Transitions Can be Easier


There are so many transitions built into a family’s day. For children, this may include the shift to getting dressed, leaving the house, stopping play, finishing projects, cleaning up, coming to the table for meals, going upstairs for bath and settling in bed for sleep. All of these steps can have small transitions within which can be a lot.

Real and consistent warning – Most children transition better when given warnings. It is helpful to use the same language and mean the same amount of time for each warning. When my girls were younger I said, “we are done in five minutes, finish up,” and, “one more minute, do your last thing.” When I said this, I was also sure to say five minutes and mean five minutes. If sometimes it meant two minutes because I was in a hurry, or it meant twenty minutes because I got distracted, the warnings weren’t as helpful. Even before children can tell time, the consistency is helpful.

Additional cues – It can be helpful to build in additional cues. This might be a visual cue like flipping the lights, a physical cue like a transition high-five or an auditory cue like ringing a bell. This is just another consistent signal that it’s time for a transition.

Proximity – If your child tends to ignore or run away at the start of transitions, it can be helpful to stand beside them or even hold their hand just before the transition starts.

Empathy (limit as needed) – This would be saying, “I’m sorry you are frustrated, but it’s time to go upstairs.” When you acknowledge emotions, emotions tend to calm. It’s often helpful to state the limit in a calm way.

Positive directions – This is a reminder to state your directions in the positive. This is saying, “come back and clean up the toys,” rather than, “stop running around.” Here is a full post about positive directions.

Ask their plan or their first step – Asking how they are going to get started can help a child focus on the task and move forward.

Build in choices, challenges and contribution – For going upstairs choices would be, “do you want to walk or crawl upstairs,” or, “do you want to brush teeth first or change into pajamas when you get upstairs?” Challenges would be, “let’s race up stairs. Ready, go!” Contribution would be, “I need a toothpaste squeezer.”

Focus on the good in the next thing – Want your child to stop playing, go upstairs and take a bath? You might focus on how many bubbles they can make with the bubble bath or which toys they’d like to play with in the tub.

Give descriptive praise when it goes well – This would be, “you listened the first time. That is helpful!” or, “you went upstairs so fast. You were super speedy!” You want to reinforce this behavior, so describe the behavior and give it a label. Here is a full post about descriptive praise.

A post on better clean-up times

A post on better morning routines

A post on better bedtime routines



Starting at a New School this Fall?

Back to school

Whether your child is starting at a new preschool or elementary school, the first day can be daunting. There are several things you can do over the summer months to help prepare for the first day.

  • Visit the school’s website – Explore the website with your child. Point out pictures of happy children and read about fun yearly activities. Look for pictures of your child’s teacher or classroom.
  • Play on the school’s playground – If it’s available, playing on the school’s playground can build happy memories during the summer that might carry over to the fall.
  • Plan playdates with future classmates – If you have a class list, start contacting families over the summer to play or meet at the pool. If there’s no class list, you might ask neighborhood families if they have or know other children starting at the school. It can be so helpful to see a familiar face on the first day.
  • Attend all back-to-school nights and visit-the-classroom opportunities – This is partly to support your child’s gradual entrance to the new school, and partly to be sure you are an informed parent. Often teachers review school policies and give important information at these events. The more you know about the school the better.
  • Review the drop-off and pick up policies and have a plan for separation as needed – Share the plan for drop-off and pick-up with your child. As best you can, be sure they know where to go and what to do. If your child tends to have separation anxiety, it’s good to know the school’s policy for this as well. Here is a link to a blog post about separation: Here is a link to a 20 minute podcast (#341) I gave on managing separation anxiety:
  • Re-establish bedtime and mealtime routines – If you’ve lost a sense of routine, it’s good to rebuild this at least several days before school starts. If children are allowed to stay up late and sleep in the day before school, getting up and getting ready on time can be that much harder. If your kids are grazers over the summer months, it can be helpful to get back to regular meal and snack times as well.
  • Remind them of other positive transitions they’ve made or you’ve made – Remind them how much fun they had when they started at a new camp last summer or when they joined a new soccer team. Tell upbeat stories about when you started school.
  • Read upbeat children’s storybooks about the start of school –   Upbeat books include DW’s Guide to Preschool by Brown, What to Expect at Preschool by Murkoff,  If You Take a Mouse to School by Numeroff, Kindergarten, Here I Come by Steinberg and Welcome to Kindergarten by Rockwell.

Want a Better Morning Routine with Kids?

Family Using Digital Devices At Breakfast Table

Believe me, I know, mornings in a busy house with kids can be tough. There are several guidelines that can help in this hectic transition time.

