6 Tips for Making Successful Transitions

by Heligirl on May 5, 2010

in Parenting Articles

Another installment in my Positive Discipline Articles.

One valuable lesson I’ve learned in Positive Discipline is to take time and prepare my kids for transitions. I follow this religiously and have since Sweetness was about one year old. It really truly works and has helped steer us clear of so many tantrums.

When I talk about transitions here, I’m talking about changing from one activity to another. Any mom who has a child old enough to start exerting independence knows the tied up stress ball stomach feeling of an approaching end to a fun activity or an approaching bedtime. There is at least a 50 percent chance the battle of Gettysburg is about to be reenacted.

Transitions are hard for kids. They don’t have a concept of time and are living every second in the moment. In the beginning, they can’t conceive of a time line of events and know what is coming next. And depending on temperament, they may really need to know what is going to happen next in order to function. For instance, a child who has difficulty with change (needs predictability and will regularly explode into tantrum when there is a blip in the daily schedule) will need far more assistance with transitions than the child that travels well, goes with the flow and is happy doing whatever.

So to help you, here are some basic tips for helping make transitions easier for all kids. Some may only need a couple of them. Some kids may need them all. Give them a try and see for yourself how much easier it is to leave the playground, start a bedtime routine, end a playdate, or just get on with the next activity.

1.   Give warnings. By giving a warning that the activity is going to change, you help your child prepare herself for the shift. We do two warnings at home: “Five more minutes to play before you wash your hands for lunch.” Then, “two more minutes with the trains.” I get down on their level and hold up a full hand for the five and two fingers for the two. What’s more, Positive Discipline proponents suggest keeping it positive. Rather than emphasize what is coming up, emphasize what they are doing: “five minutes to play before”¦” as opposed to “five minutes until we”¦” If you do nothing else, do this. It is hands down the most valuable skill I’ve employed in getting the kids to transition. I messed up once. I was tired, busy and at the end of my rope. I just came out with “time for your bath” and had the worst rest of the evening as she fought me every step of the way. The next night I went back to the five- and two-minute warnings and when I announced, “time to clean up” she just sang the clean up song, cleaned up and headed off to her room announcing she wanted to take her clothes off by herself (which itself is a humorous freak show if there ever was one since she can’t quite figure out how to get her shirts off yet.) Made me a believer.

2.    Talk about what is going to happen next. On the way to the grocery store you can talk about what you’re going to do when you get there. “You get to ride in the cart and hold the shopping list while we pick out groceries.” I’ve been doing this so long that Sweetness tells me on the way to places we go to regularly what we’re going to do. Just today we had a playdate after preschool. Usually after preschool we have lunch with Daddy. So to prepare Sweetness I told her as we were getting into the car, “We have a special treat today. We get to go to the coffee shop with the toy trains and play with our friends!” We’ve been there before and she knew exactly what I was talking about. She talked about it the whole way there and there was no mention of lunch with Daddy. Poor Daddy.

3.    Before making a transition you know will be difficult, set up for your child something to look forward to (an expectation) for once you transition. “When we get home from the playground we can read a book. Which book do you want to read?” This one is particularly helpful and I’ll even start setting it up before we leave as I know how hard it is to get Sweetness out of the playground: “Here, let’s pick out some of your favorite books and set them right here so we can read them when we get back from the playground.” Then I can talk about the books waiting for her at home.

4.    Offer your child a roll in making the transition. “Before we can go, we have to unlock the car. Do you want to push the button and unlock the car?” Sweetness also likes to help so I’ll make a big show of needing her help in pushing her brother’s stroller or carrying things back to the car. That usually gets her attention and helps her feel engaged in the decision to transition.

5.    Use transitional objects to help a child bridge from one activity to the next. “Let’s take this pinecone home to add to your collection.” I use this to get her headed out too as she loves to collect pinecones. Then the walk home becomes the transitional activity. “Let’s go find pinecones now.”

6.    Use goodbye rituals. What child doesn’t want to say goodbye to everything under the sun. (You’re going to love that part of potty training!) “Goodbye swing, goodbye slide, goodbye friends.” Sweetness does this now to comfort and prepare herself for transitions without my prompting.

A good resource for more information is Laura Davis and Janis Keyser’s Becoming the Parent You Want to Be. The above list was something I learned in my first year of co-op preschool and came directly from this book.


JennyB May 5, 2010 at 6:51 pm

The 5 minute, 3 minute, and 1 minute warnings have been fantastic for us. I love your ideas for making the transition itself fun (distraction with pinecones on the way back to the car, anticipating books at home).

When all else fails, I acknowledge that it’s hard to say goodbye to fun things and fun people. Then I try to move on with my conversation. Depending on the age and the intensity of the moment (or availability of a dog passing by to distract) that tends to work too. Thanks Jen!

LCW May 16, 2010 at 5:05 pm

I did a lot of this in my teacher years, and am fully prepared for Ry and her little buddy (I nanny) to say goodbye to a lot of things and have collections of items and be my little helpers. I’ll be coming back for more tips and tricks as Ry grows!

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