Clocks on a wall

Some rights reserved by woodleywonderworks via Flickr

By: Dawn Herman

Imagine you suddenly get called to a mandatory meeting.  “Now!” your boss tells you. No warning and no chance to wrap up what you’re working on. Put down your pen. Stop typing mid-sentence. Hang up the phone. Transitioning abruptly can be difficult for even the most flexible adult.  Now, imagine your toddler, whose work IS his play, is being told to shift gears that quickly and without much warning. Any parent can expect some unsavory behaviors to ensue. But there is hope! There are plenty of things to keep in mind as you help your child move through transitions each day.

  • First and foremost, remember toddlers are supposed to become engrossed in their activities—it’s normal.
  • Have realistic expectations about how long it might take to move from one activity to another. Pad your schedule accordingly. Being rushed can be our worst enemy.
  • Within reason, keep your child on a predictable schedule during the day. It can be flexible, of course, but knowing what to expect next will help your child feel less out of control, just like an agenda at a meeting helps an adult know what comes next.
  • Be respectful of your child’s work. Help your little one wrap up what he’s working on. Can you find a place to leave an unfinished puzzle for the night or a corner to leave a train set he’s been building before you leave for the store, instead of making him clean it all up?
  • Talk about what’s going to happen next. Use “first/then” language to notify your child of what’s happening next. “First grocery store, then home for lunch.” Or, “In three minutes we’re going home.” Kids don’t understand time but it’s introducing them to the language involved in future transitions.
  • Be careful not ask “Ok?” after a transition warning that has been given. Asking this question leaves your child feeling that this transition may be an option when it’s not.
  • Offer instructions in a positive tone. “Yum! You have a yummy lunch waiting at the table for you!” Instead of “Come to the table and get your lunch.”
  • Be consistent. If you give the direction, make sure to follow through.


Despite your best efforts, children are going to protest transitions occasionally (especially if you’ve had trouble being consistent in the past). It’s part of their job! Their frustration is a way to tell you they like what they’re doing, but it’s an opportunity to coach your child through typical human emotions.  Listen to what they’re saying and remark how frustrated/disappointed/sad they must be to make this change.  Giving your child firm and loving boundaries and appropriate language is planting the seeds for easier transitions down the road.  Your kids are worth it!

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