9 Ways to Help Your Child Transition to a New Activity Smoothly

Take a proactive approach to teaching your child how to transition to one activity to the next without a temper tantrum.
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Putting away toys and getting ready for bed, turning off the TV to eat dinner, or leaving the playground so you can go to the store can lead to major meltdowns. Transitions can be really difficult for many children, especially during the toddler and preschool years.

If your child struggles to transition from one activity to the next, here are some strategies that can make transitions go more smoothly:

1. Give a Warning

If someone turned off in the middle of your favorite TV show, or ripped the phone out of your hand in middle of a call, you likely wouldn’t appreciate it. Abruptly telling your child it’s time to leave or time to put his toys away is a similar situation.

Warn your child about an upcoming transition. If he’s old enough to understand time, say, “In five minutes we’re going to leave the playground.” If your child is too young to grasp the concept of what five minutes means, say something like, “You can have two turns to go down the slide and then we’re going to go to the store.”

2. Teach Transition Words

Use transition words that will help your child understand the plan. Say things like, “Your brother is going to have a turn first, and then you’re next,” or, “We’ll go outside after we eat dinner.” These types of phrases help children develop a better understanding of transitions.

3. Provide One Instruction at a Time

Young children get confused when they’re given too many directions at once. So rather than rattle off a long list of things to do to get ready to go to the store, start with one instruction at a time. Say, “Pick up your toys please.” Then, once the toys are picked up, tell your child to put on his socks.

Keep it simple.

4. Offer Choices When Possible

Giving your child a choice gives her a little autonomy, which can reduce a lot of temper tantrums and meltdowns. Ask questions like, “Do you want to put on your jacket or do you want me to put it on for you?” Just make sure you can live with either option.

5. Establish a Fun Ritual

There’s a reason preschools use fun songs to get kids to clean up their toys - it works. Create a fun ritual that will motivate your child to move from one activity to the next. A special bedtime routine or memorable mealtime ritual can reduce temper tantrums.

6. Ease into the Transition

When possible, ease into the transition. If your child is playing with trucks when it’s time to go to the store, let him choose one truck to play with in the car. Carrying an object from one place to the next can help ease your child’s frustration.

7. Create a Consistent Routine

Provide structure to your child’s day by establishing a schedule. Keep naps, meals, and bedtime on a consistent schedule.

Create a visual chart that shows your child what happens throughout the day.

8. Praise Good Behavior

When your child starts moving toward the next activity, or she responds to your directions, offer immediate praise. Say, “Great job picking up the toys right when I asked you to.” Positive reinforcement will encourage her to keep up the good work.

9. Teach Feeling Words

Use transitions as an opportunity to teach feeling words. Say things like, “I know you’re frustrated you can’t keep playing,” or, “It looks like you’re disappointed it’s time to leave.” As your child’s verbal skills improve, she’ll be able to tell how she feels, rather than show you through misbehavior.

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