Why are transitions so hard?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  January 15, 2010 06:00 AM

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Hi Barbara,

I have a 3-year-old son who is receiving services for a significant speech/communication delay through the public preschool. He only goes twice a week and just started a few weeks ago. Besides the speech delay, he has a horrible time transitioning from things he enjoys to something else.

Example: Today at school it was time to leave the gym and he didn't want to leave. He proceeded to have a breakdown that lasted for quite a while. This was the first time he's done it there, but he does it very frequently at home and in public. It's noted on his IEP plan that this does occur and they have made it a goal to reduce the amount of times he has a tantrum when transitioning from things he enjoys to other things.

At home and when out and about, I try to use the "We'll be moving on to X in 5 minutes...", and continue until it's time to move on. This doesn't work, and I believe it's because he has no clue what I am saying or what the context of the statement means. This has led me to more often than not using the "Let's get a cookie/juice" bribe that does work. Do you have any other suggestions on how I can work on this with him? It is very embarrassing and so far the school hasn't given any suggestions on how to work with him on this (as I noted, this was the first time they've seen it). They just called to let me know he freaked out.

Thanks!

From: Nomoremeltdowns, Weymouth
Hi Nomoremeltdowns,

Your question prompted me to call psychologist Linda Budd of St. Paul, a family therapist and author who works with children who don't transition well.

"The first thing I tell parents," she said, "is that sometimes a transition issue isn't a transition issue. Think about the big picture: Is he well rested? Hungry? Sick?"

OK, that's kind of a no-brainer; we know that when any child is over-tired or hungry or sick, almost anything can be the proverbial straw. But then she goes on:

"How many transitions are being asked of this child? Are they well-timed or are you asking too much too quickly? A child's world doesn't move at the same fast pace as an adult's. A child with a developmental  or learning issue especially can't step up and be there for you as quickly as you  expect." When your demand outpaces their ability, they become frustrated and so do you, creating a power struggle on top of whatever else is going on.

When a child repeatedly has difficulty with transitions, Budd advises, "It isn't simply about, 'I don't want to do this next activity,' or, 'I need more warning to be able to stop.' He's sending you a signal that relates to his temperament and it's telling you, 'I don't have the built-in coping mechanisms, like flexibility, that some kids have.'"

These children don't just need warnings that a transition is around the bend, they need instructions, and sometimes they need accommodations.

An instruction might be, "It's time to say goodbye to the truck: 'Goodbye, truck!'"  "It's time to say hello to snack. 'Hi crackers!'" If that's difficult for him, she would say, "I know you can say goodbye to the truck. I know you can do this." She says, "Most kids want to do what they are asked to do. It's when we get lost in their anger or emotion that it trips them and us up. The message you want to be sending is, you can do this."

For instance, she might take a child's hand and say, "Let's say goodbye together. We're going to do this together." If you can see a tantrum about to begin, rather than "sit there and fight about it, keep moving him in the direction you believe he is capable of and you want him to him to go in. Pick him up and say goodbye." 

By accommodations, Budd means considering how much you are asking of a child. Your son is in preschool twice a week, which sounds reasonable. But how many hours each day? And how structured is the program? Maybe he can't handle more than two hours of structure and needs a low-key, family day care setting the rest of the day that puts less demands on him. Or maybe he just needs time to adjust; this is, after all, a big change. Good preschool programs enable children to be self-directed, that is to move from one activity area to another at their own pace. The number of times when they actually must transition -- from indoors to outside, from activity to snack -- are minimal, spaced-out and take into consideration that many children need help.

Keep in mind that routines help and it takes time for children to get used to routines. Your son may just need more time to adjust. But it's also fair to expect that the teachers will help you and him with this. If they are throwing up their hands and throwing it back at you, this is not a good place for your son.

Here's one last thing to consider, big picture-wise. How much of your attention does he have? Is it enough?

Budd said that some children have tantrums at transitions because they've learned that it's a good way to get a parent's attention. "It may be that if you move too quickly for him, if you're so tightly scheduled scheduled and busy,  the only way he can get your full attention is to have a tantrum because that's the only way he can stop you in your tracks."

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.



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8 comments so far...
  1. Before anything else happens, have his hearing checked.

    Maybe he just can't hear the warnings and signals to redirect his attention.

    Or maybe he can't hear well enough to be learning the new words
    as they come up in normal situations.

    Posted by Irene January 15, 10 09:12 AM
  1. My 3 1/2 yr old has had trouble with transitions for a long time. We use a lot of visuals as recommended by his preschool teacher and two speech/OT professionals. He's just too young to understand the "five more minutes" and verbal cues just don't work sometimes for a kid with language delays. We use a visual timer that shows the time ticking down (the one we use is from www.timetimer.com, but I think there are more out there) and we use pictures to show what's next.
    We've been told that the transition anxiety comes from a fear of not knowing what is next, so when we're out we draw pictures - first we're going to gym class, then we'll have dinner, and then we'll take a bath - or something like that. When we're having trouble with moving on to the next task, we just take out the pictures. It's time consuming at first, but so worth it in the end.

