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Helping Children Cope with Transitions

Visual Timer to ease transition stress

Habit and Routine

Humans are creatures of habit and routine. Even as adults, we may struggle with the concept of change, which requires more effort and thought. However, we have developed coping skills that work to ease the stress of transitions and change. So, it is not surprising that children also struggle to make transitions between activities, places, and objects of attention. Starting and stopping a task can be a common trigger for problem behaviors in children who lack the necessary coping skills. This is especially true of children who have emotional or developmental challenges.

How Transition Difficulties Manifest

To make matters even more complicated, transitions often involve ending a preferred task to move onto something that is necessary – for example, ending time on the playground to return to classroom learning or cleaning up toys to prepare for bedtime. Difficulty with transitions can manifest in a problem behavior such as resisting, avoiding, negotiating, distracting, or even a full-blown meltdown. In this case, the adult’s reaction is extremely important – as children can learn which behaviors help them to avoid or delay the undesired transition. Allowing the child to avoid or escape transitions can increase the likelihood of maladaptive coping skills during times of change.

Transitions and Development

While transitions can be a triggering event for a lot of children, they are particularly difficult for kids with ADHD, anxiety, Autism, and sensory processing issues. For example, children with ADHD tend to hyper focus on rewarding activities, so turning their attention to a less rewarding task may be met with significantly more resistance. Children with autism may have a need for sameness and predictability, meaning sudden shifts or changes can upset their equilibrium. Likewise, for kids with sensory processing difficulties the world is overstimulating and fast, so they crave order and control to keep calm – which leads to meltdowns when transitions happen too quickly.  Anxiety, especially obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), can present as a meltdown during transitions, when the child feels a task has been interrupted before perfect completion, or when routines are disrupted.

Building the Skills

Understanding the triggers that make kids balk, or get upset, at transitions, is the first step to managing them better for both kids and adults. It is possible, with consistency (and a bit of trial and error to find the right technique) to help all kids better cope with change and transitions. Here are a few things to try:

1. Create routines:

Children who like structure and consistency will benefit from a creating a routine centered around transition times. For example, creating a routine that signals to the child bedtime is approaching – a particular activity that lets the child know what comes next. This helps their minds prepare before the big transition, decreasing the likelihood of a meltdown and allowing the child to develop an increased tolerance for future transitions.

2. Preview and Countdown:

Children with anxiety may feel more at ease if they know what to expect from their day. Previewing the day’s events ahead of time can help when it comes time to move on to the next part of their day. Additionally, providing countdowns before a transition allows the child adequate time to emotionally prepare themselves for the change. They know what to expect and when to expect it. For children who struggle with the abstract concept of time, you can use a visual timer.

3. Give it a Soundtrack:

This can work particularly well for younger kids. For example, a clean-up song or a tooth brushing song. The song can signal the end of one activity and the beginning of the next. Children naturally learn through play and engaging with their world, making songs and playfulness effective tools to use when implementing routines and easing transitions.

4. Visual Cues:

This is especially useful when implementing a routine or using a countdown method. Children who prefer visual prompts can look at a routine or checklist and see exactly what will happen next. And a visual timer lets them know how long they have left to finish their current task – while also preparing them mentally for the next activity.  

5. Capture their Attention:

Especially true for children with ADHD, making intentional contact with them before initiating the transition can help them feel connected and heard. This can help to decrease the frequency of resistance and meltdowns when faced with transitions to less rewarding tasks. You can make sure you have their attention through eye contact, a gentle hand on their shoulder, or asking that they repeat the next step back to you.

6. Consequences and Rewards:

Most importantly perhaps is ensuring that resistance, negotiating, avoiding, and meltdowns do not become a habitual problem behavior. You can opt to either ignore the behavior or use an appropriate consequence that makes the child understand that behavior is off limits. Likewise, you can use a reward chart to reinforce positive behaviors during periods of transition. The system should be something that leads to a tangible reward for the child.

7. Acknowledge the Positive:

You can offer enthusiastic praise when a child follows through with a transition in a way that is behaviorally appropriate. Be specific in your praise, “I really liked how you put away your cars when it was time to clean up.”  Follow up with a reward when appropriate. With the right support and tools all children can learn how to handle transitions and change.

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