Change is hard. For small children, this includes the small changes that happen daily—getting ready for school, cleaning up after lunch, getting into the bath...getting out of the bath.
These daily transitions are frequently the times that result in meltdowns and power struggles. For whatever reason, children often resist the little tasks that must be done to move from one activity to the next (I just want you to wear pants! Is that so much to ask?).
While the struggles are often small, when they happen 10 times a day, they can be exhausting.
Through my work with 3-6-year-olds as a Montessori teacher, I’ve learned a few strategies to make these transitions easier. If you think about the challenge of encouraging one small child to put shoes on and multiply it by 25, you’ll see why.
These simple strategies can make daily transitions easier and help you avoid these common battles.
1. Be consistent
Toddlers and young children need and crave consistency. Doing things the exact same way every day makes things predictable, and that helps children feel comfortable and safe. When so much of life seems incomprehensible, being able to anticipate daily routines helps children to feel calm.
Of course, it is much easier to keep things predictable at school than at home. Life happens. Family comes to visit, parents travel, babysitters come. Every day doesn’t need to be the same to make children feel comfortable. Working to establish consistent routines for things like dressing, eating, cleaning and bedtime will go a long way in making children feel some level of predictability.
For example, to establish a consistent routine for getting dressed, make sure your child gets dressed before breakfast, in his room every day. It doesn’t have to be at the same time but does need to be at the same point in the routine.
Make sure his clothes are always in the same place, whether in his closet or laid out the night before, so he knows what to expect. Have a clear place where he should put his pajamas when he takes them off. Have a spot by the door or in his room where he can always find his shoes.
This type of structure provides comfort and helps alleviate the struggles that often arise with transitions.
2. Slow down
No one likes to be rushed and, quite frankly, rushing young children simply doesn’t work. If we’re stressed and in a hurry, they pick up on it—it makes them feel anxious, which often leads to a meltdown rather than speeding things up.
Think about how long it will realistically take your child to do something and add some buffer time. This is especially important in the morning or when you’re trying to get out of the house on time. It helps to think of these transition times as quality time with your child, rather than something to get through. Changing a diaper or helping a child get dressed can be a great time to connect throughout the day if you slow the process down.
3. Involve your child
Try doing things with your child, rather than to him. It may seem like encouraging him to choose his own clothes, or put on his own shoes, or carry his own plate to the sink after dinner would take longer. Sometimes it does, but often involving your child in the daily routines helps him take ownership of the task at hand. This helps him feel like a capable partner, making him less likely to resist.
Try letting him choose his own clothes, offering two or three options so it’s not overwhelming. See which parts of getting dressed he can do by himself. Parents are often amazed when they see their child at school changing clothes independently or putting his shoes on by himself.
If you involve your child in the process, he can often help, doing part of it by himself. This makes for a much more positive experience for both you and your child.
4. Give cues
Experiment with different cues to let your child know that one part of the day is ending and it’s time to transition into the next activity.
At school, we sometimes sing a song to indicate the end of the work period, we may clap a certain rhythm to let the children know that playtime is over, or we may simply give a visual cue like sitting on the circle time rug to show that we’re ready to read a story.
Try different visual and auditory cues and see how your child responds. I sometimes sing a lunchtime clean-up song to remind my son of the things we need to do to clean up (wiping the table, sweeping the floor, washing hands, etc.). You might lay a diaper out to signal that it’s almost time for a diaper change, or turn on the water in the bathtub so that your child hears the sound and realizes bath time is near.
5. Give a warning if a change is coming
Some children are more sensitive to change than others, but it is generally a good idea to tell your child ahead of time if a major change in routine is coming.
This may include things like one parent traveling, having friends over for dinner, or picking your child up from school at a different time than usual. Even small changes in routine can throw children off, so it helps to talk about it beforehand, even if your child is too young to fully understand.
Transitions can be hard for children, especially if they’re tired. Because of this, we often try to rush through them to get to the fun stuff, but slowing down and giving your child a few tools to make the transition easier can make these daily tasks more enjoyable for both of you.