Toddlers don’t like transitions.
It’s a well-established fact that children thrive on routine and predictability (despite the fact that they like to throw yours off with that unexpected blowout in the grocery store parking lot).
It doesn’t matter if they’ve been playing with that toy for thirty minutes or thirty seconds – the moment you say “Put that down, it’s time for a bath”, they automatically rebel against the thought of putting down their toy and engaging in a new activity.
The good news is that there are several things you can do to make these toddler transition times easier on both you and them. As a daycare teacher in a toddler classroom, it was a sink or swim matter for me to master transition times with them and not end up with the whole class in a meltdown.
Here are some tips I learned during that time that have continued to serve me well over the years with every toddler I’ve met.
This is the simplest thing you can do to help your toddler cope with transition times.
Stick to the same general routine every day so that they learn to expect what is coming next. After breakfast, they get dressed and brush their teeth. After lunch, they read some books and take a nap.
That element of predictability is what toddlers crave for the feeling of stability in their life. By establishing a routine, you let them know that everything is okay. We’re doing what we always do.
That being said, there is also value in teaching them to engage in new activities. Try out a new park. Go to a toddler library day once a week. Take a trip to the pool.
They may get overwhelmed, but chances are they’ll also be excited. Be sure to give them plenty of heads up about their new activity that day. And who knows? Toddlers are strange. Maybe they’ll have no trouble whatsoever.
Countdown to transition
This is important whether the next activity is part of your normal family routine or not.
Give your toddler plenty of heads up about what to expect next.
Even though they can’t tell time at that age, I like to give them a 10 minute warning, a 5 minute warning, and a 2 minute warning. This starts to get them used to the idea of numbers and telling time, and also gives them three warnings that a transition is coming up soon so they need to get into that mindset.
One of the teachers at the daycare used this technique with her preschoolers, and she would have them repeat back to her how many more minutes they had to play so that they acknowledged the transition warning.
Telling them “Five more minutes until clean up time, then we can have a snack” gets them excited for the snack. They can then process the fact that the momentary displeasure of cleaning up will soon lead to the imminent pleasure of eating a snack.
Say goodbye to objects
It took me years to figure this one out, because it isn’t something we are normally told about transition times. Nevertheless, it works wonders for toddlers.
When we finish playing with something, or when we leave a place, I have the toddler say goodbye.
We say goodbye to toys, we say goodbye to the park, we say goodbye to the library and the librarian, we say goodbye to our tricycle… Everything gets told goodbye when we transition to something else.
Because it helps the toddler process leaving. It also temporarily distracts from their emotions. Goodbye is a familiar term that they use when daddy leaves for work, when they finish playing with friends, when they leave grandma and grandpa’s house. It signals a transition in their minds.
Sing a song
The Clean-Up song is definitely one of the cleverest inventions. You can make up songs for every transition in your toddler’s day!
[see how this family uses songs to enforce family rules, ease transitions, or just make life more fun]
Singing a song distracts the toddler from the difficult emotions they sometimes experience during transition times. It also lets them know that the transition is happening and that they need to get on board with it.
My sister-in-law and I keep the littles ones for a local homeschool group that meets once a week, and we use this technique every class. We let everyone know that it’s time to clean up, then we immediately launch into two rounds of the Clean-Up song and everybody falls into step and joins us. The room with 10-12 toddlers gets cleaned in under 5 minutes every time.
Give specific instructions
One of the most overwhelming things for toddlers is to be given a vague idea of what’s happening. That doesn’t feel stable or safe to them. Plus we all know that if toddlers aren’t given a good idea of what they SHOULD be doing, they often end up doing something they SHOULDN’T be doing.
If you want your child to come inside for lunch after playing in the yard, be specific. Instead of saying “Put up your outside toys and come inside” give them an exact idea of what you want.
“Please put your trike in the garage and put your buckets and shovels back in the sandbox.”
“Good, now come wash your hands so we can have lunch.”
“Sit down at the table and drink some water while I get your lunch ready.”
Specific instructions involve a lot less aimless wandering and emotional confusion because the child knows exactly what they’re supposed to be doing.
That being said…
Give one set of instructions at a time
Toddlers are easily distracted. They don’t hold long sets of instructions in their head very well.
While it’s okay to give them an overview of what’s about to happen, be sure and remind them with one set of instructions at a time so that they remember what to do.
I’ve seen many a toddler standing around, trying to recall what they’re meant to be doing at that moment. Failing to come up with the memory, they simply start doing their own thing, assuming that whatever it was must not have been that important.
Break down your instructions into three (or more) parts:
- Leaving responsibilities
- What to do when they get there
For instance, if they are watching a show and you want them to get ready to go to the store, try this:
We’re going to the store now, please turn the TV off and get your shoes on (leaving responsibilities).
We’re going to get in the car so head out there (destination).
Please climb up in your car seat and wait for me to buckle you in (what to do at destination).
*Note, the destination is not the store in this case, though that will be your ultimate destination. The destination is where you want your toddler to go. This could be the table for a meal, the bath for bathtime, or the bed for bedtime.
Obviously the older they get, the more instructions they can handle at one time.