As most parents and caregivers know from experience, kids thrive on knowing what comes next. Cue asking for the same bedtime story until the book falls apart, or watching the same movie until you can recite the script in your sleep.
And yet, kids often struggle with moving from one part of their routine to the next.
Whether it’s being prompted to wash up for dinner, put on their pjs, or get ready to go out, you find yourself met with the all-too-familiar words: Do I have to?
No matter how harmonious the family, transitions in childhood can be a source of anxiety and frustration. How can we guide our kids through these inevitable moments with more grace and understanding? Let’s dive into what makes transitions so challenging for kids, along with a few simple strategies to make the process smoother.
What is a Transition?
Transitions are those moments when children move from one activity, environment, or even a state of mind to another. Some transition times that cause big feelings include:
- Changing from active to quiet activities – Think of switching from playtime to bedtime, or putting down the video game for reading time.
- Task-switching – Moving from one type of task to another is challenging because it means changing mindset and focus as well. This is why kids will often become distracted or frustrated when switching between subjects in school.
- Changing locations – This could be moving from home to school, leaving the park to go home, going upstairs to take a bath, etc. Kids are comfortable in one location and may feel insecure or frustrated when it’s time to go somewhere else (even if they’ll like it when they get there).
Why can Transitions be Difficult for Kids?
Transitions might seem unremarkable to a parent, but they’re a source of stress and unease for kids. Neurodivergent kids in particular (such as those with ADHD, ASD, executive functioning disorders, or anxiety) may face even more difficulty with transitions.1
There are both developmental and behavioral reasons why transitions are hard for kids. These reasons include:
- Slower processing time – Research has shown that children’s brains require more time to process information than adult brains.2 Making an effective transition requires processing the cue they’ve been given (“Dinner is ready in 5 minutes”), and then accessing the information they already know about how to carry out the new task (“I need to go sit down at the table”). Caregivers need to keep in mind that task switching requires more time and mental effort for kids than it does for adults.
- Seeking control – Being instructed to move from one activity to another can be upsetting for kids because it takes away their autonomy. Most of us can relate to the frustration of being told what to do—now think how many times a day children experience it. It’s not surprising that kids sometimes push back during the transition process.
- Lack of experience – Kids don't have as much life experience and they struggle to predict what things will be like. When you tell them it’s time to go outside, they are so focused on the present moment and what they are doing now, that they struggle to imagine what being at the park will be like. They may struggle predicting how they might feel in the future. This gets better with experience (more times at the park) especially with support from adults on storying the event. Adults can also help by getting kids to imagine what is coming next.
The Impact of Transitions in Childhood
There’s no avoiding the fact that kids have to learn to cooperate when it’s time to make a smooth transition. And learning to make transitions smoothly won’t just make life easier at home—it will also set your young child up for greater success in school and more cooperative relationships with peers.
Tips to Help Children Through Daily Transitions
How can caregivers teach kids to feel less stress and discomfort with transitions? Let’s take a look at some strategies for success.
#1 Daily Schedules
Kids make transitions more easily when they aren’t taken by surprise. A structured daily schedule for kids is one of the best tools for helping your child understand that transitions are a normal part of everyday life.
- Use a colorful visual aid, such as the Slumberkins Visual Schedule to show your child exactly what to expect each day.
- Write out the daily schedule with your child’s participation, and talk it over with them as you plan.
#2 Verbal Reminders
The next step in helping your child learn to anticipate transitions is by giving them verbal cues before it’s time to make the switch. Keep in mind that kids haven’t yet developed a strong sense of time, so give more than one reminder for a positive transition.
For example, you might announce, “15 minutes till bedtime,” then follow up with reminders at 10 minutes and 5 minutes.
In addition to giving a warning, it's helpful to have other cues too. Young kids often are not able to track the passing of time. Thus, 15 minutes may not hold a lot of meaning. Using visual timers (like a sand timer) or phrases like, "When this show is over, we will turn off the TV and go outside."
#3 Story It Out
A fun way to smooth out transitions is using storytelling to engage your child’s full attention, give them time to process, and help them envision the next activity. You can do this by reminding them of an upcoming transition (“15 minutes till we leave for school”), then:
- Talk about the next activity using descriptive language to help them build a mental picture
- Ask them to tell you about what they think might happen during the upcoming activity
- Ask open-ended questions to help them anticipate and engage in the narrative
Taking the story approach can make transitions feel like exciting adventures that your child is choosing to participate in, rather than an abrupt shift they don’t want to make. For example, "Do you remember when we walked to school yesterday? The trees were turning pretty fall colors. I wonder if we could see even more pretty colors on our walk today."
Let Slumberkins Help Your Child Navigate a World of Change
From the outside, navigating daily transitions may seem like it should be a snap. But what seems like a simple change to a grown-up can feel like an unpredictable or even scary loss of control to a child.
You can help your child build confidence and resilience to handle the unexpected by modeling calmness and practicing patience during transition times.
With help from Sloth, your child can move from “Do I have to?” to “I know just what to do!”
- "Why is routine so important to people with ASD?" Applied Behavior Analysis. https://www.appliedbehavioranalysisedu.org/why-is-routine-so-important-to-people-with-asd/
- Holt, Anna et al. "Children's task-switching efficiency: Missing our cue?" Journal of Cognition and Development. 16 October, 2013. https://quote.ucsd.edu/cogdevlab/files/2013/12/Holt_Deak_JCD_accepted2013.pdf
- Peng, Anna et al. “Task switching costs in preschool children and adults.” Journal of experimental child psychology vol. 172 (2018): 59-72. doi:10.1016/j.jecp.2018.01.019