The Importance of Toddler Transitions
Going between activities is hard, and sometimes it feels like meltdowns are just part of the routine. But THEY DON’T HAVE TO BE! (I’ll say it again for the parents in the back: transitions don’t have to be hard!)
Transitions happen all day every day for toddlers (and actually every single person). A transition just refers to the ending of one activity in order to go on to the next activity. This might be going from playtime to lunch, or from reading time to sleep. Toddler transitions are sprinkled throughout the day. Having a bit more knowledge and a few strategies to help your little one can make or break the whole routine. (You know what I mean if you’ve ever had your child completely meltdown because you have to leave the park, end the zoo trip, quit taking your bath, or start taking a bath.)
Check out this article from Child Mind Institute about specific kinds of disabilities and how they impact transitions in kids.
Types of Transitions
There are four main types of transitions that have to do with how much a child likes or dislikes the activities they are transitioning between. There are two kinds of activities: preferred activities and non-preferred activities. Preferred activities are any type of activity that your child enjoys and generally wants to do. A non-preferred activity refers to activities that your child does not enjoy. Preferred and non-preferred activities can vary greatly amongst the toddler crowd, so you really have to know what your little one likes best.
Some children might love bubbles, while others don’t like the feeling of how bubbles pop on them or get them wet. Many toddlers enjoy singing, but for some children, the noise can be overwhelming. It’s helpful to figure out how your child feels about certain activities in order to prepare for different types of transitions.
The 4 types of transitions are as follows:
- Preferred to preferred: This is in reference to a time when your child is going from one kind of activity they enjoy to another activity they enjoy. Generally these go okay, because even though your child has to leave a preferred activity, they get to go to another thing they enjoy.
- Preferred to non-preferred: This is when your child has to leave an activity they like to participate in something they do not like to do. These are generally the most difficult.
- Non-preferred to preferred: This transition is optimal because your child is finishing an activity that they don’t like in order to go do something they enjoy. We will talk later about how to use this type of transition in your favor.
- Non-preferred to non-preferred: This type of transition is difficult because your child has to do back-to-back things they are not fond of.
It is important to be mindful of the different kinds of transitions because they will impact how you prepare your child. More preparation will need to go into transitions that are preferred to non-preferred because this type is especially difficult. Additionally, you can structure your day so that your child does one of their least favorite activities (like chores or cleaning up) followed by a highly preferred activity.
Common Mistakes in Transitioning Between Activities
- Not giving a warning: I am a grown woman, but even I need a warning about when my favorite show will be over or when I have to stop talking with my best friend. Children are the same. When we don’t give children a warning, everyone ends up frustrated.
- Having unfair expectations: If your child is engaged in a non-preferred activity, you have to have realistic expectations about how long they can stay doing that activity. Equally, if your child is doing one of their favorite things you have to prepare for it to be difficult when they need to finish up.
- Stressing out: Do not put too much pressure on your toddler or yourself when you are going between activities. If you can make the transition light and fun, things will likely go much easier.
- Getting mad: Yelling or empty threats of consequences will not help anyone! But I get it, because when your little one is losing their minds, it’s hard not to lose your own! I am speaking from experience, because I’ve lost my cool more times than I’d like to admit when my toddler does not easily follow directions.
- Forgetting about basic needs: If your child is hungry, tired, or sick, transitions are going to be difficult. Make sure basic needs are being met so you can increase the chances of a smooth transition.
Toddler Transitions: Best Practices
Set Expectations for the Transition
Help your child understand what they get to do and give them an idea of how long they will do the activity. This is important for both really fun and really difficult activities. You can do this by telling them how much time they get to do something (although time is a concept most toddlers don’t completely understand yet), or you can set limits. For instance, you can say “You can color three pages from your coloring book” or “You can be all done once you’ve eaten four green beans”. When you set limits like that, it can be easier for your child to understand.
Use “First/Then” Language
If your child must complete a non-preferred activity, set the expectation and let them do something they enjoy after. For instance, if they do not like to help put dishes away, you can say “First, we will put the dishes away, then we can play outside”. This can help your child get through the harder task because they know they get to do something fun after. I do this for my daughter ALL THE TIME and it seems to help her a ton!
I try to think about how frustrated I would be if my “boss” made me do a lot of hard work and never paid me. That would be terrible, and I would quit said job! So remember, when you ask your child to do some “work” (something that is hard for them), it’s helpful to give them some sort of paycheck for what they did. One of my favorite “paychecks” is just allowing your child to do a favorite activity after they have completed a difficult task.
Use the “first/then” phrase before you start the hard activity, and remind your child about the preferred activity they can do after finishing the hard stuff throughout the non-preferred task.
Give Choices When Possible
Toddlers live in this crazy world where most of their day is dictated by someone else. As babies, this is usually okay, but toddlers are growing in their desire for independence and preference for certain things. Often they want to be in control, but they just aren’t. So we can give them little choices. Get creative with giving them choices so that you still have ultimate control. Giving them some control (even if it’s kind of made up) can ease transitions.
If they are doing a non-preferred activity like cleaning up their toys, let them choose if they want to clean up the books or the stuffed animals. If they have to get into the car to leave the park, ask them if they want to march to the car or walk to the car. If they need to go to the doctor’s office, ask them if they want to wear their sunglasses or their hat. Give them choices so they feel in control, while they are still doing the task you need them to do.
