There were landmines everywhere. One false step and … boom … chaos.
Our house was beginning to feel more like a war zone than a home.
Our get-ready routine before school had become a battle.
Dinner time … a battle.
Before bed … a battle.
And basically, anytime I asked my son to do something he didn’t want to do.
With all of the meltdowns and power struggles, I began to spiral in fear that either A) I was doing something wrong, B) there was something wrong with my child or C) all of the above.
But then, one day, while listening to the parenting course I signed up for, I heard the instructor say something that allowed me to come up for air. All behavior is communication and misbehavior is an unmet need.
It sounded like a simple concept but it was really profound. Here I was trying to fix behavior but that was like painting a fall leaf green - it wasn’t reforming anything. There was something underneath the struggle. When I paused and really looked at the patterns of emotional overwhelm in our home, I could whittle it down to one word: transitions.
It hit me like a ton of bricks. My son wasn’t giving me a hard time and his meltdowns were not manipulation nor defiance. He was struggling with a skill.
We all struggle with transitions to some extent. Transitions require us to shift gears between activities, places, and objects of attention. Children are concrete learners and often thrive off of predictability, so it can be hard for them to pivot, especially when the request is to move from a preferred activity to a less preferred task.
According to Elizabeth Sautter, M.A., CCC-SLP, licensed speech and language pathologist, author of Make Social Learning Stick, and co-founder of the Make It Stick Program, “The world can be an extremely confusing and unpredictable place. Some children struggle with transitions more than others, especially those kiddos who like sameness, those who hyper-focus and avoid undesired tasks, and those with unique learning needs. For these children, transitions may trigger shutting down, resistance, avoidance, backtalk, or a full-blown meltdown.”
Transitions And Neurodiversity
Children with neurodiverse needs can often become grossly engaged in whatever they are doing or thinking about. This can be a great strength, and it can be a great challenge when asked to stop a task to transition to another. Because of the unique way their executive functioning muscles fire, these children may become “stuck” in a task and have difficulty transferring attention and other thought processes onto one another.
These children often rely on routines to navigate social situations. According to Sautter, “Many children with social/emotional challenges see the world in terms of black and white, and they struggle to understand the abstract world and situations they are in. They develop a limited set of social rules in their minds and are often oblivious to the more subtle/hidden cues, as well as the context of a given situation. This can make bigger transitions challenging.”
Some reasons that children with autism find transitions challenging may include:
- a strong need for predictability and ritual.
- a lack of understanding about what activity comes next or how to sequence the steps.
- a pattern of behavior may be disrupted.
- transition cues may be unnoticed by the child.
“Children across the spectrum do better and are less anxious when they have an idea about what will happen in a given social situation. Preparing your child ahead of time and giving them knowledge about what is going to happen will help set them up for success; they’ll feel more at ease which may also reduce challenging behaviors,” says Sautter.
5 Transition Tools
In her book, Make Social and Emotional Learning Stick, Sautter shares several tools to help children navigate transitions. These are helpful not only for daily transitions such as shifting from the activity of coloring to the task of sitting at the dinner table, but also for larger transitions like back to school.
Here are 5 tools to help with transitions, big and small.
1. Morning Schedules
To help develop more independence and executive functioning skills, such as planning and sequencing, help your child make a visual morning schedule of the steps involved with getting ready for the day. First, go over the steps involved, such as getting dressed, eating breakfast, brushing teeth, feeding the dog, etc. Then make visuals of these activities by drawing them, gathering pictures/icons from the internet, or taking actual photos of the child doing each activity. Place these on a magnetic, Velcro, or yack board that is easily accessible. Make one column that says “to do” and one that says “done.” Each morning reference the schedule together. As each task is completed, the child can move the picture of the activity to the “done” column.
2. Focus On One Step At A Time
Teach your child that things happen in sequence using a “when … then” model. This is useful because it is concrete, which helps the child’s brain process the request, and it focuses on the desired behavior. You may say something like, “When you pick up your toys, then we can go for a walk” and then provide encouragement for things that they have trouble completing.
3. Transition Songs
As a family, come up with different songs that will be played to let your child know that it is time to transition to another activity or event. For example, have songs to alert that it is dinner time, bath time, or time to leave the house. Pick songs that are more energetic for getting up in the morning and more calming for nighttime.
4. Have A Backup Plan
Each morning, think of the day’s activities and discuss what is expected for each activity. Map out situations that might be difficult, such as waiting in line at the grocery store, or not being able to go to the park if it is raining. Make a backup plan for what to do if something changes. For example, “If it rains, you can go to the movies instead of the park.”
5. Role-Play And Rehearse
Role-play and rehearsal give children an opportunity to act out real-life situations to problem solve, practice social skills, and build an image of what something might look or feel like when it actually happens. For example, you may say, “Let’s pretend you’re at recess and someone bumps into you …” Then act out what your child can do with their words, body, and behavior to manage the social situation. This provides an opportunity to find out how your child perceives various social situations and talk about how they feel going into a situation. Your child can also gain insight into what others are thinking and feeling, too.
Transitions are tricky, but with tools, they can become less anxiety-provoking and more manageable. As we build the brain regions responsible for the many skills required for transitioning, we can lean into our children, meeting them where they are and loving them as they are.