Six strategies to help children transition through their day

Published on Tuesday, 18 February 2020
Last updated on Monday, 17 February 2020

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In a typical day in their early childhood service children play, dance, paint, eat, sleep, read and in between – they transition. 

In a single day, young children do a lot of transitions. It’s the time, where under teacher direction, children move as a group between activities and routines and it can sometimes be very challenging. 

The perfect vision of young children lined up like orderly little ducklings in a row as they move from one activity to another is a wonderful image but as all early childhood educators will testify, this is rarely the way it happens! 

For some children, transitions may be frustrating or may provoke anxiety, and they may lead to challenging behaviours such as tantrums, withdrawal or disruptive behaviour. Difficulty with transitions can occur for many reasons such as tiredness, confusion or reluctance to end an activity.

To decrease the likelihood of challenges and to move children as smoothly as possible through their day, special routines need to be well rehearsed and planned. This involves:

  • Minimising transitions wherever possible
  • Staggering transitions so not all children do the same thing at the same time 
  • Planning for children who finish an activity quickly so they are not waiting for others to catch up
  • Considering what children will do during the transition
  • Preparing verbal and nonverbal (visual or sound) cues before transitions
  • Teaching children the expectations for the transition

Strategies to support transitions and opportunities to teach

The everyday nature of transitions can sometimes result in them being overlooked as a time that offers enormous potential for enriching children’s lives. 

Often in these moments there is great potential to provide opportunities for learning as well as a bit of fun. Transform wait time into learning time, which could involve singing songs, guessing games or reciting rhymes. 

The early childhood blog, The Spoke, outlines transitions as opportunities for educators to:

  • Engage and build relationships with children
  • Nurture the development of children’s social and emotional skills
  • Communicate to children that they are in a safe, secure and predictable environment
  • Understand each individual child; what they are saying through their behaviour and what they are feeling and thinking. These can offer some hints into what would support a smooth transition for them.

Here are six strategies to help with more successful transitions:

1. Give a transition warning and individual support

Most educators are already giving some type of warning that a transition is coming up such as “five more minutes until clean up”. For some children these group announcements aren’t enough. If you see challenging behaviour you may need to provide additional support not only for the group but by implementing some individual supports for specific children.

Try a 10-minute, 5-minute and a 1-minute warning that a transition is coming up. Put these reminders in place firstly with the whole class of children and then add extra support for the individuals who need it. 

This could be an egg timer that individual children could be in charge of. Or an educator could tell each child coming that a transition is coming up to assist them. It helps to deliver these reminders in an encouraging and motivational way to encourage children to transition to the next activity.

2. Sing the directions

Singing is already a daily activity in early childhood and singing the directions – and that’s singing the same thing repeatedly, up to eight times – can be easier than speaking the directions and children not responding. 

Try using ‘piggyback songs’, familiar tunes (like “If You’re Happy and You Know It”) paired with new words to suit your transition needs. Songs and repetition can help children retain information, teach comprehension and benefit oral language development and they’re fun!

Songs can be sung for the whole group or with individual children who need extra support. For example when washing hands you can sing a song, “This is the way we wash our hands, wash our hands, wash our hands. This is the way we wash our hands, we get them nice and clean”, and sing the directions to help move them through the transition. 

3. Use play and children’s interests

Children love to play. Capitalise on their love of playing to motivate them. Make transitions playful such as when you come in from the playground, you could all pretend to be airplanes, or when it’s time to clean up, sing a fun clean up song

If a child is not engaging with this transition strategy try interest-based support and focus on what may resonate for that child. Build on a specific interest that a child has, such as dinosaurs, dogs or dance, so as to engage them. This may take some observation and trials but using an interest – no matter how small it may seem – can be a powerful motivator.

4. Choose your words carefully

Educators need to choose words carefully. One common mistake is ending a sentence with the word “okay?” such as “It’s time to clean up now, okay?” This implies a choice to a child. If you are not offering a choice, avoid sentences that end in a question.

If offering choices keep it clear and try to keep it to two choices. Be specific. For example, instead of asking “Are you ready to clean up now?” try something like, “Do you want to clean up the long blocks, or the little blocks?” 

The phrase “you need to” can also cause some challenges but if it is working with your group of children, use it. The challenge is when it escalates into a power struggle. In this case try saying, “Let’s.” By using the phrase “Let’s hurry up and put all the blocks away so we can go outside,” is more of a community phrase to put you in partnership with the child. 

Another good phrase to use is “it’s time to.” You can refer to a visual schedule or show them a clock so they can see the transition as part of their routine.

5. Use visual cues

Children respond well to bright and colourful visuals and they can be a strong support to move children through transitions. A visual reference can give children a better understanding of what is expected of them.

Use a daily schedule with explanatory images on it to represent all of the day’s fun activities, remove the image as you complete each one. When you are transitioning children to a new activity you can show them the enticing pictures of what’s coming up next and combine it with singing directions.

Another technique is to show the children something they have to look forward to. A soft toy or a puppet can be used prior to a transition to let them know that it’s going to visit them during the next activity. This should be used to excite and intrigue them. 

Remember to use visuals with the words “first, then” or “now, next.” For example “First, we clean up; then, we have circle time.”

6. Give specific positive feedback after transitions

It’s important to recognise when things go well and to praise effort as well as achievement. Point out the behaviours you want to see more of, not the behaviours you hope to diminish.

This requires giving specific feedback to signal to students they are going in the right direction with their transitions and clearly define what skills they need to replicate.

Resources and further reading

Thanks to Barb O’Neill, Trouble with Transitions? 5 Essential Ways to Prevent Challenging Behaviour, for her insights on transition strategies, which helped write this article.

Childmind Institute - How can we help kids with transitions? 

NAEYC - Reducing Challenging Behaviours During Transitions 

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