Transition Time

Transitions can be tricky. Especially for kids who have experienced trauma. Try these simple strategies to help.

By Momentous Institute | Dec 14, 2015
Transition Time

Every teacher and parent knows that transitions can be tricky. Getting your class to stop working at centers and line up for music class, or getting your child to leave the playground and get in her car seat can be one of the most difficult and frustrating parts of the day. Add in that one unruly child who really struggles with transitions, and it can be a downright struggle.
But let’s talk about that one unruly child. Sometimes he’s just sad to leave his favorite activity (recess is fun, after all!). Sometimes he’s trying to get attention by acting out (read this post for tips on that). But then there’s another possibility that teachers should consider. Perhaps the child has experienced trauma that makes it difficult for him to transition between activities.
For kids who have experienced trauma, changes of any kind may feel threatening. Kids who have a lot of changes in their lives (they move from apartment to apartment, they move schools often, adults are in and out of their lives), school might be their constant safe place. When a teacher asks them to transition, it may trigger feelings of fear, anxiety, uncertainty or frustration. Depending on what coping strategies they’ve developed, they may respond to these feelings with anger, crying, becoming unresponsive or other disruptive behavior.
If this description reminds you of someone, here are a few strategies that might help:
Chase the Why

Why might he be reacting that way? Is it something simple, like he loves recess, and he doesn’t want it to be over? Does he not want to transition to math because it’s his hardest subject and he dreads it? Or do you just have a gut feeling that something bigger might be going on? Maybe his parents just got divorced, or his mom just had a new baby, or maybe he’s living in poverty. If you take a minute to chase the why, you can approach the child with compassion rather than frustration, even if his behavior merits frustration!
Set up Expectations Early

Before any activity, give the students a detailed report of what to expect. This might look something like this: 

“We are going to work in centers now. You will have 45 minutes in your centers. After the 45 minutes are up, we will be lining up for music class. I will give you a signal when we have five minutes left so that you can get ready to put everything away. The signal will be when I turn out the lights and say “We have five minutes left.” After five minutes, we will sing our clean up song. When the song is finished, all of the centers need to be cleaned up and we should all be in line for music class.”
Depending on the age of your kids, you might help them get a better sense of what that time frame looks like. You could say something like:
“In 45 minutes, it will be 10:15. Let’s look at the clock and see what it will look like at 10:15.”
“What other things last for 45 minutes? That’s right! Lunch is 45 minutes long. So we have as much time in centers as we have every day for lunch.”
Young kids might still struggle with a sense of time, and we love clocks that are a visual representation of time, such as this red light/green light timer or an old-fashioned hourglass.
If there is a particular student who struggles with transitions, you might approach him quietly and let him know that the time is almost up and that the class will be transitioning in a few minutes.
Consistency is Key

Kids thrive on routine. Many kids, particularly those in trauma, can get thrown off when things are switched up without warning. If your typical routine is going to be disrupted for any reason, give as much advance notice as possible. For example, if you know you will be out and the class will have a substitute, share that with them in advance. Write it on the board, tell it to them as they leave for the day. If they typically eat lunch in the cafeteria but today they’ll be eating in their classroom, let them know that, and the reason, as early as you can.

Connect and Redirect

Yes, this is our go-to strategy for everything, and that’s because it works. When (despite all of your great work at the above strategies), a kid still has a hard time with transitions, it’s time for connect and redirect. That looks like this:

“Wow, you’re really sad to be lining up and going inside. I know you love recess and you want to stay out here and play. I understand how you feel. It’s a beautiful day, and it would be so fun to spend more time out here! Are you feeling sad that we’re going inside now? Yeah, I understand. Well, it’s time for us to line up and go inside, because now we’re going to work on our new spelling words. I wonder if you’ll learn any new words today in spelling?”
That’s connect and redirect – honor their feelings (connect) and then transition them over to the issue (redirect).
These strategies might work on the first try, or might take some time as the children get comfortable with you and learn to understand the way your classroom operates. Hopefully with these few tips, you won’t have tricky transitions, and you’ll be smooth sailing from one activity to the next.