Toddler Transitions, the easy way!

The toddler stage is filled with rapid growth, learning and budding interest in the world. Kids quickly go from relying on their parents for getting all their needs met to successfully navigating many parts of their environment independently. This transition to independence is often coupled with strong motivation to engage with the world and the things in it.

Enter: transitions. We’ve all been there. That moment you have to tell your toddler it’s time to leave the park, get dressed or stop watching a favorite show. We dread those moments because inevitably, our kids will want to continue doing what they are doing. If you search the internet for advice related to this topic, you’ll find a lot of information. So, why am I writing this blog then, if there’s already information out there? While the information you find can be somewhat helpful, it falls short in truly helping you manage the transition. This is because most writers of this topic only talk about what we call in the biz “antecedent strategies.” These are strategies like giving a warning, creating a calm environment, and acknowledging your child’s emotions about leaving something fun. These aren’t bad suggestions, but my guess is that if you’ve tried them, you’ve probably run into at least some situations…..where your child….still…tantrums. When parents are faced with continued tantrums despite their best efforts to stop them, they’ll often modify the strategy which can make the behavior worse! Eventually, many parents abandon the strategy all together, do anything to keep their house and toddler happy, and become….exhausted.

So, what do you do? You’ve given ample notice, you’ve acknowledged their discontent with leaving and their emotions associated with it. But you’ve still got a kid throwing himself to the floor and screaming when that transition is required and you have no choice about whether to leave or go – you have to get on your way.

Let’s start by breaking a transition down into what’s involved in each step. When we ask a child to transition, we are asking them to do two things: 1) leave something they like doing and 2) do something else (typically less preferred). If you really want to geek out, review my video on functions of behavior – these scenarios usually involve a tangible and an escape function. Examples of transitions include:

  1. Leave the park to go home for dinner
  2. Stop watching a video to get dressed for school
  3. Leave playing with toys to take a bath
  4. Get out of the swimming pool to get into the car

And let’s face it, no amount of pre-warning about an upcoming transition is going to make it so any kid is enthusiastic about leaving the swimming pool! For the record, some antecedent strategies can be helpful. These include: identifying something preferred about the next activity (e.g., “look, your monkey is in the stroller – let’s go get him!”), giving a pre-warning so as not to abruptly stop your child from the activity (“this is the last video you can watch, then we’ll get dressed”), but what you do after the request to transition has been placed is equally if not more important than what you do before. The after part (and process you’ll follow here) consists of consequences and consequence based strategies. Consequence strategies involve ensuring the tantrum behavior does not contact the functional reinforcer and a more appropriate behavior gets reinforced. And yes, you can do this kindly, with compassion and while acknowledging your child’s unhappiness about having to transition.

Let’s tie this all together in a step-by-step process.

  1. Identify the need to transition (whew, lucky us! That one isn’t usually very difficult to do!! Mama has got to get you home to make dinner!)
  2. Identify how quickly you need to transition (i.e., are we in a rush and need to move quickly or we have some flexibility and time to play with).
  3. Give your child a warning (“Stewart, in 5 minutes, we are going to leave the park and go home”)
  4. Use a visual to support the time and show him (“I’m starting my phone timer, when it goes off, we’ll be ready to go”). Note: there is absolutely no magic to the number! 2 minutes is not better than 5 minutes and 10 minutes isn’t better than 5! Base this decision off how quickly you genuinely need to move – the procedures apply and work regardless of the time – I promise!
  5. Provide minimal attention to any tantrum behavior that occurs during or immediately after you give the warning. You are okay to acknowledge their discontent (“I know sweetie, it’s hard to leave”), but leave any statements neutral and brief. Problem behavior should be minimal as you are not following through with the transition just yet and your child is still playing. But some kids may yell or scream about the upcoming transition. To avoid providing any sort of reinforcement, provide minimal interaction and neutral statements in response if it occurs and simply proceed with your waiting time.
  6. While your child continues to play and your timer is ticking, identify something preferred about the next activity. Examples include: Pushing fast in the stroller, a fun bath toy available upon going to the bath, or a toy that exists in the next location or away from the preferred one.

