The Trouble with Transitions

Many children experience difficulty transitioning between activities, places, and objects of attention. When a child is asked to stop one thing and begin another, it is not uncommon for problematic behavior to surface, especially for kids who have emotional or developmental challenges.

SLP’s, teachers, and parents can learn to understand, manage, and eliminate these “tantrums” by getting to the root of the problem.

“Transitions are hard for everybody,” says Dr. David Anderson, senior director of the ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute. “One of the reasons why transitions may be hard is that we’re often transitioning from a preferred activity – something we like doing – to something that we need to do.”

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What does trouble with transitions look like?

Trouble with transitions can manifest in a variety of ways based upon each child and their setting. Some kids exhibit resistance, avoidance behavior, distraction, negotiation, and often a full-blown meltdown.

Children may react this way for two reasons:

  1. They are overwhelmed by their emotions.
  2. They have learned what works to successfully delay or avoid a transition.

Example:  A child who is told that it’s time to put away toys and begin a speech task might throw a tantrum initially because he/she cannot properly manage feelings of anger or frustration, but further because he/she found that it has worked to delay beginning the speech task in the past.

Children may master the art of whining, distracting, or negotiating with the adults in their life. It is up to the adults to respond accordingly, rather than enable the progression of their transitional difficulties.

Why is transitioning so hard for children?

It is fair to say that parents, teachers, and SLP’s have all dealt with some less-than-eager responses or resistance from children when asked to perform non-preferred activities, but for children with emotional and developmental issues it is particularly difficult.

Children may exhibit similar behaviors when faced with a transition, but it is important to understand that the reasoning behind each child’s breakdown is probably very different.

Transitional Difficulties By Diagnosis:

ADHD: Children with ADHD have difficulty regulating attention; therefore, turning their attention to something they are expected to do, rather than something that they find rewarding can be a challenge. Children with ADHD also have a tougher time managing their emotions than other kids.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): Many children with ASD have an adaptive need for predictability. For these children, changing activities is upsetting, because it is a deviation from the routine they know and are comfortable with. ASD also presents children with some level of cognitive inflexibility, which lends itself to the hyper-focused interests and tendency to fixate on sameness in this population.

Sensory Processing Challenges: For kids who are easily over stimulated, routine and order allow them to feel regulated, which helps them feel calm and in control. Additionally, children with sensory issues are sometimes prone to emotional tantrums that they cannot control when they are overwhelmed by unexpected changes.

Anxiety: Children who suffer from anxiety may have trouble with transitions due to fear of the unknown, or fear of what’s going to happen when they’re put in a new situation.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): Children with OCD may feel an intense need to do things perfectly. If a child with OCD is interrupted before they are able to do something exactly the right way, they may get very upset.

How can we help?

Helping a child learn how to transition without trouble is a fundamental skill that can make the difference between a traumatic experience and a successful day conducive for learning.

SLP’s, Teachers, and Parents are encouraged to:

  • Create Routines: If a child does not want to transition because he/she likes consistency, routine, and structure, then start by building these factors into the transition process.
  • Preview/Count Down: Before each transition, the adult in the room can give a timeframe and description of what will happen along with countdowns (“in 30 minutes xyz, then 15, then 5, etc.). This allows a child to “emotionally” prepare for an event.
  • Give it a sound track: Songs can be especially effective tools to help implement routines and ease transitions.
  • Visual Cues: Most children benefit from visual cues. Being able to point to a chart with photos about what is expected from a particular transition or the steps involved can help decrease the fear of the unknown. This is also easy to adapt for a variety of settings.
  • Use rewards: Rewards, such as stickers, snacks, or a point system that leads to a tangible prize, can be an effective way to habituate a child to the transitional process. Across settings, adults can implement reward systems, and once the child gets into the habit of effortlessly transitioning this can often be decreased or eliminated.
  • Implement appropriate consequences: If a transition is not going well, an adult may choose to pay less attention to it rather than worsening the situation. An adult may also choose to ignore the behaviors as long as the child is making an effort to make the transition. However, if a child is misbehaving or putting themselves or others at risk, then an adult may use an appropriate consequence for that behavior that makes the child understand that the behavior is off limits. 
  • Praise good transitioning: It is essential to recognize when things go well. As a parent, teacher, and SLP it is important to be really enthusiastic and acknowledge that the transition went well. The adult should provide specific feedback, and follow up with a reward when appropriate.

Screen Shot 2017-03-01 at 12.22.04 AM.pngWith the right support, children can learn to transition without trouble.

Ashley DiGregorio M.A., CF-SLP, TSSLD

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