9 Ways to Ease Daily Transitions

by Meghan

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We continue our Transitions series this week covering daily transitions.  If you have a toddler or preschool aged child, I know you have been there… The morning is going swimmingly, right until the moment it is time to load everyone into the car to be somewhere.  They don’t want to stop playing, they don’t want to put on their shoes, they don’t want to go where you were now supposed to be precisely 5 minutes ago.  Children of any age thrive on routine, but young children especially, perform best when routines and expectations are clearly outlined and defined.  When Big M started preschool last Fall, I knew transitions were something she struggled with, and together, with her teachers, these are tips we implemented with great success – 9 ways to ease daily transitions.

9 Ways to Ease Daily Transitions

Why Transitions are a Struggle

Transitions occur any time you ask your child to stop one activity to move on to another.  Whether it be leaving the house to go to school, preschool drop-off or pick-up, coming home from the playground, being left at home with the babysitter, or saying goodbye to a friend on a play date, just to name a few.    Toddlers and preschoolers still live very much in the moment.  They don’t yet have a great grasp of the concept of time, nor do they have the more advanced language skills (or power) to dictate that they would like to play for just 15 more minutes.  Increasing independence also comes into play at this age, and the resulting frustration in the throws of a transition often leads to tears, tantrums and a toddler stand-off.

9 Ways to Ease Daily Transitions

Transitions are never going away, so the best thing you can do is use strategies to help you and your child through them with less stress, tears and tantrums.

Have a consistent routine

The best way to avoid struggles over transitions is to establish a consistent, daily routine.  This doesn’t mean you have to schedule your day in 30-minute increments from wake up to bedtime, but it is comforting to children when they know what to expect.  Having consistent wake up, nap and bed times, as well as regular meal and snack times, can help provide a soothing rhythm to the day.  You can fill in the in between times with different activities, in or out of your house.

Having a consistent routine can also help you streamline the day to avoid unnecessary transitions.  In the morning, as soon as we wake up, I get everybody dressed – it’s far easier as part of the ‘wake up routine,’ then trying to chorale everyone back to their rooms later. Rhythms of Play shared a great post last month on Establishing a Daily Rhythm.

“Rhythm is the basic order of your daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly routines and events much like a schedule without the rigidity.” – Rhythms of Play

Give advanced warning

One of biggest parts of the preschool routine Big M struggled with last Fall was coming inside from the playground to get ready to go home.  She had little issue with moving from free play to circle time to snack time, but coming in from the outdoors was becoming a regular battle.  After some discussion with her teachers, it turned out there was not any warning for the end of play time – one whistle blew, and that was it.

At the end of free play in the classroom each day, they play a series of notes on the piano.  All the kids stop what they are doing, wherever they are, put their hands up in the air, and listen for the 5 minute warning to clean-up time.  When I saw it during our visit to the school, I was amazed how a roomful of 3 year olds all immediately responded.  When they implemented a similar 2 minute warning whistle on the playground, with directions to get in your last 10 swings or slide, and the battles to come inside significantly decreased as well.

Use understood units of measure

Part of the struggle with transitions is young children’s inability to grasp the concept of time.  Saying you have to leave in an hour or 15 minutes means little to them.  Telling them you have to leave after breakfast carries much more weight.   Here is some common language I use with Big M to provide warnings of upcoming transitions instead of units of time:

  • After breakfast, we are going to put on our shoes and get in the car to go to preschool
  • After lunch, we are all going to have some quiet time
  • When this show is over, it is time to get ready for bed
  • You can take 5 more swings, then it is time to give someone else a turn/go home
  • Three more twirls, then it is time to take off your tutu and get in the bath tub

Set a timer

Another great way to help preschoolers have a more concrete understanding of time is to set a timer.  Big M has become familiar with the oven timer when she has to take a break on the steps.  It is visible to her, and she knows when the timer sounds, time is up.  You can use the timer for anything – from setting the timer to go off when you have to leave the house or when everyone has to start cleaning up to get ready for bed.  And since 90% of the world now carries smart phones, your phone can serve as a timer when you are away from home – at the playground, indoor play area, or library.

