Help A Child Transition Between Activities

How do you solve a problem like transition?

This morning, Little Bear was playing with his trains when I asked him to have breakfast.

“No, I play train track,” he replied, not even looking up.

“First you have breakfast and then you can play with the train track,” I said.

“Nooooooooo,” he wailed, stamping his feet on the ground.

A full-blown meltdown ensued, which resulted in me picking him up, with a train in his hand, giving him a cuddle and bringing him to the table where he eventually ate his breakfast.

We get this response a lot – when the television is turned off, when he needs to put on his shoes and go out of the house, when he needs to go upstairs and get in the bath, and the list goes on. Since turning three, he’s developed a problem with transitioning from one activity to another.

It’s not uncommon for young children of all types to have the same trouble. However, the behaviour is more prominent in children with autism, ADHD and other learning difficulties. A simple request to put a toy away for story time or lunchtime can suddenly turn into power struggle complete with tantrums, and crying.

At the moment Little Bear doesn’t have a diagnosis and he’s at an age where we don’t know which behaviours are because he’s a three and which are the result of another underlying cause.

We’ve had – and still have – the same issues with Big Bear, who also finds transitioning difficult.

Over the years we’ve found a few strategies that can make transitioning between activities less frustrating for everyone, although, for us, it’s still work in progress. If you’re having the same dramas in your family, try these 6 tips to help a child transition between activities:


1. Visual timetables

We have used these for transitioning and also for teaching the Bears how to manage time – with one task following another. You can find visual timetables online or make them yourself.

Post on the wall somewhere convenient to show your child exactly what their daily activities or morning/evening routine will be. Get them involved by sticking the pictures with velcro and getting the child to peel them off each time they finish a task.


2. Prepare for an upcoming change in advance

When you help a child transition between activities, make sure you have their attention, with eye contact, then use a calm firm voice to let them know when the change is coming. Say things like ‘Bath time in 10 minutes” or “Breakfast will be ready in five minutes”. Some children might also need visual clues, such as a picture of the activity in front of them or on their visual timetable to help them understand.


3. Visual timers

 We found a sand timer to be a useful indicator for showing a child how much time they have left before changing activities. If you have a timer that makes a sound when the time’s up, that would also work well.


4. Give constant updates

Repeat the same short sentence you used earlier, eg “Bath time in 10 minutes”, then “bath time in five minutes” and so on. When time’s up, let your child know with a firm command. This works well, particularly for things like turning off the television. If they are engrossed in what they are watching, make sure they hear you and understand the updates. Providing a bridge between the activities will help to ease the stress at moving from one to the other.


5. Give the child your full attention and praise them for cooperation

“Well done for putting your toys away” or “thank you for turning off the television” can go a long way towards easing your child toward the next activity.


6. Distraction

Distraction is your friend if your child is still resisting. Make the transition fun by racing them to the next activity. Make up a silly song that guides them to their new focus. Hand them something they’ll need for their next activity, or give them a favourite toy to bring along.

One of our most successful transition techniques is to ask the Bears to carry a toy from one activity to the next. If I need Little Bear to get into the car, I’ll say “Shall we bring teddy with us?” Often this is enough to encourage him to switch activities.


Sadly there isn’t a quick fix. As we’re discovering, it takes a lot of patience and practice to help a child transition between activities. Staying firm, focused and consistent will help them know what is expected of them. Above all, the child needs to feel good about transitioning throughout the process. It’s about finding little routines that keep your day moving and everyone happy.

It’s also about being organised and prepared. Read about the day I wasn’t prepared.


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