The Stress of Transitions

I’m sure this has never happened to any of you:

You’ve had a wonderful breakfast with your child.  They even cleaned up their dish by placing it in the sink.  Once they got up from the table, they went to the living room and started playing with their cars.  They have a small set up, they’ve only taken out 5 cars, and they are pretending they are in a race.  You watch them quietly and they have a huge smile on their face when they see you standing there.  It’s now time to go to school.

“Sally, please clean up it’s time to go to school.”

At first Sally ignores you. “Maybe she didn’t hear me”, you think.

You go over to her, “Sally, please clean up it’s time to go to school.”

She turns away, says “no” under her breath and keeps playing.

Now it is getting late, you’re going to be late for work.  You again go over to her and “NOOOOO!!!! I don’t want to go to school! I hate school!”

If this had happened to you, do you know what to do?  Do you know why it happened after such a lovely morning?

Let us help you!

Early Childhood is a unique time; so many changes happen faster at this time than any other time in a person’s life.  Children are creating themselves from the world around them.  They learn to move, talk, eat, take care of themselves, form a personality, all before they are able to fully reason.

Children start their journey into reasoning around 3 years old, however, a strong basic understanding of right vs wrong isn’t seen until closer to 7 years old.  Reasoning allows for children to abstract.  During this time, the best way for children to learn is using concrete, real materials with pretend that is based on reality.  As children learn to read, do math computations, and tell time, they are starting to abstract.  This abstraction leads to a whole new learning experience.

Before this happens, children and adults often struggle to understand each other.  As a reasoning minded adult, I want to talk things through, convince a person through this discussion to do something or not do something.  The child who is not yet able to reason, especially when emotions are high or they are tired, looks at the world only in how it impacts them and what they want in that moment.  Dr. Maria Montessori called this the hormé.

The hormé, according to Montessori, is the child’s unconscious urge to do “something.”  This urge helps the children become themselves by allowing the child to learn about the world and how they fit into it to form their personality. As the will develops, the hormé decreases. When the will takes over, this signals the end of absorption learning (learning by observation) and the beginning of directed learning (learning by desire to learn).

Transitions are a time when we see stress in children due to the hormé.

What are transitions?

Transitions happen when your child has to stop doing one activity and start doing something else.

Young children depend on consistent and predictable routines. They gain much of their sense of security from familiar adults, items and routines. They are especially sensitive to change – even the smallest changes can cause stress. While daily changes and transitions are often unavoidable, it is important to be aware of and consider the impact they may have on very young children. Understand that a child’s temperament plays a major role in how they adapt to changes. As adults we can plan ways to help children feel secure, while considering the individualized needs of the child.

When your child is engrossed in an activity that they are enjoying, it’s hard for them to get their brain to switch tracks.  Children have less control of their lives. They don’t make the timetable or choose where they are going or what they are doing. This makes it more frustrating for them to have to stop something they are enjoying.

Going from home to school and school to home can be particularly difficult for many children. Children will experience different rules, stimuli, and people in school and home.  Some children have a hard time with just the time period of the transition.  Once they are at school or at home, they are fine.  This can be due to the differences in the home and school, being excited or unsure, but not knowing yet how to express these feelings, and some children hold in their emotions all day because they only want to express them with a parent or in the comfort of their own home.

We want to offer some steps to support you in helping your child through transitions.

First and foremost is the establishment of trust with and in your child.  Your child has a drive, and idea of how to propel themselves.  At this age they are establishing their own initiative.  As adults, we must acknowledge this initiative.

When you observe your child is in the midst of a project, let them know you see that. Go to their level and talk with them when they pause to look up at you.  “I see you are working on matching.”  This acknowledgement shows that you are interested in your child and gives them positive feedback.

Once this trust is established, then a child has a better ability to understand and be open to a transition.  Even with the establishment of trust, a child will need time and direction to move to the next thing.

Below are some tips to help you through different scenarios.

In the moment:

  1. Acknowledge that you seek your child in the midst of a work.
    1. “I see you are writing a letter.”
  2. Give your child some time to move on and let them know what comes next.
    1. “In 5 minutes, we will be heading to school where you will see Johnny.”
  3. Stay with your child and offer a partnership of clean up.
    1. “Fold up the letter and place it in your envelope and I’ll put away your pencil.”
  4. If your child refuses or gets upset, don’t move into a power struggle, find a way to distract and talk later.
    1. “I have your walrus in the car for your “w” sound of the week, let’s go make sure it’s buckled in.”
  5. Once your child is calm and has done what you’ve asked, then you can bring up what happened.
    1. “I saw that you were upset when it was time to go to school. I get upset when I’m in the middle of things sometimes too.  I find when I’m upset, I usually want a hug to feel better.  Do you want a hug?”

If you have time to prepare a child for their transition:

  1. Let the child know the steps in which something will happen. Since children of this age aren’t abstracting yet and can’t tell time, they need more concrete schedules to support them.
    1. “You are going to go to school, do a work cycle, play outside, eat lunch, take a nap, go back outside, then I will pick you up and we will change at the school then we will go to swimming.”
  2. Sometimes, children need visuals to help them remember what comes next. You can place a note in your child’s lunch box (if they are reading you can just have the words like above, and if not, you can do a card with pictures.)
    1. “Remember, after lunch today you are going to take a nap, go outside, then I will pick you up and we will change for swimming! I can’t wait to see you later.”
  3. Remind children of their expectations for where you are going and ask them questions that help them remember the agreements/rules. Try to keep these in the positive until you have established your child is well aware of the rules.”
    1. When you are assessing if your child knows the rule: “At swimming, you will listen to the coach. Remind me, where are you allowed to jump into the pool?” or “At swimming, you will listen to the coach.  Can you jump into the pool when the coach is watching you and you are standing on the red circle on the side of the pool? – Yes! That keeps you safe and is really fun.”
    2. When you know your child is aware of the rule: “At swimming, you will listen to the coach. Do you run and jump into the pool by the stairs? – NOOOO that would be unsafe.”
  4. The more you develop rituals with your child, the more they will understand and be comfortable with their transitions. Changes, no matter how small, can be difficult for a child and it may take them longer to process.
    1. “I know that daddy usually takes you to swimming, but he isn’t feeling well so I get to take you. I’m so excited to see you swim that I came to school a few minutes early.”

Other tips:

  • If you know that a child is going to struggle with an upcoming transition, give him/her (and yourself) LOTS of extra time to make the switch from one activity to another. Most of these transition strategies take time, so make sure you leave yourself plenty of wiggle room
  • Try to avoid making countdown threats. “if you don’t do what I say by the time I count to 10, you will lose something.” These often lead to power struggles and a child may think “either I have to back down or I will lose your love and approval.”
    • You can use timing and timers in non-threatening ways and if they are already part of your routine. “When this 3-minute timer is up, it will be time to put away your coloring and join the family for dinner; we will all be at the table together.”

Remember, Children live in the moment—they’re not thinking about how they have to eat dinner or go to bed on time.  They are thinking about their own here and now only.  But preparation can help make transitions easier!

By: Candy Sturbaum and Jacquelyn Greenbaum