4 practical ways to help kids who struggle with transitions (or other unstructured times)
1) Give the child warnings about transitions.
a) Tell them what their schedule will be during the day. This can sounds like “welcome to school today! This is Monday so we have reading, a bathroom break, math, a lunch break, art, a bathroom break, recess, and then we go home!” or "when you wake up in the morning, you'll eat breakfast, pack a backpack, and then go to your dad's for the weekend." For kids under the age of 4 you can just do the next 1-3 hours, but as kids grow you can give them more information about their day.
b) Give the child time related warnings. “We have 5 minutes left of reading, then it’s time for a potty break”, “We have 1 more minute of reading then it’s potty break time. After the potty we come back to the classroom for math”. I usually use 5 and 1 minute warnings, but when a child is really struggling I’ll give a 10, 5, 3, and 1 minute warning. If it’s a teen playing video games, they often need a 15 minute warning too. It’s a small thing that makes a huge difference. Sometimes parents worry because their child can’t tell time yet, but that’s ok! It won’t take very long for kids to recognize 5 minutes means we’re almost done, and one minute means put things away. If you’re more event oriented than time oriented as a family, you can switch to the number of times left of an activity, ie “It’s almost time to go home. You can slide 5 more times and then go to the car”, then count out loud with the kiddo.
I do not recommend negotiating with a child once the time is up. When the time is done, it’s done. “I know you really want to paint too, but art is all done today. You chose to use your art time with the glue. You can make a different choice next time.” A huge part of structure is predictability, and keeping firm on the end of time creates predictability for the child. Warning, if this is brand new to the child, they may have big emotional reactions like temper tantrums until they get used to the clear ending. Parents and teachers, it’s going to be OK! Give them empathy “I know it’s hard to end recess…” but be consistent with the end “...but we’re all done today. You can choose to march inside, or skip inside, which do you choose?” If you can stick with it, your child will learn to accept it too, even if it takes them 10 separate tries.
2) Create structure in the transition:
a) Give the child a special transition job. These can be really small, or they can be something significant. “[Child’s name], I want you to do a special job. Your job is to count everyone who is in line”, or “carry my clipboard”, or “close the door behind us” etc. The purpose here is adding structure to the transition by giving them a specific task. If you can’t single out the struggling child, give them something specific to do like count the number of steps they take, sing a marching song as a class, find 8 yellow things on the way, etc. Make sure it’s a job within the child’s capabilities. For example if your kiddo is having trouble with numbers, don’t ask them to count out loud in front of their classmates.
b) Some kids really struggle with group free play, and they’ll actually do a lot better by being paired with an adult during free play times like recess. It’s not about punishing the child by keeping them away from others, it’s about giving them more structure so they can thrive. Assign them as a certain adult’s recess helper who can give them jobs, or allow them to help the teacher or office staff do something instead of go with their class.
3) Add silliness to the transition, such as requiring a funny walk or making it a game.
This could sound like “Class, on our way to recess we will waddle like a penguin, and on the way back we will march like an elephant”. A game could be playing leapfrog, seeing who can find the most things that start with the letter A, seeing who can walk the quietest, etc. You can also add silliness by allowing the children to make funny faces, wear a silly costume, or move like Spiderman during the transition.
4) Give the child choices!
As humans, when we have a choice we feel more empowered and therefore more capable of behaving well. This is especially true for children because they are rarely in a power role. So when you have a difficult moment coming, especially if it is a power struggle moment, give the child a choice. These choices should be equally acceptable to you and the child, so when you’re working to avoid a problem behavior make sure you don’t have a “good” and “bad” choice. This could sound like “[Child’s name], do you choose your red shoes or your blue shoes to go outside today?”, or “Do you choose to bring your ball or your puppet to recess right now?”, or “Do you choose to climb in the car through your door, or your sister’s door?”. The choice should be something you are comfortable with as the adult, so it should not come out sounding like “you can behave or not behave”, but instead come out like “you get to choose how you do the acceptable behavior.”
Remember, “there is always a need behind the deed”. Your little one with the problem behavior is trying to get some kind of need met, and if you can keep that in mind it’ll help you figure out the type of help this child needs. There are basic needs like food and safety, but there are also relational needs like Attention, Acceptance, Affection, Appreciation, Approval, Comfort, Encouragement, Respect, Security, and Support. (You can check out the Great Commandment Network for more about Relational Needs https://www.greatcommandment.net/relationalneeds )