Managing routines and transitions in early childhood. If you have a toddler or preschooler, you likely already understand the gravity of this topic!
I’ll never forget the day I took my 18-month-old on a routine trip to our neighborhood playground. Except for this time he did not want to leave.
In seconds my playful boy went from zero to 100 in the hysterics department. He bolted away when I tried to pick him up! I felt stressed and caught off guard.
So how can we as parents help our little ones move smoothly between places and activities? Let’s discuss 10 key tips for managing routines and transitions in early childhood.
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Why are day-to-day transitions so hard for toddlers and preschoolers?
According to the Center on Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL), switching from one activity to another can invoke feelings of confusion and anger in some young children. This can often result in challenging behavior without appropriate prevention or intervention strategies.
In other words, kids can feel caught off guard when it’s time to make a transition.
Many kids simply do not want to end the activity that they are enjoying. Or they perceive the new activity to be as not as much fun. After all, they are human!
The CSEFEL adds that when caregivers and early childhood educators do not plan for transition periods within their daily routines, extra idle time can result. This additional wait period may fuel “acting out” behaviors.
While it’s important to note that many children struggle with transitions, shifting from one activity to the next can often be a significant barrier for those diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorder, or Sensory Processing Disorder.
Why are routines and transitions important during early childhood?
When sound routines are established and transitions run smoothly for young children, the results are tremendously beneficial for both little ones and caregivers. In short, by minimizing meltdowns and tantrums, we can maximize our time for learning and fun together!
Furthermore, building coping skills for small daily transitions can help lay the groundwork for our children to eventually cope with bigger life transitions.
10 key tips for managing routines and transitions in early childhood
Let’s discuss 10 key positive parenting tips I’ve learned and have personally used as a certified positive parent educator, former school counselor, and fellow parent to two young children.
1. Provide advance warning and verbal reminders before ending an activity
This was my biggest mistake when my son was new to toddlerhood. I didn’t always communicate our comings and goings in advance when he was an infant.
When my son became a toddler, he made it known he needed a heads up! Understandable.
Let’s think about it from an empathetic perspective. Imagine you are engrossed in your favorite TV show or movie. You likely wouldn’t be too pleased if your partner came and snatched the remote, changing the channel without warning!
Each child is different when it comes to their flexibility with daily transitions. You know your child best. Some kids will be okay with just a 2-minute warning, while others will need a heads up at 10, 5, 3, and 1 minute left on the clock before switching activities.
2. Maintain a visual daily routine or schedule
It’s not always easy for toddlers and preschoolers to conceptualize their schedules for the day. Visual reminders can be quite helpful in staying on the same page.
You would be hard-pressed to find a preschool or elementary classroom without the daily schedule posted on the board and for good reason. Kids feel safe to learn and have fun when provided consistency and predictability. And they’re more likely to make healthy and safe choices as a result!
For little ones, visual schedules typically work best (the same holds true for many children with ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and Sensory Processing Disorder). Post your routine in an area where your child spends most of their day. Review it together each morning and refer back before each transitionary period for the best results!
Top Visual Daily Schedules on Amazon
3. Timers, timers, timers!
Perhaps the most immediately impactful tip on this list is timers. As an elementary school counselor, I often ran small groups for children to learn impulse control skills.
As a new counselor, ending groups and transitioning back to class was often a high-stress point of my day. That is until I stocked my office with fun and effective timers.
What’s so great about timers? They give you the ability to say “yes” to just a little more of the preferred activity. Then it’s the timer’s job to say “no more”.
Timers don’t negotiate and can’t be convinced to reset. Kids often have an easier time accepting the firm end time when a timer takes the lead.
In early childhood, setting the timer just a minute or two before a transition usually works best (with a verbal reminder of course!). If you set a timer for a longer duration, your child may become too engrossed in the activity. As a result, their agreement to peacefully transition to the new task can quickly become a distant memory!
Visual timers work great for young children who do not fully understand the concept of time and quantity. My tried-and-true go-to are these liquid motion bubbler timers from Amazon.
They offer a visual/sensory calming effect, are easy enough for little hands to flip and maneuver independently, and take just about two minutes for the colorful liquid to fall.
4. Find a fun toddler transition song
Having a consistent routine for daily transitions is key. Predictability fuels peaceful behavior! Finding a go-to toddler transition song is a great way to regularly cue that it’s time for a change.
Try a couple and see what your child connects with. Here are some great options on YouTube!
5. Assign a special task or helping job
A tried and true classroom intervention for kiddos who struggle with transitions: The class helper job. The great news? This works fantastically at home too!
Heading out to the car? Ask your child what they would like to be in charge of carrying: Their snack cup or your water bottle? A little “voice and choice” also goes a long way!
Inviting your child to take on a special responsibility amidst the transition is a great way to refocus their attention and gain buy-in for the upcoming activity or task.
6. Offer a transition object or comfort item
We live in a three-story townhome so I sometimes feel like 20% of our day is walking up and downstairs! Oftentimes my toddler is not eager to tag along if he’s in the middle of playing with trains or building blocks. Makes sense!
If I’m met with resistance, I often ask him if he wants to “invite a friend” to come with us. Another “voice and choice” opportunity can refocus his attention on the new task at hand.
You may consider having a basket of small figurines for your child to choose from. We have this set of Sesame Street characters that works great!
7. Remain patient and avoid a power struggle
This one is easier said than done. But if a child is refusing to relinquish a toy or budge from point A to point B, it’s pivotal to avoid an authoritarian approach.
