Children and Coping with Transitions

coping with transitions childrenWith some major natural disasters and political events occurring in Australia and around the world recently, there has been much discussion about how kids learn to process and cope with major change. As parents, we generally understand that children will need help to adjust to change and disruption to their usual circumstances such as a new baby, a new home, or the start of prep year. What is not often considered, is how children react to change on a much simpler scale – transitioning between activities as they go about their day.

According to The Oxford Dictionary, Transition means “the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another”.  In my practice as an Occupational Therapist, I often work with children who have difficulty managing transitions. Their parents report resistance to packing up one activity and moving on to the next, or experiencing a meltdown when told it’s time to leave the house to go to the shops.

Difficulties with transitions can often occur with children who have a neuro-developmental condition, such as an autism spectrum disorder, however many kids who are typically developing can also struggle. Do you recognise any of the following behaviours in your child?

* You are dropping your son off at childcare. You are late for work and rushing. Your son, who was happily watching the TV suddenly starts to cry and dig in his heels.

* At playgroup, your daughter is told it’s time to pack up the blocks. It’s time for a story. She packs up the blocks as requested, but is unable to sit through the story, is distracted and fidgets.

* Your children are sitting at the kitchen table, contentedly drawing and colouring-in. Your older child gets up and turns on a radio. The sudden loud noise startles your younger child and he becomes agitated and unsettled. It takes a while for him to calm down.

* It’s dinner time. You call for your daughter to come to the table. She won’t come after you call three times. After 15 minutes, you have to go and get her, and lead her to her chair. She protests along the way, complaining that she hadn’t finished her game.

Some children struggle more than others with transitions, and both mother and child can become quite stressed and anxious when meltdowns occur frequently throughout the day as a result.

There are things that you can do, as a mum (or dad) to help your child with transitions. Pinky McKay in her book Toddler Tactics describes creating Family Rituals and working out your Daily Rhythms. She states that children who have predictable rhythm in their day are more likely to be cooperative. They know their place in the world and feel secure when “they know what they can count on”. Developing routines (allowing for some flexibility) can assist with this.

Other tips to help kids transition include:

* Look for natural breaks in their activities to initiate change e.g wait for their game to end before announcing it’s time to go to the shops.

* Give your child plenty of warning when you are about to initiate a new activity.  E.g “When you are finished your game, we will be going to the shops”.

* Kids are very visual learners. From a very young age, they can recognise symbols and attach meaning to pictures. Create a visual schedule that shows them what their routine will be for that day. There are some great businesses specialising in routine charts such as Magnetic Moves and Little Billies.

* Young children have a poor concept of time. It’s better to use words like “Now, Then, and Next” to explain the sequence of events occuring on that day e.g. “NOW it’s time for morning tea. NEXT we are going to the shops. THEN we will stop by Grandma’s house”. Children can be taught time, and spoken to in terms of timeframes when they are older e.g at 10:00am we are going to our swimming lesson.

* Talk to your children about why they are fussing, if they appear to be struggling with a transition. It may be that they need to go to the toilet first, are hungry, or have some concerns about the next activity.

* Some children have sensory processing difficulties and may react to sudden changes such as  increase or decrease in noise, temperature, or room brightness. If your child falls into this category, find ways to ease the transition e.g sunglasses for light sensitivity, layered clothing for temperature issues, and earmuffs for difficulties with sudden loud noise. If you suspect your child has sensory processing issues, an Occupational Therapist can help you identify specific sensitivities and provide strategies to address these issues.


1. Oxford Dictionaries

2. Toddler Tactics, Pinky McKay, 2008, Penguin Books

3. Strategies for Helping Children with Transition Challenges

4. Helping Children make Transitions Between Activities

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  • Reply
    March 3, 2011 at 8:38 am

    Nicole’s article is as usual crammed with useful, practical and clear advice for parents. Thanks Nicole!

  • Reply
    Kelly Be A Fun Mum
    March 3, 2011 at 9:10 am

    My special needs daughter found transitions VERY HARD! I’m happy to say she is so much better and we used some of the tips above too.

    I especially like the “Now, Then, and Next” — that’s brilliant.

    With all my kids, if we are out, I give them a few warning calls.

    “Children, this is your first call. We are going in 10 minutes.”

    “Children, this is your second call. We are going in 5 mintues.”

    “Children, this is your final call. It’s time to go.”

    I do it in a fun voice so the kids thinks it’s funny.

    Thanks again Nicole for sharing your expertise with us.

    • Reply
      Nicole Grant
      March 3, 2011 at 4:54 pm

      @Kelly Be A Fun Mum, I think many parents give their kids warnings like this without realizing it can be a helpful thing! I love that you make it funny too Kelly. I’m sure you are more likely to get their attention!

  • Reply
    March 3, 2011 at 9:51 am

    Thanks so much, that was brilliant! I was trying to figure out and pinpoint why we have certain whinging / tantrum issues with our 4.5 yo son. Usually it’s when I ask him to come inside after bike riding in time for dinner. It makes it hard for me cause the other kids in street are allowed to stay up far later than ours (such a mean mum lol) so he thinks he is missing out! I might try adding more warnings as in give him more ways to be able to predict that ‘inside time’ is coming.
    For such a confident, clever and social boy it took him 4 visits to his prep school recently to actually be ok without tears….with much talking about it, he is fine now. Hard seeing them struggle with transitions sometimes!

    Thanks Nicole for your time to post this!

    • Reply
      Nicole Grant
      March 3, 2011 at 4:56 pm

      @Lauren, Thanks for your comments Lauren. You will have to let us know if any of these strategies help with your son.

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    May 17, 2011 at 11:17 am

    Thank you Nicole 🙂

    It is always good to refresh my memory on what works and why.

    Now that both girls are in full time school we are managing transitions at home slightly differently – especially after school when there is so much we should be doing… although I tend to prioritise play and family dinner and if we manage to get homework done that is a bonus.

    • Reply
      Nicole Grant
      May 17, 2011 at 1:15 pm

      @Marita, Thanks Marita. That’s a good point you’ve raised about adjusting the way you approach transitions according to changes in circumstances.

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