Community Psychiatric Centers
Monroeville, Greensburg, Monessen, and Wilkinsburg Pittsburgh

July 10, 2023

Managing Transitions Between Activities

The Challenge Of Getting Your Child To Move Between Activities And Tasks

Interestingly, transitions can be a challenging prospect. For neurotypical and atypical/diverse kiddos alike, transitioning from favored to disliked tasks, or even from any given activity to another, can be daunting and met with resistance, emotion, defiance, and tantrums. In fact, difficulty with activity transitions is a top-three complaint from parents regarding their kiddo’s.

Why Are These Transitions A Problem?

Well, there are likely a number of reasons. Really, who wants to transition from a fun and enjoyable task (playing with toys, watching TV, drawing, playing with technology) to emptying the garbage, doing homework, or having to sit quietly and attentively for dinner? The same is true for adults. How much do we want to stop reading our favorite book to do the laundry or cut the grass? And how much do we appreciate pestering and cajoling to do so?

However, what about moving from one fun task to another equally fun activity? For example: moving between activities or transitioning to circle time in a preschool or Kindergarten. There could be any number of issues to consider in that case. Included in this, children with autism having a strong need for ‘sameness.’ Moving to a different activity is ‘change’ and perceived as unsettling. They often feel the need to fully complete a task before moving to another. 

What To Do?

Let’s review some options. We often focus only on the first phase of any transition, which is a good start, but insufficient. So, in this post we’ll take a look at all three phases, and the differences between younger and older children. 

Targeting the three phases of activity transitions:

  • Phase 1: Preparing to move from one activity to another.
  • Phase 2: Moving from the first activity to the other.
  • Phase 3: After the transition.

Phase 1: Activity Transition Preparation

This is the most-often discussed phase. Most of us are pretty aware of how to prepare and prompt a child to make activity transitions. We may give verbal warnings; 5 minutes, 3 minutes, and one-minute out. Or even the more helpful visual timer so the child ‘see’ the time elapse. A child-friendly song or bell that emits when time elapses can help too. Move closer as the time draws closer, so the verbal warnings can be a whisper in their ear as you get softer and closer’.

Even better is a written or visual schedule. This way the child can ‘see’ the next activity that features the child smiling and having fun in the next project. We keep very consistent routines so the next activity is expected and anticipated.  

Phase 2: The Move

Now it’s time to make the move; what to do? There are any number of options. It may be helpful to use a visual cue such as flickering the lights on-and-off, or an auditory cue like singing the clean-up song. A fun song can play as a further auditory cue (with a brief time of dancing before clean-up and transitioning to the next task). You can ‘prime’ for the next activity by giving the child a fun/enticing item for the next project (while still cleaning up) to reinforce the move.

For example, if the next activity is finger painting, you may show the child the colorful paints that are going to be used, or completed paintings from others. You can even have a child from the finger-painting walk with the child while explaining how much fun it is.

Enlist Their Help

Children also like to help, so have them carry some items that will be needed to complete the next activity. Interestingly, kids seem to like the challenge of carrying heavier or larger objects, so try to incorporate something that is a challenge. We can also make the transition more activity-based. As we move from one activity to another, we see how many times they can bounce a ball on the way to the next activity, or do a hula-hoop, skip, or jump on one leg… anything to make it fun.

If the task is very disliked (homework), you can prime by giving an example of the homework while still ending the prior task. The example homework would show a subject of interest and strength, and the child would be reminded he’ll get a break of 10 minutes to do a favorite activity. If the homework is about sharks, the child can be given a toy shark on the way to the homework table. Children can also be reminded of the importance of earning stickers and what can be purchased with the stickers upon completion of the task.

Phase 3: After The Activity Transition

Phase 3 depends on the activity. If it is potentially equally favored (moving to dinner) then include a favored meal item and have it front-and-center on the table or plate (back to Phase 2: give your child a picture of the favored meal).

