When it's time to go home and your toddler just isn't having it, it's most likely because they are having difficulty transitioning.
A transition is simply the act of moving from one activity to the next.
When speaking with teachers regarding children who are having difficulty in the classroom, I always ask what time of the day the child is most likely to have a meltdown and/or what exactly they are doing at that time. More times than not, it is during a transition of some sort that the child loses their composure. It is when the child is moving from one center to the next, from free-play to circle time, from outdoor play to indoor play, you get the point.
It is completely normal for children to have a hard time with transitions. Kids on the autism spectrum have an even harder time with transitioning, since their auditory processing skills and/or language skills are often impaired.
Since adults are usually the ones in charge of the order of events, it can feel very frustrating to a child when it's time to move on but they don't feel ready to!
I have been there many a times with my own children. It can be really tough when you have appointments and time constraints that your child isn't mature enough to understand. But I promise you there is hope.
There is a way to leave in a timely manner without your child having a total meltdown.
These are my go to hacks for lessening the drama when it's time to transition from one activity to the next.
Even if you don't remember all five, just pick one or two that makes sense for you and be consistent. I placed the steps in order of most effective and easiest to implement first.
Sorry little person. I love you, but it's time to go home!
1. Prior Verbal Preparation
Tell them exactly what is on the agenda and when it will be time to go home. This way, there will be no surprises on their end when it is time to leave. Before you go over to a friends house, tell them something like this: "We are going over to Melissa's house. We are going to have dinner. When we finish dinner, we will gather all our things, say thank you and then we will go home." You're having them think of the exit prior to even getting there. Car rides are a great place for this kind of a conversation as it immediately precedes the event and your audience is captive. If it is a child who having a hard time transitioning to school, you could say something like, "We are going to get dressed, eat breakfast then we will get in the car and go to school."
*I talked about this more in my previous post Toddlers, Tantrums and Transitions; Minimizing Meltdowns through Communication and Connection.
2. Timers & Verbal Time Warnings
This is a classic example of how we can help children transition, and the one parents are most familiar with. Its also the one we use the most often in therapy because it is so simple and effective. A verbal time warning would be "5 more minutes and then we are going home." Continue to give warnings after each minute if necessary.
A timer is the same concept, except its more precise and less work on your part. All you need to do is say "You can play for five more minutes. Here I'll set the timer. When it starts beeping, its time to go home." Most, if not all, cell phones have a timer application.
3. Talk to Them About What's on the Other Side
If it's time to get in the car and your child is telling you they aren't ready to leave by kicking and screaming, give this one a try. Talk to them about what exciting things/activities are on the other side. Sometimes it isn't enough to say "we need to go home" or "we are going to the store," because in their eyes, what they're doing (i.e. building leggo towers) is more important.
So make it more enticing to them and get them involved using descriptors and favorite things about the next sequence of events. Ex: "Oh no, we are all out of apples! Can you help me find some at the store?" or "We need to go home so we can take Sparky out for a walk! You can ride in the stroller!"
4. Transitional Object
A transitional object is simply the idea of using a preferred object/toy to help a child transition from one activity to the next.
I legitimately use this concept every day in the clinic and with my own kids. It plays out like this. I meet a kiddo in the lobby who is typically slow to warm up and transition away from the parent. I see he is carrying his favorite action figure in his hand. Instead of saying, "Okay its time for therapy" I say "You brought batman today! Do you think he wants to see what we do in the gym?" Then I usually ask the child where we should set the favorite item where he can see all the action. Another example would be to keep a favorite blanket, action figure, doll or teddy bear around with you in your purse to make getting into the car more exciting. You don't necessarily have to use it every time but it will be there when your child is having trouble.
5. Visual Schedule
I placed this as the last tip because, usually, if you implement some of the easier steps above, you won't have to even go here. However, often times, a visual schedule is a quick fix for a toddler in transitional trouble and these work WONDERS for children who are more "concrete thinkers" and those who have language delays.
A visual schedule is simply a schedule that is visual and not auditory. So instead of saying "We are first eating breakfast, then we are getting ready and then we are going to school, you draw it out in broken down steps that are easy for your child to comprehend. Or you can make a "fancier" version using clip art.
Ex. of a Visual Schedule
You can place this visual schedule right by your child's bed so you can explain to them what will happen that day. You can also bring it with you in the car as a reminder about what is coming up next. Then your child won't be surprised when you say it's time to go! I like to say, "Ok, what's number 3?" as a cue for what is coming next. (Usually when I use a visual schedule, the kids like to check off or cross out each step as its completed.)
So there you go! It really is that simple. No, it probably won't work every time but I am confident it will smooth out the majority of transition troubles you are experiencing with your little one. Good luck mama, you've got this!
Ashley Thurn, MS, OTR/L