    Posted by Alysia January 15, 10 09:57 AM
  1. my 3 year old boy was the same way...he is better now with transitioning. However every now and then he still may have issues My son, like yours received services too. He is aged out and no longer qualifies for them but they have helped. Does your son have a diagnosis of anything? Or is it a simple delay that alot of children go through? All i am saying is that EI cannot diagnose only give you an indication to have him seen further. So with that said, it may not hurt to ask the person who works with your child if he/she advises that he be seen by a specialist for evaluation! If nothing else they can at least give you further insight and advice.

    Posted by Anonymous January 15, 10 11:31 AM
  1. Great advice from Barbara and Alysia! I just want to add that if you don't already have it, do get yourself a copy of "Raising Your Spirited Child" by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. "Spirited" is another way of looking at the traits, temperaments, and behaviors that are difficult to deal with. There is an entire chapter on adapability (or lack thereof) and many chapters on the nuts and bolts of getting your child through some of the more common problem points. My oldest son (now age 11) has many "spirited" traits and this book was a validating, sanity-saving lifeline for me when I first read it when he was 3. It was a relief - to both of us - to learn that what we were dealing with was just his temperament and that with compassion, understanding, and a lot if tricks that I learned I could help him manage his way in the world. It wasn't the fault of either of us that he wasn't an "easy" child (and still isn't), and you are most certainly not alone in this. If you pick up the book and a lot of it rings true for you, there is a messageboard on iVillage for parents of "spirited" pre-schoolers that offers lots of advice or just an understanding ear and you may find that helpful as well.

    Oh and another thing that helped was paying attention to my son's nutrition. We have always had a good diet with few artificial ingredients or processed foods and eat mostly "whole" foods but even that wasn't enough for him. Supplementation with fish oil and some other things (a nutritionist puts together a regimen and tweaks it as needed for us) went a long way towards evening out his moods and getting problem behavior, when it occurred, to be less extreme.

    Posted by Jen January 15, 10 03:33 PM
  1. I, too, had a "spirited" child. One thing that worked for us was a "transistional" object. A sitter of a friend suggested this and it worked great. My son received a small plastic animal when he left a place (it was an otter, I believe) and then gave it back to me when he came home. Everytime he transititioned he could have the otter (and if we had errands to do, he kept it until they were over). It was a good visual signal for him and better than bribes.

    Posted by Momof2boys January 15, 10 05:08 PM
  1. I know this is an old post but I just came across it and the question and comments were very helpful. I noticed that this is from 2010, if you are still reading, did any of these tips work well for you? I have a 3 year old with a speech delay who has tantrums whenever we leave a playdate or transition from one "fun" activity to another less appealing activity and no matter what I do, it alway ends with me carrying her out screaming and crying, which can be embaressing because she really is a very sweet girl but this other side comes out during times of transition. In any case, just wanted to say thank you for all these suggestions- I certainly want to give the visual cues and the transitional object a try.

    Posted by Kelly January 29, 13 07:16 AM
  1. Kelly you just described my son to a 'T', he has a speech delay and yes I carry him out of the park EVERY time, always have. We've just started him at nursery 2 hours a day last week and when transitioning from activities comes he ha a melt down and can't get out of his state of anger, ends up sobbing and I take him home upset. The next day he's raring to go to nursery and runs in to the other kids....I sit by the phone and hope he can go with the flow. I'm thinking of doing visuals too, would love a polaroid camera but they're so expensive may convince my husband to buy it for us. Let me know how you're getting on.

    Posted by Jess February 25, 13 10:14 PM
  1. My 4 yr old girl does it too.she loves to play with her classmate in her home but when it's time to leave,she JUST Won't listen.she cries and cries loudly and I have to carry her away.it's Very Very difficult to carry her away as I m not that strong. And it embarrasses me in front of her friends mom.it's like every day death to me or may b death would b even more peaceful than this.she also can't transition from one thing to other like playing or swimming..we spend 2-3 hrs if we go to pool. I am trying to b calm and understanding to her but she just tests me to the limit.all my neighbors r staring when I try to just do my thing with her.I don't want her to get labelled as a special kid or something.it's v v traumatic. I wish she becomes normal.

    Posted by Suzi April 7, 13 06:47 AM
 
8 comments so far...
  1. Before anything else happens, have his hearing checked.

    Maybe he just can't hear the warnings and signals to redirect his attention.

    Or maybe he can't hear well enough to be learning the new words
    as they come up in normal situations.

