How to Make for Smoother Transitions Throughout the Day

Getting Kids from Point A to Point B

By Janice Wells

Hearing that it's time to go to the park, your child yelps with joy and races off to snag a pair of sneakers. Ten minutes later he is still there, shoeless, changed into pirate's gear and building a block castle. What happened?

Even when children want to participate in an upcoming event, moving from one activity or location to the next can sometimes prove a real challenge - no matter the age.

For example, a short attention span and an intense interest in her surroundings can cause a very young child to lose focus when making the transition from one situation to another, notes Rex Forehand, Ph.D., co-author of  Parenting the Strong-Willed Child. Since preschoolers and toddlers generally understand "now" but not units of time in the future, such as "15 minutes from now," they can appear to resist getting ready for future activities.

Even school-age children can also have trouble meeting the hurry-up demands of a grown-up's world.

"Adults move at a pace that isn't always in synch with the rhythm of understanding that children use to focus in the here-and-now," says Mimi Doe, author of Busy But Balanced: Practical and Inspirational Ways to Create a Calmer, Closer Family. "As a result, sometimes we disengage kids from their natural pace and expect them to meet ours."

For example, a child might be in the midst of intently studying a spider's web and attempting to draw what she sees right when you need to go somewhere. She naturally becomes less than enthusiastic when interrupted with statements such as, "Quick, in the car, we need to pick up your sister from soccer practice!" or "Hurry up, don't dawdle, it's time to go to school!" But transition troubles can improve with parental help.

What Parents Can Do

As a first step, assess the situation at hand. Then, depending on your child's reaction, mix and match the following tips to help your child successfully reach any point in a "personal best" time:

  • Explain the big picture. In the morning, give kids an idea of what the rest of the day will be like, advises Doe. You can say, "Tina, you will have school today, then lunch with me, shopping in the early afternoon and then the rest of the afternoon to do what you'd like."

  • Provide several timely updates. Give children clear warnings as the time for departure or transition becomes closer. For example, "Sam, it's lunchtime now, and we will be going to Grandma's house soon after. If you begin building a castle now, you may need to finish it when we get back."

  • Define responsibilities. Tell your child specifically what he needs to do now for the next activity: get his coat to go to Grandma's house, clear his crayons from the table so there's room to bake cookies, etc. Praise or thank him when he follows through.

  • Set limits. Give a five- to 15-minute warning and set a timer so your child can hear when she needs to move on. Or, if she's watching a TV program, tell her that at the end of the show, it will be time to go. If she's playing a game, let her know at what point in the game she'll need to stop.

  • Make it a game. "Sometimes we'd walk backward down the driveway, clap hands or quack like a duck," mom Nancy Curry says of some of the games she tries to keep her 2-year-old on track. Kids can hop like bunnies to find their shoes, dance to the front door or tiptoe all the way to the car. Older kids can have fun racing.

  • Shift gears gradually. If your child seems too absorbed in his play to change activities, encourage him to give up what he's doing by involving him in the transition. Curry found that offering Sammi special jobs, such as pushing the garage door button or carrying her mom's purse to the car, helped persuade her to abandon her toys for her jacket and shoes. Older kids can make sure pets are secured, the TV is turned off or the doors are locked.

  • Turn on some tunes. Provide a soundtrack, suggests Marlene Barron, Ph.D., author of Ready, Set, Cooperate. To get a slow child to move quickly, sing a lively tune, such as "Yankee Doodle," or put on a favorite fast-paced CD and match the music's rhythm as you help her get ready to go out.

  • Provide a chance to choose. Ask how she would like to end her current activity. Would she like to put her doll down for a nap? Turn off the video by herself? If she seems uncertain about how to end a current activity, suggest alternatives. For example, let her know she can pause the video and finish watching it at a later time. Or, help her figure out a safe place to put her current art project and talk about a good time to complete it.

  • Present positive, fun payoffs. If you're going someplace your child dislikes - such as a doctor's office where she remembers getting a shot - promise that something fun will happen there or soon afterward. Suggest reading a story together in the waiting room or stopping for ice cream on the way home. Used sparingly, such rewards are positive reinforcements, says Forehand. Keep the interval between the dreaded activity and the treat short.

  • Build time into your schedule to accommodate your child's leisurely pace. Including a certain amount of free time in your agenda can help your children feel less rushed, suggests Doe. With a little planning, not only will you both feel less stressed, but both you and your child will be able to successfully move from point A to point B - in record time.

Janice Wells is a freelance writer and mother of two.