do you ever meet resistance from your preschooler or elementary aged child when you spring a transition on them? It may be a child stomping out of frustration or falling to the ground in tears knowing they have to move on from something they are enjoying. In our house when this happens everyone’s mood quickly matches the child who is having a hard time, which just makes everything that much more difficult. Kids have big emotions in little bodies. Those emotions are often displayed for all to see (for good and bad). I wanted to offer some simple tips for helping children cope with transitions that I have found incredibly helpful over the years.

father holding son on shoulder comforting him

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Give Prompts & Use A Visual Timer

For the longest time I would ask my child to do something for me and expect them to respond immediately. In hindsight, I realized I would also struggle if someone told me to drop what I was doing without warning. There are multiple benefits to giving prompts to children. It allows the child to prepare for upcoming changes. It also shows the child that I think what they are doing is important. I want to show them the respect of giving them a little control to complete their activity before doing what I’m asking.

If you are working with a toddler or preschooler a visual prompt would be the best. Two of my favorite visual timers for kids are stop light timers and timed timers. Using a visual timer allows kids to use visual cues to better understand how much time is left in their play before the upcoming transition. These are perfect for kids who aren’t yet understanding number timers or who are more responsive to visual prompts. They are great for helping children move through daily routines and are ideal for both home and classroom use!

Allow for a Transition Activity

Transition activities can be really important for kids that that struggle to move away from a preferred activity. You can kind of think of this activity as being an “in between” activity to help with a transition. This is really helpful when transitioning a child away from a favorite activity or toy. For example: if a child becomes upset every time they have to stop playing Legos I would use a transition activity.

You could use a transition object, this is something you would use to help a child shift their attention from one activity to another. For example if a child is struggling to transition from playing with legos to reading time I would perhaps bring a book they like into the play and use Legos to point to words or build with while listening. As the child begins to engage with the reading I would slowly transition the Legos out and move to the next activity.

Another transition strategy would be to use a transition song. Ideally you would use this song every time you do a certain transition. A good example of this is the classic clean up songs. Once a child practices the transition with the song enough they start transitioning with ease.

boy playing with tractors at playground

First, Then Statements are Powerful

I use first, then statements with my kids starting around 6 months of age. It sets a very clear stage of what my expectations are before my child moves onto another activity. It’s like once kids know what the expectation is they can focus on the task at hand. When my kids were toddlers my first then statements were often very simple. For example, first we need to put your shoes on, then we can go outside. For my elementary aged kids it may be more complicated and may include tasks that have multiple steps embedded within the instructions. When I started using this with my kids I noticed that we had so many more successful transitions. All of the sudden the challenging behaviors we were experiencing decreased significantly. If you aren’t already using these 2 key words I would challenge you to try for a week and see if you notice a difference in your child’s response to transitions.

Provide Social Stories

Social Stories are especially helpful for kids who are prone to feeling anxious in new situations or overwhelmed during transition times. The New Social Story Book by Carol Gray is is my go-to book for helping me create social stories for my kids.

This book has a ton of examples of social stories for a variety of situations. Social stories are written from the child’s perspective and set a stage for what is coming next. They often include ideas on how the child can use appropriate social responses if they feel nervous or uncomfortable. I know some families who make social stories for major life changes such as moving to a new house or introducing a new sibling. Others have used them for upcoming family vacations or the start of a new school year. The goal is to help the child feel less anxious and overwhelmed when the transition actually happens.

If a child knows what to expect they feel more in control of a situation. If this sounds like something your child would benefit from I would highly encourage you to look into this book. I have one child who is a bit more prone to feeling nervous in new situations. Using social stories has made him so much more at ease when there is a new situation, often eliminating a meltdown or tears.

Use A Visual Schedule

One transition strategy I love using is a visual schedule. These are especially helpful for children who struggle to follow multi-step instructions or young children who need multiple reminders to do daily tasks. This visual support is perfect for helping kids with routines they do on a daily basis. You can make one for your daily schedule, this allows the child to know what is coming up for that day. You can also make one for more specific daily routines such as a bedtime routine. There are so many websites that you can get stock images from to create a schedule. Or you can make your own schedule by taking pictures of the objects within the routine and putting it together in the order the child needs to do them in. For example, for a bedtime routine I would have pictures of a toothbrush, washcloth, toilet, pajamas, book and bed. This would help prompt the child between the small transitions of brushing their teeth, washing their face, going to the bathroom, putting on their pajamas, reading a bedtime book and going to bed. These visual supports are a great way to ease transitions that happen on a daily basis.

Offer Choices

I have received a lot of wonderful advice since having kids, but this one is on the top 5 list. We all know that there are going to be changes in routine and activities that a child would prefer not to do. There are sometimes things that are non-negotiables, such as bath time after a big day outside. However, by allowing a choice we are giving the child a sense of control. The trick is you have to offer a choice that the child truly has control of. So instead of asking “Do you want to go take a bath”, which allows the child to say “no” but we know that isn’t an option, we can ask “What toy do you want to bring with to bath”. This now takes the option for a child to say no to bath off the table and allows the child to feel a little control of the situation by picking the toy they want. I have found that every time I take this approach my kids have an easier time moving into a non-preferred activity.

2 toddlers holding hand on walk in woods

It’s Okay to Opt Out

Many times transitions are inevitable and have to happen. However, there are other times that transitions or changes in routine may be more of a choice. For example bringing a child out on a playdate on a day that is normally their day to play at home. It’s okay to say no to an invite that you know may be too much for your child. You could also offer an alternate activity that may be more comfortable for your child.

Sometimes I have found that if I’m nervous before bringing my child to an event, knowing they may struggle in a certain environment or new situation, it isn’t fun for either of us. When that happens I often wish we would have just opted out this round and took the time to pour into my child in another way. This is okay, you don’t need to make any excuses for your decline to an event. A simple, “we can’t make it, thanks so much for the invite” will be just fine.

If you are looking for other resources to help support kids with big transitions I recommend looking into The Child Mind Institute. They have some amazing resources to equip parents with effective tools to help with daily transitions.

Remember, kids are not small adults and need space to learn and grow in how to respond to their emotions. It is okay for them to have big emotions. It is our job to teach them how to respond to those feelings.

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