How Do I Help My Kid Through Transitions?

How Do I Help My Kid Through Transitions?

25 October 2022 • Words by Kaylyn Smialek 5 mins

We all encounter various transitions throughout our daily life. These transitions can sometimes be unpredictable and overwhelming, given we are typically creatures of habit and crave consistency and predictability. Now we flip to thinking about the brains of small kids who have not yet developed the variety of skills and strategies to help cope with transitions. Transitions for children can often be challenging and cause them to display a range of emotions and behaviors including tantrums, whining, meltdowns, and at times aggression. It is the role of the parent and caregiver to help provide meaningful strategies for successful transitions.

What are transitions with children?

The transitions children navigate throughout their daily routine—from home to school and back, parent to teacher, playtime to dinnertime—can be tricky for a young developing brain. When you help your child prepare for these transitions, which require shifting their mindset from one activity to another, you are helping them learn valuable skills such as finding solutions to problems, managing emotional responses, and handling unpredictability. 

Here are some examples of common transitions that children struggle with:

Why are transitions hard for children?

Transitions require the use of our executive function, which is a set of skills that include cognitive flexibility, working memory, and inhibitory control. 

Cognitive flexibility refers to the ability to shift attention as a task or demand changes in the environment. This is an active part of transitioning and is not developed until a child is in preschool. Often children are challenged with this area if they are developmentally delayed or have not had enough practice with this type of flexibility.

Working memory refers to the brain’s ability to store information without losing track of what we are doing. In toddlers and young children this is still developing, so as parents it is important to remember that we are here to help develop this skill by making sure we are not overloading their brains with too much information.

Inhibitory control refers to the ability to inhibit an emotional or behavioral response and choose a more appropriate response. Children require a level of emotional regulation in order to transition smoothly. At times when something is suddenly sprung upon them, they may not be able to control the resulting emotions and undesirable behavior.

In addition to these executive function skills, transitioning requires certain language and communication skills, a foundational level of understanding we call receptive language. This refers to the ability to listen to instructions and understand what is being asked. The more complex the instruction, the harder it will be for your child to understand. It is important that we focus on the developmentally appropriate language for each age. For example, for a two-year-old instructions should be laid out as two parts, such as “Get your teddy and put it in the bed.”

Try this at home:

Below are five proactive strategies and parenting hacks that will help your child transition smoothly throughout the day and set them up for success. 

Parenting hack 1:

Create a visual schedule for your child. Start by sitting down with your family to discuss and agree on a routine, and be sure to include your child in this planning. Then, set up a visual timetable with pictures of the morning, afternoon, and evening routines. For example, you might include pictures of your child waking up, getting dressed, brushing their teeth, eating breakfast, leaving for school, having an afterschool snack, doing homework, enjoying playtime, eating dinner, having bathtime, listening to a Moshi Story or Music track, and getting into bed. This visual schedule can be a valuable resource for your child to learn independence skills, the aim being that they can check the schedule themselves and you are not constantly reminding them about what they should be doing next.

A helpful tip is to have your child remove the visual picture once it has happened, signifying the end of the activity and moving on to the next. It also helps to review the visual schedule daily with your child to keep it fresh in their mind.

Parenting hack 2:

Learn how to speak with your child during transitions. Keep instructions and explanations simple—for example, “First put the toys on the toy shelf, and then we will have a snack.” In this way, the instructions guide the child to complete the less motivating activity first and then move on to the more motivating activity. For younger children, a simple “First pick up toys, then snack” will do. Keeping instructions brief and clear allows for a smoother follow-through and can help children process the instructions. It’s even better if you are able to have your child repeat the instructions back to you!

Parenting hack 3:

Use a timer or time-related strategy. Children can benefit from clear boundaries around when one activity will end and the next activity will start. Using a simple sand timer or setting a timer on your phone provides your child with a visual countdown that shows them how much time they have to bring their current activity to a close and allows them to proceed at their own pace within that time frame. This strategy also requires less verbal communication, which can flood your child’s brain if they are feeling upset or stressed about a transition.

Parenting hack 4:

Suggest a transitional object. Create a time to talk with your child about how they feel during transitions, what is challenging for them, and what might make transitions easier. For example, your child could choose a transitional object such as a small toy or stuffed animal to carry with them from one activity to the next. These personal objects provide comfort and familiarity during transitions.

Parenting hack 5:

Sing a song or play some music as your child transitions. Try a calming Moshi track like 5 Minute Stream of Calm with Yawnsy, Calming SeaStar Breathing, or Calming Counting with Cosmo to help your child understand the expectation to transition to a new activity. This is very similar to at school, where teachers will play transitional songs so children know to move on to the next activity.

How to talk so kids will listen:

It is important that we approach transitions calmly and systematically in order to help our children learn to adapt to changes easier. Be sure you have your child’s attention first by getting on their level and making eye contact. Speak to them in a calm, comforting voice and perhaps offer physical reassurance, such as putting your hand on their shoulder. You may also find it useful to have your child repeat back to you what you said. 

Once your child has completed the transition, make sure to acknowledge their success. You could offer words of praise, or perhaps a small reward such as a sticker or a point gained toward a special treat. The aim would be to eventually fade out these rewards when transitions become easier and your child gains success and confidence with following through. If your child continues to struggle with transitions, it is okay to help them through and positively model a smooth transition. If you find yourself becoming frustrated, step away and reset for a few minutes, then follow through with the routine. Remember to pay less attention to what is not going well and more attention to what is going well! 

Additional Resources on This Topic:

Greene, Ross W. 2014. The Explosive Child : A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children. Fifth ed. New York: Harper.

Harvard University. 2015. “Executive Function and Self-Regulation.” Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

Miller, Caroline. 2016. “Why Do Kids Have Trouble with Transitions?” Child Mind Institute.

Miller, Caroline. 2016. “How Can We Help Kids with Transitions?” Child Mind Institute.

Kaylyn Smialek

Kaylyn Smialek is an expert behavioural therapist at Moshi Kids. She currently works as an Early Intervention consultant in London, United Kingdom and has a background in teaching, behaviour and special education. She has worked with families and children for over 10 years as a qualified special needs teacher, homeschool teacher, special needs tutor, and behavioural therapist. Her experience ranges from working in clinics, schools and homes in the United States and across central London. Kaylyn is passionate about social emotional learning and early intervention in childhood development and her daily practice with children and their families focuses highly on developing skills through using play-based learning in naturalistic environments.