If it’s favored to disliked, then that’s a bit more of a challenge. The same steps can be used for Phases 1 and 2, and once the child has encountered the disliked task, make it pleasant as possible. Use your imagination: if it’s homework, break it down into smaller segments and start with the easiest and more fun assignment. If it’s a chore, remind your child of the sticker chart and make it a game; set a timer to see how fast they can get it done compared to you or a sibling. If it’s a series of tasks (getting off to school in the morning) keep it fast-paced, stay close, give lots of kudos, and most importantly remove all distractions.

You may need to deal with a sibling so you can’t always remain in close proximity. In this case, use a recorder (or Alexa) to verbally prompt the child every 30 seconds (“Hi Joey, finish getting dressed…”). A recorder can also be used to provide verbal reinforcement every few minutes (“Joey, keep working on your homework…”).

Helping Older Children And Teens With Activity Transitions

Some of the above suggestions regarding Phases 1-3 can also pertain to some older children and teens. However, with teens, we tend to rely more on reasoning and negotiating, and natural consequences. In that respect, in this sense, with teens, we’re getting away from dealing directly with ‘transitions’ and simply targeting task completion.

In that respect, a sit-down with the teen, discuss the task(s) that need to be done, negotiate an agreement regarding how and when tasks will be completed, and the natural consequences when they don’t get done. What’s a natural consequence? Any outcome that is a natural outcome of the child’s behavior. For example, speeding results in a ticket, not doing homework results in failing grades (having to repeat), not bringing laundry downstairs results in having no clean clothes… Or, more generally, if the youth does not help out around the house, then you remove your services from them.

Encourage Being Helpful To Each Other

Parents often don’t realize how much their teens depend on them, for everything. If your teen is not holding up their end, they can do their own laundry, prepare their own meals (and of course, you’re not going to purchase their favored food and snack items), and find their own transportation, of course they won’t have a phone or video games because how will they pay for them? And you have to buy them clothes, but it’s up to you where you buy them from (Nordstrom or Goodwill?). Your child asks you for something… “So, you want me to drive you to your friend’s house, hmmm, I recall how you responded this morning when I asked you to make your bed…”). May sound tough-love-ish, but those are natural consequences. Their participation in your expectations is a way to help prepare them for adulthood.

It’s vital that your reaction is without any emotion, no pestering, and matter-of-fact. This approach can be used for neuro-diverse teens who are more challenged, as with Level 2 autism, but the ‘natural consequences’ may be more child-oriented and more ‘when/then’ in nature (see below).

Transitioning Away From Electronics

Moving from an electronic activity can be difficult at any age. Especially so for older children and teens who become emotional, throw tantrums, or even be combative when told to stop screen time. In these instances, the following is advised and can be used for a child of any age:

  • Keep a consistent and clearly defined schedule and routine that includes the ‘windows of opportunity’ when video games are permitted.
  • Utilize a reward system for handling the structure and routine with compliance.
  • Rather than verbally prompting or physically intervening to remove the video games (playing tug-of-war with the controller), instead consider the many devices that can directly connect to the router and give you complete control of all devices in the home through your smartphone. Using such devices, that are only a Google search away, you can use your phone to control any given device being used in your home and schedule start-stop times so the device automatically stops without you needing to directly intervene. You’ll need to take different measures with your child’s smartphone given he or she can use ‘data’ to bypass WIFI. Most smartphones also have parental controls that can be set up ahead of time. This puts you in a more neutral position for electronic activity transitions.

When/Then: The Traditional Way To Enforce Activity Transitions

A tried-and-true method of compelling compliance to transitioning is the ‘when/then’ approach. This entails calmly and nonchalantly expressing that upon transitioning, ‘when’ a task is done, ‘then’ the child can have access to a given favored activity/item. In this scenario, the time frame may not necessarily be important or enforced. Rather, it's simply a matter of getting a particular task completed before access to another favored activity is granted. I.e: "you have to empty the garbage before you can go be with your friends"… Or, “When you complete your homework, then you can play video games”.

Hope That Helps!

Activity transitions can be difficult and sometimes there is simply no way around the resistance and outburst. You simply compel the issue, ignore it, and carry on. However, the aforementioned tips can possibly remedy the issue, or at least make it less averse and problematic. Feel free to check out more tips at HelpForYourChild.com, where you can also make an appointment. Or, reach out at DrCarosso@aol.com with any questions. God bless. 

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