Does your child have difficulty stopping one activity and starting another?
Updated: Apr 6, 2022
Does this cause conflicts between you and your child?
As a parent, my goal for this post is to shed light on difficulties some children face when transitioning from one action to the next, and share best practices that empower you to help your child navigate them in a way that best fits their individual needs.
When a child is asked to move from the living room to the kitchen, or to stop playing and listen, these are all considered transitions. In general, we can think of a transition as the process between stopping one action and starting another. For some kids this happens without them even noticing. For others when the transition is not under the child’s direct control, the emotional, developmental, and physical change required to get them from one thing to the next is a struggle.
Transitioning effectively and efficiently is considered a vital skill for success at school, play, home, or work. As adults, we can relate to this when we think about how it feels moving out of weekend-mode and back into work-mode on Monday morning.
Transitioning is a brain based process that is still developing in children. Transitioning can be difficult for any child, especially challenging in those with neurological, developmental, and learning difficulties. Countless times a day a child needs to make small transitions requiring flexible thinking and other executive functioning skills.
Let’s discuss some common scenarios:
Noah is a child who doesn’t do what he’s told when asked to stop playing video games and get started on homework. Instead, he ignores you, then has a meltdown after more prompting. What could be happening here? Consider the following:
Do you have his attention?
Are you asking him to change from a favorite activity to something he doesn’t want to do?
Is homework overwhelming or confusing to him?
Is he hyper focused on his activity at hand?
Remember there are multiple steps in transitioning from one activity to another.
Did he have ample time to process the idea of ending the first activity and putting things away?
Is he in a good ready state to switch activities?
Did he know what was expected of him?
Here are some strategies in this scenario to help Noah practice and strengthen the development of his transition ability:
Consider switching the order of events from the less preferred activity to the more preferred activity when possible.
Discuss the scheduled transitions beforehand.
Always provide a consistent heads up that the end of the activity is coming (sound, countdown, song, etc.)
When it’s time to transition, use an attention grabbing signal (sound, song, visual prompt, statement, etc.)
Have discussions about how long they can engage in their preferred activity, and agree on this beforehand. Stay consistent with this time expectation.
Consider using a picture schedule depicting the events so he is prepared.
Give a time reminder when the first activity will end, and show him how to see this on a clock, watch, timer, or phone.
Use a consistent transition song or favorite transition sensory fidget object. Here are two examples of transition songs you can find on YouTube: Example 1, Example 2
Make moving fun. When transitioning from a stationary activity, encourage him to jump, hop, or roll to the next location
Olivia is a child who doesn’t want to stop playing when she is told to come in from the backyard swing set and wash her hands for dinner. After a few attempts she runs around laughing and running away to avoid capture. What could be happening here?
Consider the following:
Is she in a highly preferred activity and you are asking her to switch to something less preferred?
Does the current activity involve a lot of movement, possibly causing overstimulation?
Could she be tired, hungry, hot, cold, etc.?
Does she have difficulty with language processing?
Could she have difficulty simply switching attention?
Remember there are multiple steps in transitioning from one activity to another. Could this be what is providing the most difficulty?
What are some possible strategies in this instance to help her practice and strengthen the development of her ability to transition:
Plan time in the schedule for transitioning.
Discuss the activity schedule explaining “first this, then this” and make sure your child understands.
Create a schedule with images, which is helpful if you have a child that displays power struggles.
Give the child a choice of what “sensory break” comes between activities. Present a choice. ( Sensory Breaks are the amount of time between activities where sensory tools and strategies are used to help your child deescalate from the sensory stimulation of the prior activity.)
When coming off a high energy activity, transition to a calming action such as yoga, breathing exercises (blowing bubbles), stretching, weighted objects, back rub, hugs.
Make sure the next activity is sensory comfortable; decrease noise, use warm water, lavender oils/soaps, etc.
Use a weighted object the child loves to signal the end of the activity.
Use a auditory signal to start a countdown you do with your child, sing or play a song which is consistently used to signal the end of the activity
Positive reinforcement and rewards
Charlie consistently has difficulty transitioning from school to home. He is generally argumentative, and if mom needs him to follow any of her instructions it is an emotional and time consuming battle.
What could be happening here? Consider the following:
Have you considered his emotional state at the end of the school day? (Tired, hungry, etc.)
What has his day consisted of up to this point? Possibly he is feeling drained from having to be alert and focused all day, and is now coming unwound. He is a “good boy” at school and wants to feel unrestricted at home. Could he need to release a lot of pent up energy?
Is it the transition itself that causes him to feel stressed or overwhelmed?
What happens when he transitions from structure to less structure?
Could he possibly be in sensory-overload from the school day, bus ride, or after school activity?
Could there have been a problem at school?
What are some possible strategies in this instance to help him practice and strengthen the development of his ability to transition:
Build a routine everyday so he knows what to expect when he comes home. A picture schedule can be very helpful
In a calm moment before school, discuss what will happen when he gets home. Using pictures of himself performing the activity can be very useful.
Use fun, high-energy activities followed by soothing activities. Start with proprioception, heavy work. Then follow with a more calming, focused, activity. If your child looks forward to art, this is a great time to do that activity.
Use different snacks during homework such as crunchy apples & sour lemony snacks which provide different sensory inputs.
When it is time to calm down, practice deep breathing, stretching, and use calming essential oils, backrubs, hugs, weighted lap pads etc.
Assure your child that he is safe at home and help him understand why he might have had a meltdown so he learns to understand the source of his feelings.
Stay calm and think about what he needs. Use a few words.
As a parent it is important to identify when transitions are a struggle for your child. Try to identify the triggers such as time of day, what your child is transitioning from and to, and the child’s mood. Remember routine and predictability is calming for everyone. Involving your child in helping choose what activities and sensory strategies will help them transition is a great reinforcer. Use fun and positive reinforcement often!
Here are some sites with products to help with transitions:
Movement Break Cards, Brain Break Cards, Movement Break Printable, Sensory Diet Cards, Classroom Break Cards