Young boy smiling outside

Transition Troubles: Helping your Child Deal with Changes in Activities

5/20/16 by Pat Landy

​An ordinary day is full of activities for children, which means that it’s full of transitions between activities, too. In fact, a child who attends a child care center may experience as many as 30 transitions a day. That’s a lot of change for a little person to absorb. Some children have a temperament that allows them to handle transitions with ease, but for others, changes in activity can result in tantrums and tears.

If your child struggles with transitions, don’t worry. This is a normal part of childhood. As part of my role in early childhood education at the Wilder Foundation, I have worked with many parents to find ways to make transitions easier for children. These often include finding ways to let a child know that a change is coming, giving the child extra time to deal with the transition, and making the change fun. 

Here are some strategies for three transitions that are often challenging: Child care pickup, cleanup and bedtime.

The Transition: Childcare Pickup

Sam cries when his mother arrives at the end of the day at child care. While he is happy to see his mom, he is upset because he wants to keep playing instead of going home.

What Sam’s mom can do:

Allow a few extra minutes when she arrives at the child care center to help him ease into the transition. By taking a little time, Sam will have a chance to finish playing with his toy or game and get ready to move to a new activity. She can also give Sam advance notice of the transition. For example, she can tell Sam that he has a few more minutes of playtime, and then it’s time to get in the car, go home and have dinner. She could also make the transition more enjoyable by joining her son’s activity for a few minutes.

If transitions at child care are especially challenging, she should ask her childcare provider for help.

The Transition: Cleanup

Isabella plays with toys in the living room while her father makes dinner. When it’s time to eat, her father tells her that it’s time to clean up the toys. Isabella refuses and has a tantrum.

What Isabella’s dad can do:

To give Isabella time to prepare for the transition, he could tell her that he’s going to play a song, and it’s time to pick up the toys when the song ends. For an older child, a visual timer can be an easy and effective way to give updates. Younger children – who have shorter attention spans – may benefit from counting to 10 before cleanup starts.

Isabella may be more interested in cleanup if her dad is involved, and she may be more willing to take part if cleanup is fun. Dad can try counting as they pick up toys. He can also show Isabella what he’d like her to do. For example, he could tell her, “I’ll put these red Legos into a bucket. You put the blue ones in the bucket.” He could also give Isabella a choice by letting her choose the color.

The Transition: Bedtime

Jacob plays quietly with his toys after dinner, but when his parents tell him it’s time to get his pajamas on, Jacob cries and refuses.

What Jacob’s parents can do:

Routines are important throughout a child’s daily life, and especially at bedtime. By having a predictable schedule at night, Jacob may find it easier to settle down. Jacob’s parents could try a visual schedule that shows each step before bedtime. The schedule could show pictures of a bath, pajamas, a tooth brush, books, and finally bed.

His parents may also let Jacob take part in bedtime decisions. For example, they can let him choose between two pairs of pajamas. Often, children don’t have many opportunities to make decisions, and being able to choose pajamas can be a big deal.

If Jacob’s parents need to change their bedtime routine, they can give him time to prepare by telling him ahead of time that bedtime will be different.

Transitions Are a Life Skill

By helping your child handle transitions now, you can make their day – and yours – easier. You are also helping your child to learn a valuable life skill. By helping your child understand how to handle transitions, you can give them skills to handle daily changes throughout their life.

Pat Landy, project coordinator for Wilder’s Parent Groups, is retiring in June after 19 years with the Wilder Foundation.