Strategies for Successful Transitions Between Activities

Do you find it challenging to get the kids to stop what they’re doing to start on a new activity, like leaving for pre-school so you’re not late for work, coming to the dinner table so it doesn’t get cold, or starting their bedtime routine so they get a good night’s sleep? Do you have to ask multiple times and end up raising your voice, especially if it’s to stop your child’s screen time? If you answered yes to some or all of those questions, you’re not alone. Your child may just be struggling with the transitions between activities. 

Finding Empathy and Understanding

Transitions are not easy for any of us – child or adult alike. When you’re writing an email or report and you’re suddenly interrupted and required to do something less fun like attend a meeting, manage a work problem or take out the garbage at home, you probably wouldn’t like that transition. When we put it like that and stand in our children’s shoes, it helps parents and carers to be a little more compassionate and mindful when asking children to take their full attention off what they’re happily doing and transition to something they may not enjoy as much. Having said all of this, there are still ways to make those transitions more successful.

Simple Steps for Successful Transitions

Before your child starts an activity:

Explain the schedule and get them to “agree” to the schedule. For example, you can say something such as “you can watch 30 minutes of your favourite show before dinner, but then we need to turn it off to sit at the table and have dinner together, OK?”

Have a visual timer nearby. 

For instance, an hourglass where sand flows with the passage of time or a countdown time so the child can start to be aware of time passing.

Observe them quietly.

Eight to ten minutes before your child needs to transition from one activity to the next, go to where your child is and stand beside or behind and observe them quietly for a minute or so. This will give you the opportunity to gather “intel” and see what they’re up to. Eventually they may notice you – this is great as you have already moved them from being completely immersed in their own world to coming back to the world where you are!

Start a discussion

Encourage your child(ren) to tell you what they’re doing. They’re usually happy to share and engage with you. If not, it might require more direct questions to begin with to start the conversation.

Let your child(ren) know how long they have left to do the activity.

For instance, offer them five minutes and outline the next activity as “enticingly” as you can. For example, you might say “It’s nearly dinner time and I’ve cooked your favourite tonight”, or “Let’s go and have a bath so you can choose a book to read before bed”.

Sing or dance in the transition.

Make it a fun song in a funny voice. If your child seems excited, simply explain you’ll stay and wait here with them until time’s up and you’ll go to the next activity together. It’s best not to leave them and then have to shout multiple times from afar – this doesn’t tend to work and may even make things worse.

Ask them how you can help.

If your children don’t agree to willingly stop what they’re doing to go to the next activity – which is often the case, ask how you can help them to end this activity so they can move to the next smoothly. For example, with a Minecraft or LEGO build, write down the next steps so they don’t forget. Reassure them when they can come back to it later or tomorrow or on the weekend – whatever the case may be.

Remind them of the agreement.

If they still disagree and there’s shouting, complaining or the tears start to flow, come back at a later time when things are calm and remind them of their “agreement” about smooth transitions, the importance of self-regulation, respecting time limits and being responsible.

Be patient.

It may not happen quickly, but over time your child(ren) will learn the skills they need to self-regulate and be able to peacefully transition from one activity to the next. Self-regulation is one of the key life skills for a happy, healthy and successful life for your child.


About the Author

Dr Rosina McAlpine is the CEO and creator of the Win Win Parenting program. Win Win Parenting practical and fun programs are delivered across a variety of organisations including early learning, school, corporate and government organisations in Australia, New Zealand and The United States. Dr Rosina is an internationally recognised awardwinning researcher and educator.