    Posted by Irene January 15, 10 09:12 AM
  1. My 3 1/2 yr old has had trouble with transitions for a long time. We use a lot of visuals as recommended by his preschool teacher and two speech/OT professionals. He's just too young to understand the "five more minutes" and verbal cues just don't work sometimes for a kid with language delays. We use a visual timer that shows the time ticking down (the one we use is from www.timetimer.com, but I think there are more out there) and we use pictures to show what's next.
    We've been told that the transition anxiety comes from a fear of not knowing what is next, so when we're out we draw pictures - first we're going to gym class, then we'll have dinner, and then we'll take a bath - or something like that. When we're having trouble with moving on to the next task, we just take out the pictures. It's time consuming at first, but so worth it in the end.

    Posted by Alysia January 15, 10 09:57 AM
  1. my 3 year old boy was the same way...he is better now with transitioning. However every now and then he still may have issues My son, like yours received services too. He is aged out and no longer qualifies for them but they have helped. Does your son have a diagnosis of anything? Or is it a simple delay that alot of children go through? All i am saying is that EI cannot diagnose only give you an indication to have him seen further. So with that said, it may not hurt to ask the person who works with your child if he/she advises that he be seen by a specialist for evaluation! If nothing else they can at least give you further insight and advice.

    Posted by Anonymous January 15, 10 11:31 AM
  1. Great advice from Barbara and Alysia! I just want to add that if you don't already have it, do get yourself a copy of "Raising Your Spirited Child" by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. "Spirited" is another way of looking at the traits, temperaments, and behaviors that are difficult to deal with. There is an entire chapter on adapability (or lack thereof) and many chapters on the nuts and bolts of getting your child through some of the more common problem points. My oldest son (now age 11) has many "spirited" traits and this book was a validating, sanity-saving lifeline for me when I first read it when he was 3. It was a relief - to both of us - to learn that what we were dealing with was just his temperament and that with compassion, understanding, and a lot if tricks that I learned I could help him manage his way in the world. It wasn't the fault of either of us that he wasn't an "easy" child (and still isn't), and you are most certainly not alone in this. If you pick up the book and a lot of it rings true for you, there is a messageboard on iVillage for parents of "spirited" pre-schoolers that offers lots of advice or just an understanding ear and you may find that helpful as well.

    Oh and another thing that helped was paying attention to my son's nutrition. We have always had a good diet with few artificial ingredients or processed foods and eat mostly "whole" foods but even that wasn't enough for him. Supplementation with fish oil and some other things (a nutritionist puts together a regimen and tweaks it as needed for us) went a long way towards evening out his moods and getting problem behavior, when it occurred, to be less extreme.

    Posted by Jen January 15, 10 03:33 PM
  1. I, too, had a "spirited" child. One thing that worked for us was a "transistional" object. A sitter of a friend suggested this and it worked great. My son received a small plastic animal when he left a place (it was an otter, I believe) and then gave it back to me when he came home. Everytime he transititioned he could have the otter (and if we had errands to do, he kept it until they were over). It was a good visual signal for him and better than bribes.

    Posted by Momof2boys January 15, 10 05:08 PM
  1. I know this is an old post but I just came across it and the question and comments were very helpful. I noticed that this is from 2010, if you are still reading, did any of these tips work well for you? I have a 3 year old with a speech delay who has tantrums whenever we leave a playdate or transition from one "fun" activity to another less appealing activity and no matter what I do, it alway ends with me carrying her out screaming and crying, which can be embaressing because she really is a very sweet girl but this other side comes out during times of transition. In any case, just wanted to say thank you for all these suggestions- I certainly want to give the visual cues and the transitional object a try.

    Posted by Kelly January 29, 13 07:16 AM
  1. Kelly you just described my son to a 'T', he has a speech delay and yes I carry him out of the park EVERY time, always have. We've just started him at nursery 2 hours a day last week and when transitioning from activities comes he ha a melt down and can't get out of his state of anger, ends up sobbing and I take him home upset. The next day he's raring to go to nursery and runs in to the other kids....I sit by the phone and hope he can go with the flow. I'm thinking of doing visuals too, would love a polaroid camera but they're so expensive may convince my husband to buy it for us. Let me know how you're getting on.

    Posted by Jess February 25, 13 10:14 PM
  1. My 4 yr old girl does it too.she loves to play with her classmate in her home but when it's time to leave,she JUST Won't listen.she cries and cries loudly and I have to carry her away.it's Very Very difficult to carry her away as I m not that strong. And it embarrasses me in front of her friends mom.it's like every day death to me or may b death would b even more peaceful than this.she also can't transition from one thing to other like playing or swimming..we spend 2-3 hrs if we go to pool. I am trying to b calm and understanding to her but she just tests me to the limit.all my neighbors r staring when I try to just do my thing with her.I don't want her to get labelled as a special kid or something.it's v v traumatic. I wish she becomes normal.

    Posted by Suzi April 7, 13 06:47 AM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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