Smooth Transitions for Children

Back to school

How to help your child (and you) get back to school successfully

It’s back to school time, and many families, parents, and children are making a transition of some sort. Whether it is going to school for the first time, going back to school after a summer break (or a quarantine), or even changing schools or classrooms, transitions can be difficult for children (and families). Dealing with change is difficult for most people, and is often difficult for children to understand. Transitions may be frustrating or provoke anxiety and can lead to challenging behaviors. Families may see children stalling, throwing tantrums, having meltdowns, or whining and crying. 

There are many reasons children struggle with transitions, such as when the child is hungry or tired. Difficulty with transitions is common when children are confused or unsure as to what to expect. It is sometimes difficult for caregivers to understand why transitions are so difficult for children, so we encourage adults to look at the world through their children’s eyes and consider what the child needs in order to feel comfortable with the next thing. Remember, they’ve never done this before!

There are ways parents can help children (and themselves) through a transition smoothly. Children thrive when they know what to expect, feel comfortable in their new space, and have a sense of accomplishment once they transition to the new environment.  Here are some ways for you and your child to make a smooth transition:

Know What to Expect:

  • Preview the new space
    • If possible, take your child to the new place. Notice the physical space, who’s in that space, and what people are doing in that space.  If it’s not possible to visit the space, take a walk around the building, or drive by it.
    • During the COVID-19 pandemic, many programs and schools have had to limit visitors. If this is the case, work with your provider to do a video tour.
  • Discuss what will happen in the new space, practice it
    • Even if you don’t know the specific daily routines, you can discuss parts of the day (play time, music, outside time, lunch time, nap time, story time).
    • Walk through the day with your child verbally, or pretend you are in school with your child and act out the activities together.
  • Introduce your child to adults (and other children) in new space
    • If your child “knows” one person in that space, it feels safe.  Be sure to use the adult’s (and/or other children’s) name(s) at home when discussing the new space so that your child becomes familiar with that person right away.
    • If your provider is limiting visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, arrange a video meeting with your child’s teacher(s), so they will recognize a face when they arrive in person. It may also be possible to meet teachers on the playground, which will serve the dual purpose of meeting the teacher, but also allowing your child to play on the playground, which will help them to associate a positive experience with the new space.
  • Count down
    • This is a great tool to use for any transition (between activities, before leaving the park, before bed time, etc.).
    • Let your child know how much time is left before you transition (“We will leave the park in 10 minutes), and count down in increments (“5 more minutes to play!” and then “We will get in the car in 2 minutes”).
    • Let your child know that because they were able to transition smoothly, we can do the activity again (positive reinforcement).
  • Create routines
    • Have a bedtime routine (brush teeth, read story, goodnight kisses, etc.)
      • Plan ahead – is part of the nighttime routine packing lunch and setting out clothes for the next day?
    • Morning routines are essential in creating a calm confident child – how does the adult’s morning routine affect the child’s morning? How does the child’s routine work with the adult’s routine? Consider all aspects of the household when planning the morning.

Feel Comfortable in the New Space:

  • Have fun! Help your child understand how much fun they will have in their new space.  Possible things to discuss are:
    • New friends
    • New things to explore
    • New books
    • Learning something new
  • Use Cues to transition – this could be from home to school, or in helping to understand what will happen once at school
    • Visual cues – parents could display the daily routine at home using pictures, for example.
    • Musical cues – use music or a song (like the clean-up song), or a specific sound to signal a transition.
    • Physical cues – (such as a stuffy for nap time) can also help transition from one activity to the next.
    • Common Language – learn what words are being used at school, and use the same words to transition at home.

Have a Sense of Accomplishment:

  • Notice small steps (I noticed you got your coat zipped by yourself when it was time to go!).
  • Celebrate successful transitions (morning, day, week) – positive feedback helps children to feel confident and boosts positive behavior.
  • Discuss the day
    • Taking time to process the day with your child will help you to understand what (if any) challenges they may have, and when positive things are happening during the day.
    • Ask questions such as:
      • What was the best part of your day?
      • When did someone do something kind for you today?
      • When did you do something kind today?
      • What was something new you learned today?
      • What made you laugh or smile today?

There are times when the parent or caregiver feels stress through the transition also.  Remember that you are in the same boat as other parents, so don’t hesitate to connect with other parents. Try to stay calm and reassuring during the transition. This helps your child to know and understand that you are leaving them in a safe place where they are sure to have some fun.  Above all, and always, take care of yourself.  Being physically and mentally healthy will not only help you to care for your child effectively, but also you are modeling how they can take care of themselves now and forever. 

Lastly, remember the teachers and providers working with your child are here to help both you and your child.  Be sure to discuss any concerns or difficulties you and your child are having. They will be able to provide ideas and resources to help. When adults work together to help children transition to new situations, everyone benefits.  Parents are encouraged to communicate with early child educators, and educators with parents.  The more consistency between school and home there is for your child, the easier transitions become for everyone!

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