Effective Ways to Help Young Children Transition from One Task to the Next
Transitions occur throughout the day, whenever a child needs to move from a task or activity to the next. For instance:
Exit the car –> Walk through the front door –> Take off shoes –> Put shoes away –> Walk to the bathroom–> Wash hands –> Play
Dirty shoes and and germy hands do not usually bother toddlers and so they will see little purpose in pursuing tasks attending to either. As soon as a toddler walks in the door, he will assess his options and proceed to the activity (usually play) that is the most appealing. He does not understand that washing germs off of him hands can keep him healthy so that he can continue playing for the remainder of the week, thereby increasing opportunities to play instead of limiting them.
Young children have a very limited scope of the world and their role within it. They prance from one task to the next, often missing the interconnectedness of their activities. Because toddlers and babies do not see how tasks build upon each other, they often do not understand why it is important to comply with their parent’s pleadings (or threats) to transition to a new activity.
What can be done? Below are several strategies that can help parents motivate toddlers to move from one task to the next.
1) “Whistle While You Work”: Snow White and her Seven Dwarfs (as well as preschool teachers) use this age-old trick, because if you whistle while you work, you’ll have so much fun that you won’t even notice when the job gets done.
a) Use one song per type of transition: Pick one song to sing when you brush your teeth, another for washing hands, another for cleaning up toys, another for going upstairs for nap/bed, etc…
b) Use instructive lyrics: Sing songs about the task itself. Make up songs and do not worry about your melody or sound. Singing well is not a requirement (ask my family)! Our favorite instructive song is:
“Shoes off, put them away, then we wash our hands” (clap, clap and then repeat)
c) Sing before transitioning: Help your tot mentally prepare to switch gears by singing your transition song before the transition occurs.
d) Sing while transitioning: Toddlers get distracted very easily (“This tooth paste is blue…my favorite toy is blue… where is my favorite toy?”) and often just forget to finish their task. Keep them focused on transitioning by continuing to sing your song.
e) Make the song silly and fun: Parents, you have much to compete with! While an Intelligent Nest is not one that focuses on providing constant entertainment for their children, it is helpful to occasionally be a bit playful and silly. Get their attention and make them giggle. Motivate your children with laughter!
2) Give prior notice: Adults subconsciously prepare for transitions… constantly. Listen to mental speech for just two minutes. You are constantly preparing and debriefing yourself. Young children lack the scope to do this. Give them the chance to mentally prepare, just like you do, by telling them what will happen next, before it happens. For instance: “In 1 minute, I am going to change your diaper”; or “In 5 minutes, we are leaving the park. Make sure you do your favorite activity before we need to leave.”.
3) Task your child as your “special helper”: When children (and adults!) feel important, they feel more motivated to do good work. Ask your child to be your special helper for any number of transition tasks and they’ll be excited to participate. Do you remember how excited you were to be “line leader” in school? This was your teacher’s secret trick for convincing her students line up. What “special jobs” can your tot do? Perhaps “bowl and spoon helper”, “pajama helper”, “toothbrush helper”, “shoe helper”, etc…
4) Stick to routines: Again, young children do no possess enough scope to understand time. Routines are a very important part of a child’s life because they grant her the ability to make predictions and prepare herself for what comes next. If a child know that after pajamas time each night, it is then time to brush her teeth, read a story and go to bed, she will be less likely to resist because she possesses the ability to predict, without being told, what comes next. Reduce tantrums by creating and sticking to routines throughout the day, while taking occasional opportunities to teach your tot flexibility.
5) Use a calendar and schedule: Piggybacking on the last tip (and for the same reasons), create a daily schedule and family calendar and help your child mark time and prepare for events by including them the planned daily and weekly activities. Use pictures, instead of/in addition to words, on your schedule and/or calendar to help young children mark events.
6) Ask questions: Help your child build a sense of cause and effect by asking them what needs to happen next. They will be more likely to willingly transition if they decide that it is time to do so. For instance: “We are home from the park. What should we do now to help get ourselves cleaned up? “. They just might sing your instructive transition song to you!
7) Be understanding: While it is important for a child to learn to follow directions, even when they don’t agree with their parent’s instructions, it is also important for parents to show a bit of mercy towards their young children. Modern schedules are often too busy for young children, making transitions from activity to activity very overwhelming (hence the tantrum!). Children only grasp the “here and now” and feel frustrated when parents push them towards a task that they don’t see as necessary or exciting.