Promoting Smooth Transitions

Have you ever noticed how difficult it is for many young children to move (or transition) between activities or environments? For example, while on the playground, 4-year-old Maddie may be playful, content, and social. But when it’s time to change to something else (say to line up, go inside, or settle in for quiet time), she may become angry, frustrated, sad, or teary-eyed.

Or take the example of 3-year-old Alex. He’s building a house with blocks and pretending that he’s a superhero. When his mom asks him to clean up because it is now bedtime, Alex begins to protest, shouting “No!” and throwing blocks.

If your child attends child care or preschool, you may have also noticed that your child (or another child) has difficulty transitioning to the classroom at the beginning of the day, and/or from the classroom at the end of the day. For example, 2-year-old Gabriel cries when his mother drops him off in the morning and clings to her leg. It takes his mother a long time to feel comfortable with leaving Gabriel and even longer for Gabriel to begin playing with other children.

Transitions from outdoor to indoor play, from activity to bedtime, and from home to child care or preschool are just a few examples of the many “transitions” that your child may experience each day.

Depending on factors like your child’s age and temperament, transitions may be easier or more difficult. And transitions are affected by more than just child characteristics. For example, the kind of home or child care environment your child experiences, as well as the kinds of relationships your child shares with other people can all contribute to how he or she responds to transitions—both big and small.

When we talk about children making the transition to kindergarten for example, researchers such as Sara Rimm-Kaufman and Robert Pianta emphasize the role that children, schools, peers, families, and even neighborhoods all play in the transition process. By looking at what the child brings to the world and what the environment offers, we may better understand how to help children with the transition process.

When thinking about how to facilitate or guide smooth transitions for children, it may be helpful to first consider the ways you and other “grown-ups” respond to transitions. For example, many of us need a cup of tea or coffee to help us with our morning transition from bed to the workday. Others may need “down time” at the end of the day before having dinner or interacting with children, spouses, or partners. After particularly intense meetings or phone conversations, we may need to give ourselves a bit more time before continuing on with our daily activities. At the end of the day, when bedtime is approaching, we may need a few minutes of TV, a hot bath, or the comfort of a good novel to help us as we leave the day behind and turn in for the evening.

So as you can see adults, too, face many transitions each day. However, unlike children (who may look to adults for guidance and assistance when transitioning) adults often know how to get the time, space, or help they need to make their daily transitions easier.

Transitions can be those things that happen on a daily or regular basis (such as the examples described above), as well as those experiences that occur once or rarely such as the transition into kindergarten or into elementary school or the transition to being a big sister or brother.

Some examples of “big” and “little” transitions:

At childcare:
• Arrival and departure
• Changing between activities like indoor and outdoor play or lunch and nap
• Moving from home-based care to center-based care
• Switching from one child care center to another
• Transitioning from an infant to toddler class; from a toddler to preschool class

At home:
• Getting ready for bed each night
• Adding or losing a family member or household resident
• The birth or adoption of a sibling
• Moving to a new home, city, or state
• Changes for parent(s) (such as work schedule or wellbeing)
• Overnights or visits with other grandparents or a non-custodial parent

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