Transitions for Children

This blog discusses transitions for children, including specific strategies to make transitions easier. When young children struggle with transitioning between activities, stopping a preferred task, and beginning a non-preferred activity, a transition struggle can occur. It’s important to support children with smooth transitions, including knowing how to encourage listening. We have also included some fun transition games reduce anxiety and ensure transitions for children are less stressful, especially at the preschool and toddler age.

Here, we’re getting specific on all things transition activities for preschoolers to support learning and play. 

Transitions for Children

What is a ‘transition’ referring to in the preschool classroom (or home setting)? A transition is when we change from one activity to another. This could be a task that is completed as part of a routine, a change from a play activity to another or a change in location. Children are asked to participate in a variety of transitions everyday, and sometimes they just don’t want to.

Transitions happen many times throughout the day (morning, snacks, bathroom, clean ups, naptime, and so many more), and sometimes children don’t always want to comply with transitions. There are times during the day which require movement from one space to another, or a specific task to stop and another to begin. 

Transition periods for children include:

  • Bedtime
  • Mealtime
  • Naptime
  • Morning routine (getting to school, daycare, etc.)
  • After mealtime
  • First day of school or a special day of school (field trip, holiday party, class assembly, etc.)
  • Leaving a preferred activity or space (play space, playground, etc.)
  • New life component: new sibling, moving to a new home, starting a new school or daycare, starting a new classroom, changing teachers or acquiring a new personal aide or therapy practitioners, medical provider, etc.
  • New skill component: Moving from a toddler bed to a big kid bed, starting toilet training, teething, losing teeth, medical changes, etc.
  • Leaving the home for an appointment

Transitional Anxiety in Kids

The slower processing speed of young ones as well as fixed mindsets can lead to refusal, meltdowns, and tantrums.

For some children, the prescence of challenging behaviors is a form of communication. Screaming, yelling, hitting, biting, or crying are the form of communication that means, “I don’t want to stop doing what I’m doing”.

For other children, transition-related behaviors become part of the transition. By this, I mean that they are routinely used to the meltdown or behavior as way to add controlled predictability to the situation.

Whether it’s changes to daily routines or life transitions, these can be a cause for confusion in kids. The early years are about predictability in learning. This begins with babies and toddlers who drop a toy over and over again from their high chair. The predictable nature of cause and effect supports that when one thing happens, another identifiable thing occurs as a result.

The challenge with transitions is that when one preferred activity or event is occurring, the young child does not want to stop or change because there is a sense of unknown about what will happen next. Even when a teacher or caregiver explains what will happen as a result of the transition, the young child can’t grasp the verbal description, or if they are in the middle of a meltdown, the words are lost and not even heard. 

Another component to this is that when a known change is happening to a habit such as a change in routine, moving to a new home, experiencing a new teacher, or experiencing a new activity that is different than what the child expects or is used to, anxiety can result. 

The worry that occurs with the upcoming transition or change in routine can put the child into a sense of limbic response. Fight, flight, and other responses occur without actual thought. We cover this extensively in our post on the limbic system and function.

Contributing factors to transitional anxiety include:

  • Perseveration- The child can’t stop thinking about the upcoming event. This is particularly when a child knows a change in their routine is coming up.
  • Rumination- The child can’t stop telling themselves with their internal voice that some bad is going to come as a result of the unknown change to their predictable routine.
  • Loss of control- Given a change in a situation, the transition can cause a feeling of lost control.
  • Feedback loop- The limbic system alerts the child to unknown stressors in the form of a change in a stable environment (the current situation or an upcoming unknown change to a routine) and they are in a fight, flight, freeze pattern that is hard to get out of.

Early childhood transitions can be especially difficult for some children:

  • Those with communication challenges: Autism, delayed verbal skills, other childhood diagnoses
  • Individuals with sensory processing challenges
  • Those with auditory processing considerations
  • Children of younger age: infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and even kindergarten aged children
  • Children with experience of previous difficult transitions
  • Children without a stable home situation
  • Those with executive functioning needs (see below)

It’s important to explain to  young children in language that they can relate to during these periods. Equally important, is allowing enough time for the child to cognitively process the verbal commands in order to prepare for an upcoming transition using transition activities for preschoolers that work. 