Scare tactics or threats that try to coerce a child into listening do not help kids develop independent coping and problem-solving skills.
Safety situations aside, of course, try tip number eight and nine below rather than taking a toy from your child’s hands. Remember, the goal is to achieve peaceful collaboration when it comes to managing routines and transitions in early childhood.
If needed, step away from the situation, take some deep breaths, and try to put things in perspective:
Your child may not be listening right this second. And while that’s incredibly frustrating, the situation can’t and won’t last forever. Taking your time and helping your child cope with the transition in a healthy way will only increase the likelihood of an easier adjustment the next time!
8. Validate feelings
Let your child know they have a right to feel angry about having to clean up or feel sad about leaving for school. For example, “It’s okay to be mad. You were having a fun time coloring! Would you like to hang your picture on the fridge or in your bedroom before we leave?”
Validating feelings can sometimes fall outside of our parenting comfort zone and can take some practice. However, it is one of the most powerful positive parenting tools at our disposal. I invite you to check out one of Such a Little While’s top posts, How to Validate Children’s Feelings in 10 Crucial Ways for easy-to-follow scripts and tips!
9. Hold a “time-IN” as needed
With the positive discipline movement, time-outs are “out” in the consequence department. Why? Time-outs isolate children and do not assist in restoring relationships or promoting future behavioral change.
If your child becomes upset and refuses to comply with a change in location or activity, invite them to join you for a time-in. I recommend having a consistent spot in your home. Here, you provide a safe space to sit with your child while they cool down and discuss their feelings. When your child becomes emotionally available for redirection, talk through expectations, and next steps.
10. Recognize & affirm resilience
Whether or not to give praise is a bit of a hot-button issue in today’s parenting world. In short, some experts suggest that overpraising achievements can result in a fear of failure and a fixed mindset. Bright Horizons provides a great read on the debate.
As a former Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support coach, I believe in providing recognition for positive behavior choices. Particularly, when a child has demonstrated growth in an area of individual difficulty such as transitions.
Note: Recognition does not mean tangible rewards or prizes!
Verbal recognition should be both genuine and specific. Here are some examples:
- “You put your shoes on right away! What a great choice to help us get to school on time.”
- “You were having so much fun playing but you were still able to clean up when the timer went off. How did that feel?”
- “I could see you were sad to leave the playground. It looks like those deep breaths you took really helped you!”
Frequently asked questions (FAQ) about managing routines and transitions in early childhood
1. What if my child struggles with routines and transitions beyond early childhood?
All children are individually unique and special with differing levels of sensitivity to change. While any child can struggle with managing transitions, those with ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Sensory Processing Disorder, and even anxiety can have a particularly difficult time regulating emotions during such shifts.
The 10 tips we discussed above can be utilized with children of all ages (although depending on your child, you may wish to tweak tips #2 and 4 for developmental appropriateness and interests!).
If your child’s ability to cope with transitions is having a significant impact on his or her day-to-day functioning, you might discuss the concerns with your pediatrician. Bringing your child’s teacher into the loop is key as well! Consistent interventions across home and school environments can make the world of difference.
2. Why does my child only struggle with transitions at home and not at school (or vice versa)?
This can often be a point of frustration, but many children simply behave differently between the two settings. If your child’s school is expressing concerns you are not seeing at home, know that this can certainly happen. In contrast, your child may be giving you a run for your money at home but manages to move about his or her day just fine at school. This is not something to beat yourself up over!
The solution? Open dialogue and teamwork. Children benefit tremendously when their stakeholders come together and identify what works well in one setting. Perhaps that same strategy can achieve similar success in the other environment.
Interested in learning more? The Child Mind Institute provides an outstanding article on why children can behave so differently between home and school.
3. Is there a correlation between transition difficulties and Autism?
Many children with Autism Spectrum Disorder struggle with transitions. This being said, many neurotypical children do as well. This one factor would and should never be used to imply a diagnosis. Always consult with your child’s pediatrician regarding any concerns for your child’s individual development.
4. Are there any additional considerations for managing routines and transitions in early childhood for kids with ADHD?
Children with disabilities, particularly ADHD, may require more time to navigate and cope with changes throughout their daily routines. It’s also pivotal not to give too many directions at once during points of transition.
For example, saying, “Please put your cars away, grab your jacket, and come to the door” can result in information overload. Chunking your directives into single steps can help children with ADHD stay focused and on task.
Interested in learning more? Dr. Mary Rooney, a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco, provides a great article here on behalf of Huntington Learning Center.
5. How can I help my child through major life transitions (e.g., beginning daycare, new sibling, parental divorce)?
Amazingly, many of the tips discussed here (e.g., provide advance warning, validate feelings) will still be very helpful to children during major life transitions.
The biggest difference is that your child will likely need more time to process the change, more opportunities to talk with you about their feelings, and more support navigating the grieving process surrounding the major life event.
Bright Horizons provides an excellent overview of helping children cope with change. They suggest the following tips:
- Give advance notice (when applicable)
- Keep other life factors the same as much as possible
- Consistently answer their questions
- Anticipate developmental regression
- Allow the grieving process to unfold
The last thing you need to know about managing routines and transitions in early childhood
Keeping empathy at the core of a positive parenting approach is key when it comes to managing routines and transitions in early childhood. Kids are human, and change is hard for all of us! On that note, I want to end with this quote from Dr. David Anderson, senior director of the ADHD and Behavioral 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…transitions are hard for everybody.”Source: https://childmind.org/article/why-do-kids-have-trouble-with-transitions/