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How to Help Your Toddler with Transitions

Updated: Nov 6, 2023

I love toddlers. They are incredibly smart and curious. They want to "help" with everything. They pick up on things quickly, and wear their heart on their sleeve. And they're adorable!

They are also master boundary-pushers, and love to test the expectations you've set for them. At times, it may seem like they're doing it just to do it. But really, they're looking to see that you follow through and mean what you say.

They can't really learn a boundary if they don't push it at some point, right?

^^^That's not an excuse; that's just the truth. So when you're feeling a bit defeated after a long day of button pushing, just remember that this is your child's way of learning about the how the world around them works, and the safety that you as their parent provides them.

One thing that can be incredibly difficult for toddlers is transitioning. Switching from one activity to another. For example, getting up and ready for the day and heading to daycare. Or stopping their play to go eat a meal or having to go to bed at the end of the day. Or having to leave the playground. Don't even get me started on that one!

In this post I have a few helpful tricks that I use with my own children. A lot of these I've been able to implement and refine and have mastered over the years in the classroom - they really do work wonders!

"In 2 Minutes/In 1 Minute"

Anytime I know a transition is coming, I try to give my toddler about a 2-minute and a 1-minute warning. This is extremely helpful in preventing meltdowns or tantrums. When I don't give the warning, I often find my two-year-old flinging himself on the floor because I'm abruptly trying to get him to do something else without warning or time to wrap up. Think of it this way...toddlers have no sense of time. They can't read a clock. They don't know that the end of their play time is nearing. We as adults easily understand this concept. If we didn't, however, imagine how upset we would be if someone all of the sudden abruptly stopped us from whatever activity it is we were doing, without warning, and expected us to just move onto the next thing without question. It probably wouldn't work very well, right?? It's the same for our children. It's nice to give them the courtesy of a 2-minute warning, and about a minute later, a "one more minute" warning.

I also recommend using this method with any not-preferred upcoming, say, a diaper change. My two-year-old really doesn't like having to stop what he's doing to have his diaper changed, but we both know it's inevitable that I'm going to change his diaper. It definitely goes a bit more smoothly when I give him the two-minute warning so he knows it's coming.

Make sure to use this as bedtime is approaching too - "In 2 minutes we are going to clean up and take our bath."

Tech-Tip: Program your Alexa device to announce when it's time to start getting ready for bed...then mom and dad don't need to be the bad guy!

First/Then Language (for older and younger kids)

This technique is probably one of my favorites to use anytime we are working through a transition because it is quick and can be very simple for your child to understand. For example, my baby (10 months old) hates being put in his carseat. He HATES it. He gets over it fairly quickly after I say, "First carseat, then grandma's house!" because who doesn't love going to grandma's house?! This trick works really well when you say "First (the non-preferred activity), then (the preferred activity)," so it helps your child understand that their preferred activity is coming, but something else needs to happen first.

For my older son (2-years-old), I can give a bit more direction and simplify it for him if necessary. For example, I might say, "First we will read 2 books, then we will go ni-nights." If he's not joining me within a minute to read our books, I will repeat the language a bit more simply for him: "First books, then ni-nights," and this usually does the trick.

He also dislikes having to get his shoes on, but he likes going outside to play: "First shoes, then outside." It works like a charm!

Simplifying Directions

I started describing simplifying directions above with using First/Then language, however, you can do this with multistep directions as well. If I give instructions such as, "Go to your chair so we can pray and eat," essentially that is three steps for my child to understand. After using the directive, I might simplify for him (my two-year-old) and say, "Chair. Pray. Eat." I often use gestures or sign language if there are signs he knows to reinforce my expectation. For my ten-month-old, I might say, "Let's play with your ball. Can you go find it?" and then simplify it by saying, "Ball?" He went and got his ball when I did this the other day.

For bedtime, you might say, "We are going to take a bath. Then we will get our jammies on, read some books, and snuggle. Bath. Jammies. Books. Snuggle."


Once your child is old enough, you can have them take it a step further and repeat the directions above. So, if we look at the "Chair. Pray. Eat." directive again, I would simultaneously hold up counting fingers and say, "(1) chair," and have my child say, "chair." Then I'd say, "(2) pray," and have my child repeat, "pray." Then, I'd say, "(3) eat," and have him repeat, "eat." Finally, I'd put it all together and say, again, holding up my fingers to count as I say it, "(1) chair, (2) pray, (3) eat," and have him repeat all three words back to me.

Using the example above, you might have your child take it a step further and repeat, "(1) Bath. (2) Jammies. (3) Books. (4) Snuggle."

The 1-2-3 Count

The 1-2-3 Count strategy works well if you've given a direction to transition and your child isn't following it. I don't know why it works; it just does. It's just a slow count to three..."one....two....three." My son usually does whatever it is I'm requesting by two or three, but not all the time. I *think* if you have set boundaries where your child knows what kind of discipline may occur when they don't follow your instructions (and you follow through with implementing said boundaries if need be), this strategy would be more successful. For example, my two-year-old understands that if he doesn't listen to mommy or daddy, he goes to time out. Yes, time out! We can talk about that topic another day.

The 1-2-3 Count will work for other directives too, not just transitional directives.

I hope you found this post helpful. Make sure you reach out if and when you try any of these techniques and let me know how it went! Feel free to share this post with any others who may find it helpful.

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