ADVICE: Why Does My Kid Struggle with Transitions?

8 strategies to make times of transition easier
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A child’s day is filled with transitions. They transition from sleep to wakefulness, from pajamas to clothes, from home to school and back home again, from playtime to mealtime, from quiet to loud, and from one activity to another. For many children, this constant switching of gears can trigger strong emotions and unwelcomed behaviors like whining, meltdowns, or tantrums.


Kids resist change for different reasons. Some crave order, routine, and control so changing things, especially when they have no control, leads to resistance. Other kids fear the unknown. Then there are children who simply don’t want to stop doing what feels rewarding to them to do something else. Afterall, transitions often require our kids to switch from something they want to do to something they don’t want to do.


When we recognize the root of the behavior, we become empowered to help our kids work through transitions successfully. It’s also important to help our kids name their emotions and recognize why they are feeling and reacting a certain way, so over time they can learn to self-manage.


If transitions are hard for your child, it’s important to have supports and strategies in place.


Timers. Visual timers help kids know when a transition is coming. Timers are also helpful during schoolwork, so they know when a break is coming. My favorite is the time-timer app, or you can also purchase the physical version.


Schedules. Use a written schedule for older kids and a picture schedule with younger kids. A dry erase board can be a great tool for this since you can easily make changes. If there is a change in the schedule, make sure to let your child know. It is also helpful to alternate between preferred and non-preferred activities.


First-then statements. “First we are going to take a bath and then you can watch a show.” “First we are going to clean up and then we are going to go play outside.” State the non-preferred activity first and then the preferred activity. This helps them know that what is rewarding to them is on the way.


Choices. Kids love to feel like they have some control, so give them choices whenever possible.


Give frequent change warnings. To help kids mentally prepare for change and have time to finish what they are doing, let them know when they have 10 minutes left in an activity, 5 minutes left, and so on.


Exercise. Exercise is a great tool to help a child self-regulate. Exercise gets their brain organized and in the optimal place for them to function at their best. Exercise that allows them to use their big muscles is ideal. Examples of big muscle exercises are animal walks (i.e., frog jumps, crab walk, bear crawl, snake slither), wheelbarrow walking, jumping, push-ups, running, climbing, and stretching a squeezing a toy.


Music. Music can help to both calm a child or bring alertness based on the song and the person. Help your child recognize what music has which effect on them and use it during transition times to bring about the desired response.


A transition object. In a constantly changing world, familiarity can be helpful especially during transition times. Allow your child to have a toy, book, or comfort object to take them with as they transition from one task to another.



CINDY UTZINGER is an occupational therapist, mother of two, and author of Why Is My Kid Doing That?, a book to help parents better understand their child’s behavior.