Toddlers can really struggle with transitioning from one activity to another. As adults we are in control of their schedule, of transporting them place to place, and generally being in charge of their lives. "Get dressed we're going to eat!" "Go potty!" "Time for bed." All day long we structure their day and typically have the big picture in OUR head, but what about the kids? We can give them choice, we can tell them the big picture, but ultimately we as adults are in charge.
This lack of control can give toddlers a sense of unease. What's coming next? What if I don't like the next activity? By being intentional when we transition kids from one activity or location to the next, we can decrease the anxiety they feel and hopefully avoid meltdowns.
3 Strategies for Stress-Free Transitions
Use a timer: This strategy is pretty straightforward. When it is time to transition, set a physical timer. Ask
your child how much more time they need. When it makes sense, give them options to choose from: Do you want 4 or 5 more minutes? It is important that your child can visually see the countdown so that they can conceptualize that time is ticking. The type of timer you choose will be dependent on the child and their understanding of numbers/time. For example, a sand timer is simple and even young children can understand that when the top section is empty, it is time to transition. Similarly, using a timer on your phone can be effective. Bonus: You can allow your child to choose the ringer and press the button to turn it off when time is up.
"One Last Thing": This strategy is useful when your toddler is involved in play or in a location that has a lot of options (i.e. playground). When you are getting close to time to transition, have your child pick last thing to do before you leave. This could sound like "Gina, you've had so much fun here today! It is time to go. What is one last thing you'd like to do before we leave?" Let them do what they choose, but feel free to place limits. Let's say they choose to get on the swings. You might respond, "Great you to swing. I will give you 6 more pushes and then we have to go." Again, you can give them some control by giving them choice where it makes sense. "Would you like 6 or 7 more pushes?"
Prep and Signal: Use prep and signal when you may not have a specific time frame for the end of an activity. For example, you may be waiting for someone or something to arrive before you can transition. Or you know that something is going to end, but you aren't in control of all the variables. How do you do it? Choose or identify a concrete sign that it will be time to transition and then communicate it to your toddler BEFORE it happens.
Here is what this strategy might sound like:
"When Grandpa gets here, we will leave."
"When the lights in the theater come on, it is time to go."
"When your bucket is empty, we're done feeding the fish."
Tips for success:
1. Hold the limit: If you say “one more slide”, that means one more slide.
2. Provide choice: If they have a say in the transition, they will be less likely to push back against the limit. **Notice I said LESS likely, which leads to…
3. Validate their feelings: Even when we are consistent, and we give them a choice in setting the boundary, our children may still be disappointed when it is time to transition. That’s normal. Empathize with them and then refer back to #1.
Supporting your child in transition is a crucial way to make things easier for both yourself and your child. Be proactive and prepare in advance to increase predictability for them and minimize stress for everyone!