Smooth Out Daily Transitions for Your Preschoolers

Woodrow Wilson once said, “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.”  Transitions are all about change, and that is why they can be so challenging.  While asking a child playing with legos to “please put on your shoes” may sound like a simple request to us, from a child’s perspective we are suddenly barging through the door into the comfortable world they’ve created through their play.  We are not just asking them to put on their shoes, we are asking them to immediately stop something gratifying, something unfinished, and to reject their own desires and impulses and obediently comply.  Not such a simple request anymore, is it?

Some children are quick to change gears, but others require more time and space to warm up to your ideas.  Similarly, “Let’s go get some ice cream” may meet with much less resistance than, “Let’s clean up our toys and get ready for bed.”  Here are a few things to keep in mind to make all your transitions a little bit smoother.


The biggest key to smooth transitions is to prepare your children.  We often refer to transitions as “shifting gears”.  If you’ve ever driven a stick shift, you know that you can not move immediately from first gear to second gear.  You have to push in the clutch to take the pressure of the gears, shift, and then ease into the next gear very gradually.  Trying to jam into another gear too quickly will cause them to grind, jolt, and even stall.  (Trust me, I tried far too many times as a teenager!)  In a similar way, we need to avoid abrupt changes in favor of easing into them with the children we love and teach. 

Prepare your children by talking about the upcoming schedules.  Let them know what to expect.  When they know what comes next, it is a bit easier to understand why they need to change what they’re doing.  They will understand that you are not just arbitrarily asking them to stop doing something fun, but that there is something else to move on to.

Give warnings before the actual transition time.  Different children have different needs, but generally I give a five-minute warning with young children.  This is like pushing in the clutch to release the pressure as you shift gears.  It lets children know what’s coming and allows them the courtesy of finishing up.  Sometimes, particularly with my own children, when I know leaving a particularly fun activity will be hard (or that they were to too giddy to actually register my reminder)  I walk them through a script as I give that five-minute reminder.  (“It will be time to leave in five minutes.  So, when I come back in five minutes and say it’s time to go, you’ll say…..”  “OK, Mom.”  “Thanks, Buddy.“)

Offer Choices

Reduce power struggles by finding ways to give children power through decision-making.  If you ask a child if she’s ready to leave the park and go home, she’ll probably say no.  If you let her choose between leaving now and leaving in five minutes, she will probably choose to leave in five minutes.  After five minutes have passed, she will be much more likely to comply because it was her choice.

Create Routines

Plan for transitions and build them into your routines.  For example, always cleaning up before story time, always putting on shoes and coats for outside time after putting snack dishes in the sink, or always brushing teeth and having stories before bed.  This not only creates order in your day, but the task of transitioning becomes an internal and automatic part of your child’s day, leading to less resistance.  When the transition is expected, change becomes part of the comfortable constant.

Instead of nagging, use signals to remind your children of the transition.  Many parents and schools use a clean-up song as a signal for a transition.  You may also want to have a wake-up song, or a hand-washing song.  Clocks and timers can also be great signals.  I’ve found that if I say that five minutes have expired it is somehow negotiable, but when the timer goes off everyone moves right along, as though the beeping had some sort of hypnotic element.

When you’re transitioning a group of children, remember to give the children something to do as they transition at different rates.  A group of children will not usually all finish a snack at once or put on their shoes and jackets at the exact same moment.  Children will rarely sit perfectly still and wait for you.  They will find something else to do, and sometimes that “something” includes taking their shoes and jackets off again!  Plan and prepare for the next step.  Let them know where to go and what to do once their task is complete.  You may need to provide open-ended activities like dancing, building with blocks, doing puzzles, or coloring to keep everyone engaged until the entire group is ready.

Change may be one way to create enemies, but usually only when that change is forced.  When we include children in the process of change by using smooth transitions, we stay on the same team!

Top photo by mrgoose.

Gear shift by mattze.

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Filed under Article, Transitions

5 responses to “Smooth Out Daily Transitions for Your Preschoolers

  1. Amy

    I like this post, one i need to work on. I also recently read about doing the best you can to eliminate or ease the stress of the hardest transitions. Mom can plan ahead to make those transitions easier. For example, if eating breakfast and getting somewhere on time is hard, the night before do something that will make it more bearable for all, like getting shoes together at the door, or getting clothes out ready to have on. By doing that, Mom will be a lot happier, and the kids will have an easier time too. (wish I could remember where I heard that, I need to read it again)

    • notjustcute

      So true, Amy! I found that when my oldest was anxious about school, that morning was not the time to pick out clothes – it was just too much. But picking them out the night before was a breeze and made for a much smoother transition the next morning!

  2. Pingback: Time Timer Giveaway! « Not Just Cute

  3. So true…School-Summer is a big transition for kids. Routines help kids feel safe and secure. For us, the first days of summer involved cleaning out the backpacks, and setting up an area of the living room as a play space. We also made a master calendar and discussed when during the day we would work on daily practice (math worksheets, instrument practice, and reading).

    • Andre, cara…que incrivel ler sobre sua viagem neste lugar incrivel e falar das Chimay com tanta propriedade e leveza. Estou aprendendo a pouco tempo um pouco mais sobre esse mundo. E combinar – just like you did – cerveja com viagem não poderia ter sido escolha melhor! Parabéns. Sua nova &qquo;seguidora&utot;.Abs

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