Brain Switcheroos: Why Transitions are Challenging (and How You Can Help!)

Attention parents: does this scenario sound familiar?

Parent: We need to leave. Please go put on your shoes & jacket.

Child: <ignores, continues activity>

Parent: Did you hear what I said? Let’s go.

Child: Just one more minute…

Parent: Nope, now. Or we will be late.

Child: But Mom! I can’t go now because <enter excuse for almost beating a level in video game, or it’s the best part of the movie, or can’t leave craft or Lego structure unfinished>

Parent: You can finish it later. Let’s…

Child: I’m almost done! Just wait…

Parent: Put it away, and go put on your shoes and jacket. Now!

Child: Alright alright. <half looks for clothing items> I can’t find them…

Both: <more arguing>

Can you relate with this stressful and frustrating scene? Unfortunately, frustration can linger well into the drive to your destination. Emotions are heightened and thoughts swirl…how did we get to this point? Why won’t my child listen to me? What did I do wrong?? <cue parent guilt>

Please understand, it is not you! Transitions are challenging for kids. Period.

Why? Here are some reasons:

  • A rapid and unexpected change in thoughts (I’ve nicknamed this a “brain switcheroo”)
  • The swift shift in attention from one activity to another
  • Changes in sensory experiences: sights, sounds, surface beneath feet, movement
  • Missed cues (e.g., hyperfocused on activity, therefore did not process parent’s instructions)
  • Addictive quality of activity (especially electronics) increases difficulty in activity’s termination
  • Change in preference: Activity B is boring compared to activity A

Luckily, there are strategies that are proven in childhood behavioral research to both ease stress on the child and increase compliance, from beginning to end. Here are some suggestions:

Structure the transition, and teach each step.

Let’s start with a technique we professionals use consistently. “Scaffolding” is a variety of instructional techniques (e.g., instructing, modeling, hinting, providing feedback) used to progressively move a child towards greater independence in a skill. And yes, transitioning is a skill to learn. Unfortunately, it is not automatically acquired. Luckily, school settings provide a ton of practice for children to learn how to go from activity/location A to activity/location B. Learning is achieved via teacher & older peer modeling, then opportunities for independence.

What about at home? Well, children are NOT always as compliant for parents as they are for teachers. (As a parent myself, I am speaking from personal experience). Therefore, home is a setting where scaffolding can help tremendously.

How to use scaffolding: Think about every step involved.

  • Examples of steps involved: terminate current activity, clean up, switch brain off of original concept, switch brain onto new activity, prep for new tasks, complete new tasks (e.g., walk someplace, follow hand washing routine, find clothing materials and then dress)

Break down the transition on paper. Then walk your child through each step during the transition. Repeat this process. Finally, when your child starts catching on, begin fading out your help. For more info on parent scaffolding:

Use priming.

Preparing a child for an upcoming change is one of the most effective strategies to prevent problem behaviors. This strategy is called “priming.” Some children may need just a single “one more minute” cue. Others need two or more warning signals. Deliver these notices using a neutral tone of voice. Also, make sure that your child is processing your words by having them pause the video game, look in your direction, etc.

One word: timers.

Timers are magical. Use a silent one (sand timer, Time Timer or one with an audible ending (kitchen timer, timer function on cell phone).


Positive reinforcement for complying when you say “it’s time to go” is extremely important to increase the likelihood that your child will transition well in the future. Sing praises, even if you are silently thinking “my child should do this on their own, without being praised!” Remember, moving from point A to point B is a lot harder for them than it is for us adults. Praising their efforts goes a long way!

Get creative with reinforcement.

If a late afternoon or evening extracurricular transition is causing you headaches, think about adding to the daily schedule a no-free-choice-after-extracurricular rule. Make the evening electronics-free. Then, when your child does exceptionally well with a transition, you can reward a job well done with bonus minutes on their favorite electronic, to be redeemed in the near future.

Make remembering easier.

Visuals are a great way to help a child remember. You may need to write out, or print photos of, the steps of the transition. Laminate a checklist that your child can follow and check off. For older children, download an app on their phone that will remind them of all steps.

If you have a young child, think about putting the steps of the transition to music. Create your own lyrics to a familiar tune, then teach while singing. If you need inspiration, “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” has some excellent examples. Or enlist the help of a Behavior Consultant…we have dozens of fun tunes and other useful strategies ready to introduce into your home to help ease transition challenges!


Posted in Articles, Behavior, Executive Function, Parenting, Social Skills.