The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.
– Alan Watts
From waking up to eating breakfast, playing with toys to going to school, homework time to dinner time, transitions punctuate every day. Because we are creatures of inertia (remember “a body at rest stays at rest” from science class?), these transitions can be challenging for children and stressful for parents. Have you ever watched in awe as a parent on the playground says “Time to go.” and their kids come running and they leave quickly and easily? Maybe transitions run smoothly for them because each individual in their family can quickly switch gears. However, it is more likely that the parents have set clear expectations ahead of time and, perhaps, offered practice opportunities prior to that moment.
There are numerous strategies educators use to ease transitions throughout the day. After all, instead of asking three children to change activities, they have to direct twenty to thirty children. In order to facilitate smooth movements, educators proactively teach routines, provide regular reminders and reinforcements, use quieting techniques, employ sounds and lead games to change the energy and prepare students for their next activity. These teaching techniques may sound like extra work and may not seem necessary, but actually they help children practice a fundamental brain function, one of the “executive functions” called cognitive flexibility.[i] This flexibility has been found to be a necessary pre-condition for academic achievement. These physical transitions can help children practice mental jumps as they move from thinking about their Legos construction to putting away all toys in the living room. Children need to be able to hold several thoughts in their heads and move to new thoughts and activities fairly quickly. This practice helps them exercise this ability to switch gears.
You too can become adept at transitions in your household. First, think about which transitions might need some work. When do you get aggravated, anxious or frustrated with your children? Which transitions in the day tend to be consistently challenging? Check out the strategies below and try one out to see if it can work for you.
Co-create a plan. Though you can initiate games galore to create an enjoyable transition, nothing replaces the creation of a routine plan together. If you are struggling with moving from playtime to bedtime preparations, sit down together with a big blank poster when there is not time pressure. Talk about the transition. What usually happens? What needs to be accomplished during that time? How can you plan it out so that it can go smoothly? Should you set a timer after dinner to go off when playtime is over and clean up begins? Would your children prefer a five minute warning? How will each step proceed from there – from cleaning up toys, to changing into pajamas, to brushing teeth, to the selection of bedtime books. Formalize your plan in writing – and/or with drawings. Be sure both you and your children create the poster. The more involved they are the better so that they own the process you are discussing. Refer to it and use it as a reminder before the transition begins. With some practice, you may find your transitions moving more smoothly.
Set clear expectations. When you are not rushing somewhere or transitioning to a different activity, talk about the transition that is challenging. You might even try out a family meeting to work on problem solving and gather input from all family members if the transition applies to all. Again, ask “What needs to happen when we move from breakfast to getting dressed for school?” and “How can accomplish it in a way in which we get our jobs done?” The sub-text, of course, is that we get our jobs done without Mommy nagging, cajoling, bribing, yelling, hassling or generally getting frustrated by the lack of progress.
Draw a magic bubble. In my family, it seemed the moment we would sit down to dinner, the phone would ring. E would ask each night to bring toys to the table (to which, our consistent response was “No.”). The doorbell would buzz. And our family dinner, which was supposed to be a sacred time for connecting, would be chaotic. So we began drawing a magic bubble. Each family member walked around the table chanting a magic word of their choosing waving a wand (we used toy wands) to create the bubble before we sat down to eat. This action signified that there were to be no electronic devices at the table, no toys, just our family members present with one another sitting and enjoying food and drink together. The magic bubble could be drawn for cleaning up toys to focus solely on that task alone or it could be drawn for the activities involved with bedtime. The key to the magic bubble is that all participate in drawing it and maintaining it. And when it is broken, the magic is broken and so too, the rules and expectations of that activity.
Use sounds. Recently, I watched a storyteller use a slide whistle to great effect with young children. She told them to raise their hands as they heard the whistle sound go up and put hands down as the sound lowered. Not only did hands go up and down, but their attention and focus went with it. Many teachers who use the Responsive Classroom approach use chimes to gain children’s attention. Find a gentle sound that can be heard above other noises but is not abrasive or loud. Some teachers use a clap pattern that children are expected to repeat. “Clap, clap – pause – clap, clap, clap” Or use the sound of your voice. “Who can hear me?” said in a moderate tone can start off the transition. Next, “Who can hear me?” in a quieter voice can begin to gather children’s attention. Finally in a whisper “Who can hear me?” can quiet a group of children. Be sure that you finish what you’ve begun. Relay your instructions for their next activity in a soft, hushed voice so that they continue to give you their focused attention.
Try the freeze game. What young child doesn’t love the freeze game? I have yet to meet one. You can use the freeze game effectively for transitions if you introduce it and have your children practice in advance. Again, find a time and space when there is no time pressure. Introduce the freeze game by asking children to play and then, freeze when you call out the word. Try not to yell “Freeze.” Model your own “inside voice.” If they have to strain to hear you, that will call their attention to you in a more productive way than yelling. They will also learn to listen to your “inside voice.” While they are frozen, give them the next instruction. Try to break down your transition activity into the smallest steps possible so that they have clear expectations for what they should be doing and get plenty of practice. For example, “Freeze” (maintaining your quiet voice), “Get up out of your seats and quietly push your chairs in.” “Freeze.” “Walk over to the living room and gently and neatly place one toy in the bin.” “Freeze…”
Do a song or dance dress rehearsal. Inserting fun into your routines can help engage children and allow for a smoother transition. Find a song you and your children know by heart and practice the transition while singing the song. It does not need to be a song that guides what you are doing in the transition (i.e. “Now I put on my boots.”) but rather, just a song that is one they will remember and be able to sing easily. I typically can think of only the most basic songs like, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” “Happy Birthday,” “Jingle Bells” (my son loves this one and it doesn’t have to be in season) or “You are my Sunshine.” You may also use the rhythm of the song to guide your movements. Zip up your coat to the beat. Or you may choreograph a fairy princess dance ahead of time during which you glide across the floor while picking up toys. Children can’t help but get engaged in the fun of the transition and you just might enjoy it too!
Remind and reinforce. Whenever you are about to move into a transition, be certain to remind your children that it is coming. This is critical to pave the way for the success of any strategy you try. Also, when the transition has been made, reinforce how well it went. Be sure and recognize small steps toward a smooth transition. “I notice how you moved quickly from the dinner table to clean up. Keep up the good work.” Even if it is still a challenge, give it time. If your children reduced the time in cleaning up or didn’t hassle you as much in getting out of the door, recognize progress and effort made.
Make certain that whatever strategies you choose to employ, you are consistent. Children will be able to buzz through the routine only if it’s a process that is repeated each time. At my home in Ohio as winter drags on, it’s easy to get into bad habits of running late or nagging when routines are not going smoothly. Reinvigorate your routines by trying out one of the above ideas and see if you can add some fun and energy to your household.
For more on the morning routine, check out the previous post, “A Truly Good Morning.”
For more on the dinner routine, check out the previous post, “Dinner: Delight or Disaster?”
For more on the transition from preschool to kindergarten, check out the previous post, “In Between Here and There.”
[i] National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2011). Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function. Center on the Developing Child. Harvard University.