Use defined choice

Another reason kids balk at daily transitions is because they feel powerless.  Empower them by letting them make decisions at transition points with defined choice.  The beauty of defined choice is you, as the parent, define the options, all of which you deem to be acceptable, while still allowing your child to feel like they have a say.  Examples of defined choice could be:

  • It’s time to get dressed.  Do you want to wear this dress or this sweater?
  • It’s time to put our shoes on.  Do you want to wear your boots or your sneakers today?
  • It’s time to go home.  Do you want to skip or run to the car?
  • It’s time to sit down for lunch.  Do you want to have peach or strawberry yogurt with lunch?
  • We are going out for dinner.  Do you want to go out for pizza or Mexican food tonight?
  • It is so cold outside today.  Do you want to wear your white hat or your purple one?

Set natural consequences

My mom, a 30 year kindergarten teacher, preaches the wonderful lessons of natural consequences.  Rather than issuing ‘punishments’ to children, they often learn best from the natural consequences of their actions and choices.  I have often called her after a toddler stand-off to have her help me think through what the best natural consequence should have been, and will be for repeat offenses.  Communicate them in as clear and plain language as possible to make sure they understand the consequence associated with their choice or action.  Good examples of natural consequences include:

  • If you won’t come in for the playground, you won’t be able to play outside next time.  You will have to stay inside while everyone else comes out to play.
  • It is very cold outside.  If you don’t put your coat on, you will be very cold (and except for days like today, where it’s literally below zero, I let her walk outside with no coat on until she says she’s cold and asks to wear it).
  • If you can’t take off your tutu without getting upset, we won’t be able to wear it anymore.  I will have to put them all away.

Avoid threats without follow through

As tempting as they are, and as easy as they spill out of your mouth when you are frustrated, try to avoid issuing threats you clearly cannot follow through on.  It only undermines your authority, and kids are smart.  I’m guilty of this – I get exasperated and threaten to leave Big M home by herself – obviously at 3 years old, that’s never going to actually happen, and she’d usually give a smart quip in reply, like “Leave me here – I want to stay and play in my room!”  I have, however, threatened to turn the car around and go home when screaming would not cease in the car… and in fact, did turn around and go home, and she missed her dance class, a natural consequence of her poor behavior in the car.  And following through just that once makes just the mere threat now carry significant weight.

Acknowledge and define their feelings

Often times, kids just want to be heard.  A mega-meltdown can be avoided, if you take a break from trying to rush out the door, kneel down to their level and acknowledge how they are feeling.

It’s okay to be upset

I can frequently stem Big M’s meltdowns if I just stop for 30 seconds, give her a hug and hear her out.  I ask her to take a deep breath, and tell me using her big girl voice what is wrong.  Even if I won’t or can’t give in to her demands, it’s usually enough to say, “It’s okay to be upset” or “I understand why you are upset.”  I follow up with the plain language explanation for what is upsetting her: “You are sad that we can’t stay and play with your friend” or “You are upset because you aren’t ready to leave the playground.”

Once you have acknowledged their feelings and the why behind them, you can then offer reassurances to encourage them to recover quickly and move on.  “You know what?  I know how much you love to play with your friend, and even though it’s time to go home today, we can plan another playdate again for next week.”  For Big M, that’s usually enough to elicit an excited, “REALLY!?!? Okay.”

Cooling off area

If they can’t seem to pull themselves together even after a hug, a few deep breaths and acknowledgement of their feelings, sometimes they need to sit and cool off by themselves.  When kids are emotionally distraught, they reach a point where you can’t say or do anything to make it better, and anything you attempt, just adds fuel to their fire.

At our house, we use the bottom step of the stairs – I don’t call it time out, I just say, I think you should go sit on the step until you can calm down.  I set the timer for 1 minute per year of their age.  If she continues to carry on, I tell her it is okay for her to be upset, but the rest of us do not have to listen to her.  She can continue her emotional outburst in her room.  She goes herself or I carry her there, close the door, and set the timer for 5 minutes for every year of their age, or until I hear the hysteria die down.

If you aren’t at home, sometimes you have to forcibly pick them up and carry them out.  They can cool off in their carseat, or worst case, scream the whole way home, and cool off in their room when you finally get there.

Offer transitional objects

I previously wrote about Big M’s Toddler Entourage.  Transitional objects are very common at this age.  They are a natural stage of development and provide toddlers and preschoolers, who are increasingly independent and exploring the world, with comfort when they are outside of their comfort zones.

