Positive Parenting

“It’s Time To Go!” How to Smooth Transitions and Avoid Meltdowns

Ending a play date, giving back the iPad, turning off the TV — read these tips for smooth transitions that will minimize the meltdowns when it’s time for your child to “move on.”

smoothing transitions from preferred activities

It’s almost time to leave. Your child is building with LEGOs and seems content. You are dreading saying, “It’s time to go.” You know the blocks will start flying and an epic meltdown will begin.

Logging on for a remote learning class, turning off the TV, leaving the playground, giving back the iPad, or ending a play date — any of these may provoke a tantrum. Why? Many children with autism and ADHD have difficulty managing transitions from one task to another, especially when they have to stop an enjoyable activity. Behavior intervention strategies can help smooth the transitions.

Smooth Transition Tip #1: Define Expectations

What makes a “good” transition? What would you like your child to do when it’s time to move to a new activity? Clearly identifying your objectives and setting attainable short- and long-term goals are the first steps to any behavior change plan.

Let’s take the LEGO example. The expectation may be: When the time comes to shift to another activity, my child will comply when he is asked, without resisting, crying, shouting, or throwing things.

Smooth Transition Tip #2: Create a Schedule

A written or visual schedule can help your child follow the order of events for a specific time period. Whether you make a schedule for a brief segment, like a “first/then” chart, or parts of your morning and evening routines, it establishes order and predictability for transition times.

Download This Free Sample Schedule for Kids with ADHD

Schedules can be written “in the moment” with marker and paper at the kitchen table, or in advance on the computer, as well as with a mini dry erase board, or even on your child’s smartphone for preteens and adolescents. But posting a schedule does not automatically mean your child will follow it. Checking off the events in a schedule should be accompanied by positive reinforcement.

Smooth Transition Tip #3: Reinforcement

Sometimes we perceive offering pleasurable items in exchange for good behaviors as a “bribe.” However, delivering a favorite object, special snack, or any highly preferred activity following the occurrence of a desirable behavior is the best way to increase the likelihood that that behavior will occur again in the future given a similar situation.

Positive reinforcement is a highly researched principle, and when it is implemented correctly, behaviors often shift dramatically. The stimuli used as “reinforcers” must be truly motivating to your child, things that he or she can’t access without engaging in the desired behavior.

[Free Download: 13-Step Guide to Raising a Child with ADHD]

Once you have thought of possible reinforcers for your child (you can create a visual depicting the reinforcers for your child to see), try simultaneously presenting the reward as the transition time is occurring, before your child has the opportunity to resist. For example, if it has been determined that picking out a book to read would be highly motivating to Drew, say, “Drew, you are going to pick the book we will read tonight! Will you pick Dino-Hockey or Good Night, Gorilla? [Drew picks one of the selections.] Great! Let’s get your pajamas on.”

Try mentioning the reinforcer at the beginning of your direction because once children hear the cue words that are associated with transition times, they may revert to the typically occurring challenging behavior before they can hear the rest of your sentence. It’s important to plan in advance — what you will say, how you will say it, and what reinforcers are feasible at that particular time.

You might keep a special “stash” of reinforcers in the car for use when you are out and about. An exchange at transition times may sound like this: “Reese (as you hold up two small lollipops), which flavor pop would you like, strawberry or grape?” As your child selects one, you guide her away from the playground. “I love that flavor, too. Here is your pop. Let’s get to the car.” Besides offering tangible items, positive reinforcement should also include behavior-specific vocal praise: “Reese, I love how you listened the first time when we had to leave the park, and that is why you got a special pop! Great job!”

[Use This Free Guide for Ending Confrontations and Defiance]

If your child already starts to fuss when the announcement is made to start a new activity, don’t promise the reinforcer. It is very important that the engagement in a challenging behavior never results in receiving a pleasurable item or activity. Reinforcers should only follow desired behaviors. As transitions are consistently paired with reinforcement, the new desired behavior can become more of the “norm.”

Smooth Transition Tip #4: Plan in Advance

Prepare in advance to reap the benefits from your intervention plans. Know how you will present the transition, what items or activities will be effective reinforcers to motivate a successful transition, and how you will respond if your child does not go along with the shift in activity.

Your Planning Checklist

  1. If you have other children, make sure everyone else, including you, is all set before you begin the transition time with your child. Limiting other tasks and distractions can help make the shift go as smoothly as possible.
  2. Have your child in close proximity to where the transition needs to occur. If your child needs to get dressed in her bedroom, but she is currently playing a game in the basement, bring the game to her room, or bring the clothes to the basement. Try to remove additional obstacles to the transition. If your child needs to start his homework and he is playing outside, ask him to come inside first. Have a fun activity or snack ready in the area where he does his homework.
  3. Have materials — clothes, uniforms, sports equipment — ready for the next activity ahead of time. You do not want to get your child ready to comply, then have the soccer cleats or the dance leotard nowhere in sight.
  4. Know your child’s typical behavior patterns when a transition needs to occur. The more challenging the transition, the more motivating the reinforcing stimulus has to be. If you notice that a particular phrase or wording immediately sets off a fuse, find another way to convey the message.
  5. “Mean what you say, and say what you mean.” Don’t offer rewards for appropriate transitions that you can’t readily give to your child. Also, don’t threaten to lose things that you wouldn’t actually intend to follow through with. Reinforcement should come as appropriate behaviors occur. When new behaviors become established, the reinforcers can become more delayed in a systematic way.
  6. Use time reminders to help your child know that the transition time is coming. Audio timers on your smartphone, or visual timers depicting the elapsing of time with colors or moving sand can be helpful.

Give Choices When Possible

Offer options to help your child with transitions. You might say, “Do you want me to help you clean up, or do you want to do it by yourself? It is almost time to leave for baseball practice,” or “Do you want grilled cheese or pizza? We are ready to finish TV time and have lunch.” It also helps to see things from your child’s perspective. If a game is just about to end, or there are three minutes left on his TV show, be flexible when possible.

When a parent’s emotions run high, the child’s emotions will, too. Demonstrate the behaviors you want your children to engage in. Urging a child to “Come on, hurry! We are going to be late,” can have a negative effect. Stay calm and steady.

Smooth Transition Tips: Next Steps


Christine Lang, Ph.D., is associate professor and chairman of the special education department at Mercy College, in New York City and Westchester, New York.


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Updated on June 24, 2021

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