Thinking Out Loud

Helping Kids With Transitions

It seems common sense to be direct in communication with others, asking clear questions and responding to what is said in a straightforward manner. In adult relationships we expect this, and in adult/child relationships we aspire to this.

Sometimes, however, it just isn’t effective with kids, especially during transitions. Transitions occur constantly. For example: “It’s time to wash your hands because supper is ready,” or “Remember, your room has to be cleaned up before you can go outside.” These types of situations involve parents giving kids direction to do this or that when the child is already doing something else. Transitioning from one activity to another often causes conflict.

So, how do you minimize conflict? The general rule of thumb is to make sure you have the child’s attention and then give a time frame to work with. For example, you walk to where the child is playing, make sure you have eye contact, and say, “In five minutes it will be time for supper, so finish up your play and wash your hands.”

Many kids can handle this, with perhaps another reminder, but some kids have trouble shifting gears. Being clear about your expectations and precise in your communication does not guarantee a successful outcome. Moving from one activity to another is internally complicated for kids. It’s called shifting cognitive sets. That sounds like fancy terminology for something so ordinary, but it is a very accurate description for what must occur for the child to comply with your request. A lot of brain activity has to synchronize to accomplish the goal. Because many children can do this automatically, we expect it to be simple for everyone.

For the kids who have trouble making these transitions, it is sometimes better to be more indirect. Here are ways to approach this:

  • “Can you smell what’s cooking in the kitchen? It’s hamburgers. They’re just about ready. Would you like ketchup? I’ll come back in a few minutes to get you started washing your hands.”
  • “I just remembered that your room needs tidying up. I’ll help you get started after I put the lawnmower in the garage. You can come with me if you want to.”
  • “I love the picture you’re making. Tell me all about it at the kitchen table. Why don’t you bring it over here so we can see it in the kitchen.”

These are examples of using language to help the child move from one activity to another. Language is structure. So structuring language helps to create a story the child can connect to. Children often need more time than we think to organize their mental space, some kids really struggle and need our help. Being indirect with different types of cues (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory, etc.) can help the child internally reorient to a new direction.

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