By phrasing a new activity in a positive light, we can make the transition fun and how to praise them when they have followed through with the transition tasks.

The Role of Executive Functioning Skills in Transitions

Individuals with executive functioning challenges often encounter significant difficulties when transitioning between tasks due to deficits in specific skills.

Working memory, responsible for manipulating information, becomes a significant obstacle. Those struggling with executive functioning may find it challenging to retain relevant details from one task and transfer them to another, resulting in fragmented focus and increased cognitive load during transitions.

Planning and prioritizing tasks– Planning a task can be a daunting task for those with executive functioning challenges. The ability to break down a task into smaller, manageable steps is compromised, leading to a sense of overwhelm and uncertainty when faced with switching to a new activity. This lack of clear planning may exacerbate the difficulties during transitions, making it harder to smoothly shift from one task to another.

Self-control becomes an essential factor in task transitioning between tasks. Individuals with executive functioning challenges may experience difficulties in inhibiting impulses (impulse control) and distractions, leading to unintended time-wasting or pursuing irrelevant activities instead of smoothly transitioning to the next task. This lack of self-control can further impede their ability to manage their time effectively and maintain productivity.

Mental dexterity is another critical skill impaired in those with executive functioning challenges. Difficulty in mentally switching gears can lead to a reluctance or inability to shift focus between unrelated tasks, resulting in resistance to change and heightened stress during transitions.

Multitasking between unrelated tasks, a common requirement in today’s fast-paced world, adds to the mental workload during transitions. The inability to effectively juggle multiple tasks due to executive functioning deficits can cause feelings of frustration, mental fatigue, and reduced overall performance.

Transition Strategies for Kids

Use the strategies listed below in transition planning for kids.

Preparing a child for a change can be a huge help when it comes to big life events or simply moving from one activity to another in the classroom or therapy session. The strategies below can support those in early intervention, special education classrooms, educators, professionals, and parents.

There are ways to support a child through these stages, especially when focusing on the transition activities for preschoolers with some simple tips listed below.

Keep in mind these four tips when giving a child a transition direction:

1.Visual Schedules- Use a visual schedule and auditory cues help give children concrete expectations. Using a timer on a phone paired with a visual schedule or these first then visual boards, give children a multi-sensory approach to directions. 

2.Allow extra time- Give plenty of time for the child to finish what they are currently doing. Children tend to put their whole self into an activity. They are not great at multitasking, especially children under five years old. If you are asking a child to stop an activity so that they can move onto a new one, make sure you give them a few warnings before helping them with the transition. Giving a 5 minute and 2 minute warning (paired with some audio and visual cues) will give a child plenty of time to finish what they are currently working on. 

3.Make sure the timing of the transition is appropriate. When giving a transitional direction to a child, consider the time of day and the task you are asking them to complete. Are they tired or hungry? If so maybe going to the grocery store isn’t the best idea. Are you asking them to put on their shoes by themselves when they haven’t had a lot of practice doing this independently yet? Consider the time of day and the child’s developmental skills when giving a direction. This blog discusses the developmental skills of receptive language development for children birth to age five.

4.Schedule for Transition Time- If you are running a preschool classroom, make sure to build enough time in for transitions during the school day, so you can add the transitions to your visual schedule. By including transition times into your routine, children will expect each transition. 

5. Stop, Breath, Reset- One strategy that works for older children is to use deep breathing techniques as a tool for self-regulation. When the child indicates they are stuck in a anxious or worried state, they can identify a regulating and calming tool to stop and breathe. This period of reset allows them to restart and move onto the next task, even if they initially felt overwhelmed by the change.

Here is an example daily schedule for a preschool classroom:

8:00-8:50  Free Play

8:50-9:00 Clean Up Song

9:00-9:30 Circle Time

9:30-10:35 Interest Center Time

10:35-10:45 Clean Up Time

10:45-11:15 Snack Time/Bathroom Time

11:00-12:00 Outdoor Play

Simple ways to phrase the transition

Transition activities for preschoolers can support the movement from one scheduled task to the next. Sometimes it’s not about the task we are asking a child to do, but it’s how we ask them to do it. 

When working with young children, say their name, tell them what you want them to do, give them a “why” answer in the direction, and tell them what they will be doing next. Young children don’t always want to complete a task because they don’t know that something more exciting is coming up. 

