You know the feeling. You’ve finally settled into your groove. You’re getting creative or tackling a project or just paying the bills. You’ve found that sense of flow where things really start coming together.
And then it happens.
The phone rings. A child calls out. There’s a knock at the door.
Without warning, you have to quickly set things aside, suddenly shift gears, and hope you can find the same rhythm when you get back to it.
It’s frustrating, right?
It’s not too much of a stretch to connect that feeling to the feeling kids get when we ask them to leave one activity for another — something that happens several times, every day.
“Time for breakfast!”
“Time to go!”
“Time to come in!”
“Time to get in the bath!”
“Time to get out of the bath!”
“Time to put toys away!”
“Time to go to bed!”
Over and over again, we ask our kids to stop what they’re doing and shift gears to another activity. They often push back, which is understandable, when we realize that we’re not just asking them to GO, but we’re asking them to STOP.
I realized this was a common challenge as I polled my audience during yesterday’s Ending Power Struggles Webinar. I addressed it there, but I thought I’d share some of my best tips for helping kids with transitions here as well.
Give Fair Warning
Just like you would like a heads up before shutting down your own project, your kids appreciate getting fair warning that they’re about to shift gears. This helps them prepare mentally and also helps them plan. This can be as simple as saying, “We’ll need to leave soon.” or as specific as “Five more minutes before dinner time.”
Just be sure your kiddos can actually hear the reminder. Too often, I find myself calling warning from the kitchen and hoping everyone can hear above the din. (And I’m guessing I’m not alone.)
Sometimes that works. But if I really want to know that everyone is aware of the upcoming transition, I let them know personally (or give someone else the job as messenger). Ask for a response to make sure you were heard. Teach them to say, “got it” or “thanks” or “OK, Mom/Dad” as a signal that the message has been received. This can drastically improve your response later on.
For some children, it helps to have a reminder of just how much time they have left. Setting a timer can create a non-negotiable signal that the time is up. You can do this with your watch or phone, but one of my favorites is to use a device called the Time Timer, which shows a visual representation of how much time is left. This can really help kids to have a reference they can relate to to gauge themselves and prepare for a transition. I’ll often use mine in the morning, setting it on the counter so my boys can see how much time is left until they need to be ready to head out the door to school. (You can find the Time Timer with this affiliate link.)
Give Some Control
In the power struggles webinar, I talked about one of my absolute favorite tools. Within that tool, I pointed out that giving children some degree of choice can really help out with difficult situations. If you’re staring down a transition, you may simply say, “We need to leave soon. Would you like to go in 5 minutes or in 10 minutes?” Once they make their choice, I follow up with, “Sounds good. So in ten minutes, when I tell you it’s time to go, what are you going to do?” It’s amazing how well this works. It gives them some degree of control and choice, but also sets out clear expectations.
This same concept can work in other situations. “Would you like to ride your bike around the driveway 1 more time or 2 more times before we go in?” “Is there anything you want to do before it’s time to get out of the tub? You might want to do that now before our time is up.” “We’ll need to clean up soon. Is there anything you want to put in a special place before we start putting everything away?”
Giving kids some sense of power and control really increases their acceptance of the transition because they feel a sense of ownership and direction. The transitions changes from something that happens TO them to something they are a part of.
Point to What’s Next
Often we meet resistance as we ask our children to leave an activity they’re enjoying. But when we can reorient them to what’s up next, we may be able to refocus their motivation. For example, “Two more trips down the slide, and then we need to get in the car so we can go pick up Grandma!” OR “We need to finish up this bath soon, so that we can snuggle up in our jammies and start reading that book you picked out from the library.”
It may also help to give a task that comes after the transition. In the classroom we may say, “Finish cleaning up your area and then sit at the carpet.” OR “Open your books to page 7, and then put your finger on the word ‘blue’ when you find it.” In our homes it might sound like, “Make sure you brush your teeth, and then read quietly in your bed.” OR “Finish up your chores and then come have a snack with me.”
Helping a child to recognize what comes next can offer motivation, and can also reduce the chaos that often comes during transition times when a child isn’t clear on what’s expected.
Create a Familiar Rhythm
Routines certainly help kids to adjust to transitions. When they know what comes next and have a feel for how long something usually lasts, they have an easier time with making the switch. This doesn’t mean we have to become beholden to rigid schedules, but when children know the general rhythm of the day, they can anticipate transitions and know exactly how to deal with them. Not every day is the same, but we can let a child know what’s in store for the day or as part of an outing, so that our expectations are on the same page.
Likewise, we create a rhythm with how we DO transitions. As I mentioned above, you can engage children by giving them some degree of choice or a purpose. When that becomes a regular part of how transitions are done, it creates a level of understanding about what’s expected. The process becomes familiar, so it doesn’t have to be renegotiated every single time.
Transitions can create a lot of challenges for parents, but when we remember to give kids the same courtesies that we would like to have offered to ourselves, it can make a huge difference in how they respond.