How can I help my child with transitions?

10 Top Tips for Getting it Right!

First of all… what is a transition?…

– it’s the process of stopping one activity and starting another one.

Transitions are tough on toddlers at the best of times, but they can be especially challenging for some children with special needs; because they can be highly sensitive to change.

Transitions are even harder if they involve moving the child’s attention from something they are extremely interested or absorbed in, to something less interesting / fun. Also, unlike adults who have the power to control transitions, children tend not have that same control over their lives.

Bedtime may be one of the hardest transitions to manage, but others, such as leaving the playground, having to stop playing to get in the car for errands, picking up an older sibling from school, or being left in a babysitter’s care as Mum and Dad walk out the door, can also bring on the tears and tantrums. After all, young children live in the moment and don’t have any real concept of time; and they are only just beginning to understand that separations don’t last forever. On top of that, they don’t have the language skills to say: “Hey, hang on a moment, I’m right in the middle of something, just give me five minutes to finish off.” Instead, they often resort to tears or tantrums when told it’s time to stop what they’re doing. Temperament and additional needs also play a part in how your little one handles transitions and some children, just like some grown-ups, oppose anyone who wants them to make a change.

Learning how to make successful transitions is an important developmental step for all children. Everybody, eventually, needs to learn how to bring one activity to a close and invest attention in something else. But this takes time, sensitive support and some varied strategies, to enable this vital learning and development to take place.

As adults, we are able to plan, organise and manage transitions in our daily lives, to avoid undue stress and aggravation. We have so many tools at our disposal, such as alarms on our smart phones, diaries and calendars, managing our time so we’re not late, having consistent routines, distracting ourselves with the internet, or treating ourselves to cake afterwards!

Transitions and the Sensitive Child:

Many children with Autism are very sensitive to transitions; leading them to acting out, throwing tantrums, having meltdowns, crying, screaming, biting or self-harming.

Plus, there are so many factors that may make transitions difficult for them such as: Has the child slept well? Have they eaten? Are they feeling unwell? Have they had a stressful day?

And then there is the emotional factor. If past transitions have been difficult for the child, then the result is that the child anticipates that every transition will be the same. This negative emotional memory adds stress to the transition. As the transition approaches, the child becomes more and more anxious and challenging behaviours may begin to escalate.

Transition Tactics:

Whatever you decide to try, remember that consistency and repetition are the keys to success! The families that I have seen make the best success of transitions, are the ones who have the most consistent organisation and structure. Do the same things, the same way, at the same time each day, every day. This makes a comfortable backdrop for introducing new changes and new activities, as time goes by.

Of course, not all transitions call for the same plan of attack — the solution for the procrastination depends on the specific situation. Here’s a rundown of strategies for trying to get your child moving when they dig in their heels.

1. Get their attention first.

It can be difficult for children to transition if they aren’t aware that the transition is occurring soon. Make sure to personally connect with your child in some way, before you prompt them about the transition. Things such as touching their shoulder (which is usually my go-to), making eye contact, or clapping a rhythm, can be effective attention-grabbing ideas.

2. Slow things down and give advance warning. 

You really can’t expect children to stop what they’re doing at a moment’s notice and time is a blurry concept to toddlers, so “We have to leave in 10 minutes” is not meaningful. If your child is engrossed in their play, but you need to take them with you to the shops or to pick up an older sibling from school, start preparing them in advance. Set a countdown timer to ring in five minutes, i.e. when you want your child to get ready. Tell them that when the bell rings, it’ll be time for… x / y / z. Reinforce the transition with simple words and gestures / signs, such as “first…play, then… car”, or “first… play, then… shoes”. 

If you want to save the expense of purchasing a timer like this one

why not have a go at making your own cardboard version…

Remember to bring your child’s attention to the timer at regular intervals, e.g. “look… 2 minutes until x / y / z”.

If you know that your child is going to struggle with a particular transition, give yourselves extra time to switch your child from one activity to the next. Don’t put it off!

3. Establish routines and maintain them.

Keeping your child’s day consistent and predictable makes it easier for them to know what will be happening next. Start with a simple morning or bedtime routine. Aim for them to go to bed at the same time every night. The predictability of these simple routines will reduce the stress of the unknown that usually accompanies transitions.

4. Use visual timetables.

Set up a visual aid, showing your child the key steps in the day (getting dressed, eating meals, playing, school run, etc.). Have fun making the timetable by taking photos of your child doing the key activities and using them on the display. This makes it far more relevant to your child, if they can actually see themselves doing what it is that you are asking of them. For beginners, make the schedule run from top to bottom. Remember to remove the pictures when your child has finished the activity… say and sign the word “finished”.

Visual timetables can be broken down into smaller steps, with a “first and then” board, for example “first shoes, then car” when it’s time for the school run.

If you don’t want to create your own timetables, there are a number of Apps available for tablets and phones.

5. Use a transition object or toy.

Sometimes, this is all it takes! Sometimes, bringing along a favourite toy or a piece of what they’ve just been playing with, provides enough comfort and reassurance, for the child to make a smooth transition.

6. Develop rituals. 

To make transitions that involve separation, such as being cared for by someone else, the predictability of a set routine gives a child a sense of control and order. When dropping your child off at day care, you might give them three kisses, or read two books before walking out the door — whatever works to help your child predict what’s going to happen next.

The same goes for the dreaded teeth brushing routine… sing a teeth brushing song, put a flashing light on, play some music, use a fidget toy, and when their teeth are clean, it all stops. Use whatever strategy works for your child and stick to it.

7. Keep your language simple. 

Making your words brief can cut out the power struggles. Rather than explaining why your child needs to come to the dinner table, try touching them on the shoulder, kneeling down right in front of them and quietly saying plus signing a one-word description of what they’ll be eating. All a child needs to hear is “toast” or “spaghetti” and they’ll probably be happy to put the toys aside and move on to their next activity — mealtime.

8. Offer 2 choices. 

Presenting your child with options gives them lots more room to cooperate. Make sure that the choices are not whether to comply, but how to comply. For example, don’t say, “Do you want to put on your shoes?” if “No” isn’t an option. Instead, you might say, “Shoes or wellies?” whilst holding out their shoes and wellies for them to see.

9. Avoid making threats. 

Count downs (“If you’re not on your feet by the time I count to 10… “) or threatening a time-out doesn’t work because both methods back the child into a corner, putting them in a position of losing face. Either they have to back down or lose your love and approval, which is a big thing to ask of a young child.

10. Practice the art of distraction and redirection.

Little things like a pot of bubbles or a flashing light wand in your bag, available for vital distraction at times of impending meltdowns, can be worth the extra baggage lugged around. Singing works well too. Become a master of the made-up song: “this is the way we wash our face…” or “funny little rabbits, hop like this, all day long…”. Or encourage your child to copy the way you walk, hop, skip, spin, or jump, all the way to the car. Make the transition fun! The more fun the transition seems to the child, the less likely it will be to cause stress or anxiety for your child. I have always found being silly with the kids makes transitions much easier.

Finally, don’t forget to praise your child when they smoothly transition from activity to activity. Specific praise goes a long way… “Good walking!” “Good listening!” “Good washing!” and give them your best big smile!

Helping your child to learn to make transitions smoothly, pays off in the long run. (However, it’s doubtful that they will ever grin broadly, as they drop their toy into the sandbox and hop into their buggy, to go home for a nap!) But with patience and diplomacy, you can help them take a few positive steps forward.

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