Fill in the following blanks when giving a transition:

  • “Hi, _(name of child_). It’s time to (task you are asking them to do) so that we can (what you are going to do next.)”
  • If what you are doing next isn’t favorable (like going to the bathroom) tell them what will happen after they go to the bathroom (such as going outside to the sandbox afterwards. 

Not all activities are exciting to do, especially nap time. But when we make what happens after the next activity sound exciting, then the child may be more compliant. We are a lot more motivated to so an undesirable task if something more enjoyable happens after.

Transition Games for Children

The next task is to make the transition more enjoyable (so that a child, or group of children will participate.) These four games have worked wonders in my preschool classroom.

1.Pretend you are something else. One of my favorite ways to encourage children to move from one place to another is to have them pretend they are something different, and do the action of that new person/animal. For example “Fly like a bird to the snack table by flapping your wings.” or “Hurry! Put the fire out with the hose as you walk to the car (encouraging children to use their hands like a hose as they put out the pretend fire.)

2.How fast can you ________? Our kids love to compete against their times, especially during clean up! We keep track of how quickly they were able to put items away every day. Each day, they try to “beat” the time they had done the previous day. 

3. I Spy. You can play “I spy” anywhere, including clean up time (I spy a yellow truck!) or while going to the bathroom (I spy a pictures of a fish.) Children love to have attention and be part of something more then just completing the unwanted tasks asked of them. Using “I spy” can help keep a child’s mind off of what they are doing while also getting very important tasks completed. 

4. Transition Songs. You can create a song on your own or change the words of many other songs created to the task that you are asking a child to do. This list has a song for almost all types of transitions that you are asking your preschooler to do. There are several clean up songs that are popular (including the Barney clean up song found here.

Simple ways to praise a child during and after a transition

When children are participating in the transition activity and after they have made it to the next activity, using praise statements will show children that you are paying attention to them and are grateful with their participation. You can manipulate the following five praise statements for a variety of different transitions:

1.Wow! You are doing a great job _____________.

2.Look at how you are____________.

3. You __________ so quickly. 

4. Thank you for helping ___________.

5. I see how gently you are ___________.

When Childhood Transition are still a challenge

When children still don’t follow through with transitions…

Of course there are always those times, where no matter what we do, a child may not want to transition. Instead, they may become frustrated, yell, scream or run the other way. When children seem like they need some time to calm down, having a calm down area in your home or classroom ahead of time makes redirecting children to needed calming activities much easier. The Soothing Sammy Emotions Program  is a wonderful way to encourage children to take part in creating their own calm down corner through a story and wonderful character, Sammy, the golden retriever. As children help build Sammy’s calm down area to use when they are overwhelmed, they are gently taught how to calm down, talk about their feelings and problem solve. 

successful transitions for kids

Transitions don’t need to be stressful. Every child and every situation is different. When children are busy completing a preferred task, they don’t always want to leave that task to do something else.

With adequate warning, simple explanations, positive praise and a fun transition game, most of the time, children are willing to comply with what an adult is requesting with effective transitions.

Staying consistent in the transition process can transform transitions from a headache to peace.

transitions in the classroom

These transition tips are important for all ages, and at any time of the school year. One key time to set up transition strategies, however, may be the back-to-school season. This is an important step to successful transitions in the classroom.

Why? As kids head back into the classroom, transitioning from summer mode to classroom mode can be a real challenge. Setting up effective transition strategies in the classroom from the start of the school year supports students as they move from the summer mode to the classroom mode.

Transitions in the classroom is just one of our tips for back to school sensory activities, because classroom transition tools support the related emotional regulation and self-regulation needs that arise as a result of unexpected requirements and changes. Setting up transition routines in the classroom from the start is so effective with every level of student.

Jeana Kinne is a veteran preschool teacher and director. She has over 20 years of experience in the Early Childhood Education field. Her Bachelors Degree is in Child Development and her Masters Degree is in Early Childhood Education. She has spent over 10 years as a coach, working with Parents and Preschool Teachers, and another 10 years working with infants and toddlers with special needs. She is also the author of the “Sammy the Golden Dog” series, teaching children important skills through play.

transitions for children

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