Q: My child is almost 3 and suddenly having a hard time with transitions. My little one will fret before going to a very much loved activity saying, “I do not want to go there!” for a full 30 minutes before, then is enjoying it so much when I arrive to pick up and thus does not want to leave with me at the end. I’m a little concerned as we are starting a new longer day program this Fall. Any tips on a) this phase, at a high level, b) preparing for the new program, and c) building a daily routine that does not include 30 minutes of upset in the morning. Thank you!

A: It can be confusing when your preschooler freaks out because it’s time to do something they love! Props to you for thinking about this before the longer preschool day starts – being able to transition well is a critical preschool skill (“skill” being the operative word here – skills are things we can learn). It may help to know that it is normal for 3 year-olds to struggle with transitions sometimes. Okay, frequently. Before assuming that it is always because they don’t want to go to the new activity or place, let’s look at some reasons why transition tantrums happen.

First of all, transitions are hard when you’re young. Adults don’t think twice about getting out of bed, using the bathroom, eating breakfast, showering, getting dressed and ready for the day, and leaving for work. But that’s five transitions right there. Then in preschool there are more transitions between activities, eating lunch and snacks, washing hands, using the bathroom… things adults don’t consider a big deal but when you have low frustration tolerance, no control over what will happen next, and experience a lot of waiting, transitions can get really annoying. Add to that the fact that the developmental task of ”threenagers” is autonomy but they are almost never the ones calling the shots on their schedule, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for transition tantrums.

Other reasons a child might struggle with transitions: they didn’t feel finished with their activity, they dislike a task that needs to happen before transitions (eg. cleaning up, using the potty), they have a poor sense of time and don’t know how long they’ll be at the next activity or when they’ll get to come back to this one, mistaking the activity ending for punishment, and anxiety (separation anxiety, anxiety about not knowing what will happen next or not knowing how to transition). And of course, there are times when the child assumes they won’t like the next activity.

Now, what to do. First, remember that transitions take more time for your preschooler than they do for you so allow extra minutes for transitioning – rushing your child will almost surely lead to a tantrum. You’ll be able to prevent some tantrums by anticipating when your child will be low on internal resources because they’re tired, hungry, overstimulated, or sick. Routines are essential for regular transitions. When your child knows what will happen in the mornings and what is expected of him, confidence replaces anxiety and he can go about his job of developing more self-sufficiency. It might be as simple as talking with your child about what will happen the next day, or if your child is a visual learner, making a chart with pictures to show the routine.

Other tips to ease activity transitions:

  • Use a positive, warm tone when asking your child to change gears and help him get used to language like after/then and when/then.
  • If you sense that your child doesn’t want to leave because he’s having such fun, find out what he needs so that he can feel “done” and ready to leave. Maybe he wants just two more minutes to finish the picture and then will go with you happily. You don’t want to cave every time they whine or throw a tantrum because that just teaches them those behaviors work but it’s not bad to model flexibility and respect for others’ reasonable needs.
  • Provide verbal cues when it’s almost time to go (“five more minutes… one more minute” or “five more turns on the slide”) so they can mentally prepare to leave.
  • Use a timer to mark transition times (“I’m going to set the timer for five minutes. When it rings, it’s time to go.”)
  • Give choices to give them a sense of control (“Do you want to sing one more song or read one more book before we go?”).
  • Make sure they know what to do if there are tasks before transitioning (for example, if they need to clean up they know which toys go where).
  • Minimize waiting time for the child (standing at the door in their coat only to have to wait for their siblings to use the bathroom will increase the chance of a tantrum).
  • Let them use a transition object (a special toy they only use in the car, or a stuffed animal for soothing).
  • Associate the transition with something positive (when we get in the car to go somewhere you can have a fruit pouch).
  • Sing transition songs! Many daycares work these songs into the routine so you increase the chances of cooperation if you use at home the same ones that work at school.
  • Make transitions fun – walk to the car in a silly way, clean up while barking like a dog, etc.
  • Give them a “Very Important Job” to do.
  • Allow them to finish their activity (when that episode is over/when the game is done we’re leaving).
  • Help them ramp down their energy before transitioning.
  • Work some physical activity into the transition, if possible (spend five minutes running around outside before getting into the car). Many kids need to discharge some physical energy before they can move on to something else smoothly.
  • Give specific positive feedback about how well they’re transitioning (Wow! You’re putting all the toys right where they belong!)

Sometimes tantrums just need to happen and we have to weather the storm. Use emotion coaching skills to join with your child empathically, allow them to get their big feelings out, let them feel heard and loved, and possibly get some important information from them about why they’re struggling. It might help you problem-solve with them and create a smoother transition. If you spend five minutes soothing your toddler and are then five minutes late for work, consider those five minutes well-spent.

Prepare for the new program by driving by the school if it is new to the child, seeing the classroom and meeting the teacher if possible, and talking about the basic daily schedule. If you think your child might be anxious about being away from you, ask if they can have a special animal or blanket from home for naptime or a photo of the family on the wall. Develop a ritual for morning dropoff (upside down kiss, special hug). You could read a book the night before that addresses separation anxiety or new school jitters. Talk about being picked up at the end of the day so he knows he’s not being left forever (“Daddy will pick you up after snack and you guys can play until I get home and then we’ll eat dinner together.”) Leave extra time to not have to rush in the morning but don’t linger at dropoff – any teacher will tell you that usually makes things worse. Show confidence that your child will have a good day at school (kids feed off of our emotions so if you’re anxious, he will be too).

It’s not unusual for a child to struggle when starting a new program. If morning tantrums are a problem, ask the teacher how he does the whole day – often kids perk up as soon as the parent leaves. Expect that after a few weeks he’ll get the hang of things (the power of peers is strong!) and talk to the teachers to find out what works for activity transitions at school and what strategies you might adopt for the home. If he continues to struggle with transitions after trying lots of different strategies, consider talking to a child psychologist to rule out things that require special knowledge, skills, and support (autistic spectrum disorders, sensory processing disorder, ADHD, anxiety).


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