Giving choices is truly one of my favorite strategies because it’s so dang effective! And if you practice doing it more often, it becomes really easy.
Talk About It…Or Don’t!
As a speech-language pathologist, I want to talk about everything. I talk to our kids through the routine, through hard parts of the day, during the fun times, and pretty much all the time. I always want to talk it out.
However, my husband is the master of nonverbals and is generally much less talkative than I am. I learned from him that sometimes not talking about the transition can be a good strategy too. In our house, we find this strategy especially helpful if our little one is already having a rough day (maybe a little sick or a little tired, or just being a cranky toddler).
If we have to do a non-preferred activity on a day that is already rocky, chances are if we talk about the hard thing beforehand, my toddler will just lose it before the activity even gets started. In that way, it’s best if we don’t give her tons of preparation, but we just dive right into the task.
This suggestion you really have to feel out. Because in most cases, I really do believe that setting expectations, giving choices, and talking through what is going to happen is beneficial. You just have to be aware of your child’s state and how their mood might affect their willingness to do something hard.
Sing Between Activities
I love singing. I am that ridiculous mom who is singing made-up silly songs or old favorites for a good chunk of my day. Music has tons of benefits for children (and if you want to know more about that, check out my article about it here). Singing can be key in helping your child have a successful transition.
Singing does a few things to help with transitions. For one, it just lifts your mood. Singing makes things feel more fun and less burdensome. We sometimes use a clean-up song to help my little one who doesn’t always want to help put things away. I even use singing for my baby when we have to do a diaper change because it makes a less than pleasant task a little more pleasant. I also consistently sing a silly song (or two) when we have to end bath time because that can be hard in my house.
You can also use songs as a cue that an activity is coming to a close, or a new one is starting. If you choose the same song to sing every time you want your child to clean up, they will hear the song and know what’s coming. We used this strategy in the preschools I worked in, and I use it in my home.
A side note, if you aren’t interested in singing yourself, you can definitely get a Youtube video of a song, or get a Spotify playlist specifically for your kids. You don’t have to be musically gifted to use songs as a strategy to help you and your toddler with transitions.
Keep a Consistent Routine
Remember how I mentioned that children want to be in charge or feel like they have some sense of control? By having a consistent routine every day (or most days) they know what to expect, and it feels less hectic. Children will know that (for instance) after they pick up their toys from the morning, they get to do some fun play at the table. This will help them move throughout the day easier.
If you want to get fancy (or you just feel like your child could benefit from this), you can make your own visual schedule for the day. It can feel like an overwhelming task to make your day into a visual schedule, but it really is a worthwhile project if it can help your child transition. Check out this helpful guide for how to make a visual schedule from the University of South Florida.
Give a Warning Before You Finish
This one is simple and straightforward. Your child will likely benefit from a warning that it’s time to leave, time to clean up, or time to be done with a certain activity. Simply say, “Five more minutes before we are all done”, or something similar. I also like to have the child repeat back to me what I said so I know they heard my warning.
Make Things Visual
This is one of my favorite strategies if your child has an especially hard time with transitions. It is also a frequent idea used for children with language delays or disabilities and children on the autism spectrum. But it can be great for just about anyone! By making time visual, kids can have a much better idea of what you mean when you say “five more minutes”.
The concept is simple-show the child what five more minutes look like. You can do that by using sand timers or a visual timer. These are my favorite sand timers because they are big and have a variety of times. This is my favorite visual timer because it is simple and comes in a variety of colors.
Have a “Transition Object”
This is another great strategy for kids that have an especially hard time with transitions. There are a few different ways you can use this strategy. For some children, you might just give them a toy (stuffed animal, block, or some other preferred object) to hold while they are transitioning between activities. This can be helpful if you consistently use the object to cue your child that one activity is coming to a close and another activity is about to start.
You can also get more specific by using a variation on the visual schedule I mentioned before. You can take pictures of places around your house or destinations you often visit to use as a transition object. After you take the pictures, you may want to print them and get them laminated so they can be used multiple times (I really like this affordable, small laminator that we use at our house.) Then, when you are on your way to the next place (whether you are headed to the grocery store or to nap time) you can give your little one a picture of the destination so they know where they are going.
If you want more information on transitions for children with autism, check out this great resource by Indiana University.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
How do I help my 2 year old with transitions?
1. Set expectations for how long an activity will last.
2. Use first/then language to tell them what is happening now, and what will happen next. For example, you could say, “first we are going to clean up, then we are going to have a snack”.
3. Give them choices when possible so they feel like they have some control.
4. Have a consistent routine.
5. Give them visual cues to help them know what is going to happen next.
Why are transitions so hard for toddlers?
Transitions are hard for toddlers for a few different reasons. One of the main reasons is that toddlers often feel like they have very little control or independence, which they want more and more of as they grow. It’s also difficult to transition because toddlers don’t have a great concept of time, which makes it hard to understand how the schedule fits together in a day. Additionally, transitions are difficult because toddlers don’t have a great reference for future things. Even if they get to do something fun later, they are stuck in what is happening right in front of them.
How do I transition my toddler from one activity to another?
You can use a variety of transition strategies to help your toddler. You can use first/then language to help them know what is coming next. For example, you can say, “first we need to clean up, then we can have a snack”. Another idea is to give your toddler choices between a few small things during the transition so they feel like they have some control. For instance, you could choose between marching to the car or skipping to the car when you leave the park.