  • Build a real routine – Many families have a solid bedtime routine, but fewer have a great morning routine. If you are one of those winging it in the morning families, it is time to get a routine. Start by deciding what time you want to walk out the door. Next, list all the things that need to happen before that from wake-up to out, and decide about how much time you’ll need for each step. Working backwards gives you a wake-up time.
  • End with fun so you have something to work towards and a buffer – Now take that well planned schedule and bump everything earlier by 10 minutes. Set aside this bit of time at the end for the kids to do something enjoyable. This may be reading or lego time, it may be time with the puppy. This gives your kids something to work towards, and gives you a 10 minute buffer for sanity’s sake.
  • Get visual – Work with your child to make a chart or a poster including the steps of your new routine. Let them make the decisions to write a chart, draw pictures or take pictures for the illustrations. Give them time to decorate it and make it their own. Put it somewhere easily visible to all.
  • Stick to the schedule – Help your child make it through the routine, and have the 10 minutes for something enjoyable at least a few mornings. Make it your goal to stick to the schedule for a month, a routine only helps if you do it.
  • Think logistics for sticking points – If getting dressed is a battle, put it first rather than last in the routine. Make a rule that breakfast is for dressed people. If you’re really desperate, have them sleep in their next day clothes (at least the shirt, underwear and socks).
  • Give jobs – To keep kids in the routine, it may be helpful to give them individual responsibilities as they go. Make one the toothpaste squeezer, another the cereal pourer. Titles are appealing to younger children. Think to rotate jobs every few days.
  • Give choices – Choices allow the child some power. Here and there, share a bit. Ask, “do you want cereal or oatmeal this morning?” or, “do you want to wear shorts or a skirt?” or, “do you want to get dressed by yourself or with help?”
  • Give challenges – Can they get dressed before you? Can they get to the table faster this morning than yesterday?
  • Do what you can the night before – In our house, homework isn’t complete until it is in the backpack and by the front door with all papers signed. Some gung-ho families make lunches the night before and lay out clothes. Every little bit helps.
  • As they are able, give them more responsibility in the process – If you trust, let them take over the tooth brushing. If they do, let them wake-up by an alarm.
  • Plan with simple and healthy in mind for breakfast – It’s great if you can cook a full hot breakfast every morning. I am not knocking that at all, in fact I’d like to wake-up at your house! I often cook on the weekends, but go the easy route on weekdays keeping health in mind. We do a lot of scrambled eggs, hard-boiled before eggs, whole grain cereal, yogurt, cheese sticks, toast and fruit salad. Things that take just a minute or two, and we can keep well stocked.

>Rushed Mornings

>Dear Dr. Hackney,

I have three children, and each morning, it is a struggle to get them off to school without losing my cool. We pick out clothes the night before, I wake them up with about 90 minutes before we have to leave, breakfast is finished and kids are usually dressed with at least 30 minutes before departure, teeth are brushed, no TV in the morning, which leaves them a little time to play. I give them a 5-10 minute warning before we have to head outside to the bus stop. After the five minutes, I have to ask them to put shoes on (repeatedly), coats (repeatedly), hats, gloves, etc. During this time, at least one is wanting a drink, the other very engrossed in a book, Legos, or simply not paying attention, or the little guy needs a diaper change. This is where my blood pressure starts to race and my voice rises, and no one is listening as I am rushing everyone out the door. What can I do to make the mornings easier aside from having them put their coats andshoes on at the 15 minute mark? Oh ,and during all this time, I have to get myself fed, dressed, and use the potty. I feel like my energy is already spent before my day has really begun. Any suggestions for managing my frustration and making morning more peaceful are truly appreciated.

Mother of three, ages 2, 4 and 6 years

Dear Patricia,

This is a case of “physician heal thyself.” As much as I know what to do, we all have rushed mornings at least occasionally.

There are several things that may be helpful in these moments. Not that you need less sleep, but you might get yourself dressed and fed before you wake them. This would free up your time to be with and to help them move along. You said they often have a full 30 minutes to play, so you could even just wake them a bit later to give yourself this time.

While it wouldn’t work for coats and hats, you could add shoes to the initial getting dressed routine. Every little bit helps.

At the 10 minute mark, I would ask, “Does anyone need to potty or have a drink? This is the time for going potty.” Or, you could have them each try the potty while in transition from pajamas to being dressed for the day.

If they are buried in Legos or eyes glazed over looking out the window, they may not even hear you, let alone know you are speaking to them directly. Before asking them to put on coats or shoes, be sure you have their attention. Say their name, touch their arm, get down on their level, gain eye contact, whisper, flick the lights or something to be sure you have their attention before you speak. If you don’t have their attention, of course, you are going to have to repeat yourself. The repetition itself is frustrating.

Along the same lines, stop repeating yourself. Every time you do, you are actively teaching them to not listen and instead to wait you out. If you say things five times over, you are teaching them you are willing to say things five times over. They are learning to wait you out at least that long, if not longer tomorrow. With that said, they are not going to magically listen the first time. This has been a habit shaped between you and your children for a long time; it takes real effort to fix. So, if tomorrow you decide to say things once “Please put on your shoes,” and they don’t listen, bite your tongue and take the shoes to the child or the child to the shoes and help them to listen. Over time, you are teaching them that you are only going to say things once, and you actually expect them to listen. This is a far better habit to be in than all the repetition, and it should be less frustrating. Be warned, while in the long run this will save you much time and energy, it is going to initially slow the process, so start early.

To get them moving, you might also offer choices in the process. “Would you like the red shoes or the blue?” “Do you want to put on your coat yourself or with help?” Choices encourage children to buy into the behavior.

As hard as it is, you might have success with making things more fun and more playful. You might say “Let’s see if you can get on your coats before mommy.” “Let’s sing ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’ while we get ready.” Distraction can still work wonders at four and six years old, if it is a fun distraction.

Rene Hackney, PhD.
Parenting Playgroups, Inc.