You may need to do some preplanning here to be sure there’s something fun about the next activity, or something waiting there for your child to do. If you are out of the house and didn’t bring anything with you, try and get creative with activities your kid enjoys – bouncing them in the air as you go to their stroller, singing a song, etc. (and remember to include activities for your next visit!)

  • When the timer goes off, Present the instruction to engage in the preferred activity you’ve identified. DO NOT start by saying the old activity has to end. Start by saying the NEW activity gets to begin! For example:

Say “Your monkey wants to play – let’s go get him! He’s in the stroller!” INSTEAD of “all done with the park, get in the stroller, your monkey is there.” This sequence of instruction is crucial and I hear parents make this mistake all the time. They tell the kid it’s time to go, they tantrum, and THEN they start offering toys. All this teaches your child is that if they tantrum during a transition, they might get to delay it . . . and more importantly – that they get good things! By the simple change of timing, you’ve established that the something good is available independent of their behavior and you’ve created some motivation for them to make the transition.

  • Use simple language. There is no need for excess words here! Make the instruction simple, using words your child has heard and likely knows.
  • Approach your child, get on his level and make eye contact
  • Give a directive and avoid posing it in question form. For example:

Say “Go find monkey, it’s in the stroller” INSTEAD of “do you want to go get your monkey?” you see where I’m headed here – posing something as a question simply invites the opportunity for your child to say “NO!” and also falsely gives the child the idea they have a choice. And let’s face it, there’s no real choice involved here, you’ve got to leave the park some time!!

  1. As soon as you give the directive, use light physical guidance to help move your child toward the next activity and away from the current one.

Okay – here’s where things can get dicey, but you can do it. One of two things will happen: either your child will go with you willingly OR they will resist in some form and a tantrum will ensue.

  1. If they go willingly – HAVE A PARTY! GIVE them THE ITEM OR PREFERRED ACTIVITY IMMEDIATELY! “Yay, Stewart great job, here is your monkey.” Seriously, make a HUGE DEAL about it. You won’t have to always praise like this, but what you’re implementing is differential reinforcement which will encourage the, to go along with the instruction to transition and the first time your child does this independently is a BIG opportunity to teach them that their behavior is helpful and exactly what you wanted them to do!
  2. If they begin to tantrum, scream, cry, resist, you MUST follow through with the instruction. This moment is pivotal! If you tell them “okay you can have a few more minutes” or you start giving them things to make them happy, you’ll only make the behavior worst – that is, you’ll reinforce it. This is where you have to be your strongest! People might stare, you might feel a pit in your stomach, but I promise you’re doing the right thing!

BUT Dr. V – how do I follow through? How do I get my child from point A to point B safely?

Depending on how much your child is resisting the transition, you can either use what’s called 3-step guided support (tell, show do) or just simple plain old physical support (i.e., pick them up).

If you’ve followed step 13, what you’ve done is (kindly, of course!) placed the tantrum behavior on extinction. Basically saying that you do need to make the transition, and you’re going to go ahead and follow through with that.

If you’ve followed step 12, you’ve reinforced an alternative behavior – going with you willingly. Great job!!

These two steps put together make for a beautiful little (and effective!) plan to address your child’s tantrum behavior during transitions.

This procedure should work in most instances and for most kids. Give it time – remember your child has a history of the tantrum behavior being reinforced and you’re trying to change that reinforcement history, so it will take some time. Things don’t always go perfectly. You might find that your child almost never goes with you willingly, so you can’t reinforce any alternative behavior (step 12 above) or you might have a difficult time finding something your child likes (step 6). There are all sorts of individual characteristics that may influence effectiveness so if you try this strategy for a while and it doesn’t work, you may need a little consultation or to tweak your plan. But don’t give up! Managing toddler transitions can be difficult but with a plan and focused effort on how the environment influences your child’s behavior, you can tackle toddler transitions with ease and confidence!

Alrighty, now…. it’s time to go! 😊

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