It is perfectly okay to set rules and boundaries with regard to these objects (like Big M loves her blankie, but blankie does not leave her room except when we travel somewhere overnight), but they can also be helpful in smoothing what might otherwise be a difficult transition.  Maybe bringing their favorite stuffed animal along in the car will ease their angst over leaving, or bringing their favorite blanket and leaving it in their backpack will soothe them at preschool.  Transitional objects can provide some sense of continuity from one activity to the next, and ease what may otherwise seem like an abrupt transition.

The magic of distraction

Sometimes distraction is the perfect magic.  Instead of having a battle over putting their shoes on, make it a race between siblings or your child and yourself – who can get their shoes on, grab their backpack and get to the back door first.  Award the winner their choice of music in the car.  Instead of focusing on the departure from the playground, remind them you are going home to eat lunch, and offer up their favorite food – if their tummy is rumbling, this is often all the encouragement they need to sprint for the car.

Reward quick recoveries

Rewards do not have to be material.  The power of positive praise will do wonders with kids.  When Big M is quick to hop in the car when we need to head out the door, I layer on how proud I am of her and talk about how nice it is to all get along and have a calm ride to school.  This doesn’t mean they can’t be material – promising the reward of dessert if everyone gets in the car to go to dinner and behaves through the meal is certainly a great, and well-earned carrot.

Does your toddler or preschooler struggle with daily transitions?  Depending on your child’s personality, some strategies may work better than others.  What works best for you to ease their frustrations, while getting where you need to go?  If this is a ongoing battle in your house, we hope our tips help improve your transition struggles!

If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out the rest of our Early Childhood Transitions series, covering everything from starting solid foods to dropping naps and potty training.  You can find all of these posts, along with our favorite tips from around the web, on our Transitions series board on Pinterest.

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Mary Wright February 17, 2015 - 5:32 pm

At school I always tell the children 5 more minutes until clean-up time. The first week of school I taught them to repeat after me. After repeating “5 more minutes” daily for a week, they have continued to chime the saying when it is given. It gives the children a heads up for the coming transition. Young children catch on to a schedule rather quickly and become totally confused when there is a change. With the President Day holiday, the kids thought today was Monday and were totally confused about library Tuesday and unprepared when they did not have their book to return to check out a new one. Even kindergarteners need parent assistance with school day expectations. I also blow a train whistle when it is time to clean-up at the end of our Discovery Time.

Natural consequences are the routine of our days. Toys, games, books, etc get left out they are put in the closet. The children realize quickly that if everything ended up in the closet what would they have to explore with. We also have the classroom expectation to put away one thing when done before taking out something else. 19 kids in a class would lead to “Too big of a mess” for anyone to clean-up. Children PRACTICE doing the right thing, making the right choice when a classroom or school wide expectation is not followed. This practicing time takes place during playtime. They realize quickly that they do not want to miss out on any playtime. Young children can differentiate between work time and play time. So we say, “Work at work time, play at playtime!”

Kaylene February 16, 2015 - 8:27 pm

These are all great tips! I have three boys all five and under, and my middle son is autistic, so transitions can be a nightmare in this house!

PGPBMeghan February 17, 2015 - 7:01 am

I can only imagine. Fortunately, so far, it is only Big M who puts up a fight – Lil’ M, at 18 months, is still happy go lucky and perfectly content to go with the flow. She gives me plenty of grey hair with her jumping and climbing antics though!

Megan February 16, 2015 - 7:14 pm

These are such wonderful suggestions. We try to follow a lot of these as well, but it’s great for the reminders. Giving defined choices helps A LOT as well.

PGPBMeghan February 17, 2015 - 7:00 am

Defined choice has always been a favorite in our house too… although as Big M has gotten older, she’s started adding her own choices. “How about this instead?” has become a frequent phrase when she doesn’t like the options presented!

Nell February 16, 2015 - 6:22 pm

These are all fantastic tips! As the mother of a spirited child this is much needed advice! Thanks for linking up 🙂

PGPBMeghan February 17, 2015 - 6:59 am

Big M is not as spirited as Lil’ M, but boy is she strong-willed and stubborn… no idea who she gets that from!


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