Knowing good transition strategies for your child with special needs is very important. Many children with an array of special needs have difficulty transitioning from one activity to the next, from one person to another and/or from one place to another. Planning for these difficulties can often help to decrease inappropriate and/or out-of-control behavior from your child. It is better to assume that your child may have a difficulty and prepare for transitions than to be caught off guard and have to deal with a major meltdown.
There are several strategies you can choose from based on your child’s needs, level of cognition, communication method and behavioral patterns. I am not suggesting that you try to implement all of these at once. You know your child best and you know what situations he/she tends to struggle with the most. Use these strategies as a guide to help you to alleviate some of the stress involved with helping your child learn how to deal with transitions appropriately. Unexpected transitions are also great ways to work on emotions, waiting and frustration management.
There are two very important factors no matter what strategies you decide to incorporate. First, and most important, you must mean what you say. If you tell a child he has five more minutes on the computer, 3 more minutes until she has to put away her toys, 1 more minute until he has to leave to go to the doctor’s or 1 more minute until the babysitter is coming and your are leaving, you must be willing to follow through, even if your child has a meltdown. If you are not someone who follows through, children learn very quickly that they can manipulate you through their behavior. I am a big proponent of timers, not only because they can give the child a visual reminder but also because they can help me stay true to my word. My students have learned that when that timer dings, it means, “all done”. Second, you must be very patient and use repetition in your language when you are referring to transitions. You do not need fancy lingo. Use simple commands or requests in as many situations as possible. If you can get all caregivers to use the same language, it is even better.
Implementing a written or picture schedule can be very helpful for many children. The needs of your child will dictate whether you need many specific schedules or fewer broad schedules. Specific schedules are often helpful for children who have difficulty attending to steps in a process or difficulties with knowing what to expect in certain locations. Some examples of specific schedules may include preparing for going to school in the morning or going to the grocery store or playing with a friend. Broad schedules are good to give kids an overall vision for the day or the activity.
Some children respond best to nonverbal cues that you have previously set up. If your child is verbal, ask him what type of cue he thinks would help him disengage from his current activity and move on to something new with less difficulty. If he is nonverbal and likes pictures, go through Google images and find pictures he identifies with. Some examples of nonverbal cues I have used with children are: flipping the lights on and off (as long as there are no children with seizures in my classroom), using the ASL sign for “all done”, ringing a bell or a chime that is only used for transitions, setting five minutes on a timer next to the child or putting the predetermined transition picture onto the child’s picture board.
Picture Cues are another method to help children transition. This takes time on the front end because you either have to find pictures on the computer or take pictures of your child in different activities and scenarios. For best results, you want to laminate them or use clear packing tape to cover them and then use Velcro tape to stick them all on a clip board or a wall chart. Depending on your child’s abilities, either you can ask her to find the pictures or you can place the pictures on the schedule for her. I usually have three slots for pictures with the following titles, “First I am going to…”, Next I am going to…” and “After that I am going to…”. If the child is verbal I ask her to read it with me, if the she is nonverbal I read it to her. Just before completion of the first activity, I bring the child’s attention to the board and say or sign, “What’s next?” so she knows a transition is about to occur. When we get to the next activity, I move the top two up and then add on a new third one. This strategy does take more time and effort and it seems to help many children tremendously.
Some children do not need pictures or nonverbal cues and you can use verbal cues for transitions. This could be a traditional warning such as, “You have five more minutes with X and then we’re doing Y”. This could also be done in a review format such as, “First, we’re going to drive to the post office to mail this package, second we’re going to go to the pharmacy to pick up some medicine, third we’re going to see your speech therapist at their office and then fourth we’re going to go to the park and you can swing on the swings”.
Unfortunately, the best thought out plan is sometimes interrupted or unexpectedly changes and many children with special needs have significant issues dealing with this. It is important to talk to your child about emotions-especially strong negative emotions such as disappointment, anger, sadness and frustration. You can find posters or work sheets that have many different faces showing different emotions. There are great books picture books you can use to talk about emotions with young children. I have also used movies, video games and television to talk about emotions with older children. All children need to understand that there are times when they are going to feel these emotions and they need to know what is expected when they feel them. Most children with special needs, and many neurotypical children, need explicit instruction in this area. As a family, it is important to discuss how you handle negative emotions. I encourage children to express their feelings verbally, through sign or through pictures. I then validate the feeling by saying something like, “I see that you’re sad because we couldn’t go to the park because it’s raining, what could we do instead” or “I hear that your angry because you wanted a candy bar at the store and we couldn’t get one, what else could we have instead”. Giving alternatives can help to deescalate a situation. When I give choices and the child says something like, “No, I want the park or I want the candy bar”. Then I calmly say again, “Your choice is A or B or nothing”. Children will initially test you but very quickly learn that they would rather have something than nothing.
What types of transitions are the most difficult for your child? What has worked best for you in helping your child to transition? I would love to hear your stories and thoughts on this subject!