Counting down is one of the most commonly used strategies for transitioning children. For instance, in the classroom, your child might hear his teacher say “In 5 more minutes we are going to clean up and go outside.”
However, children who have developmental delays such communication difficulties, sensory processing issues, and autism, often have more difficulty transitioning than other children. And for these kids, a countdown might actually make them more disregulated and upset. So what ends up happening when you try the countdown at home?
Parent: Five more minutes until we clean up….One more minute until we clean up…ten more seconds…five…four…three…two…one…
Child: [Insert kicking and screaming here]
Parent: [Insert stress and frustration here]
I know what you're thinking...There has to be a better way!
So what is an alternative to the good old-fashioned countdown?
Here’s our idea: Let your child transition himself by letting him come up with the timeframe, and having him answer questions about what will happen next. Here’s an example:
Parent: We have to go take a bath soon. How many more minutes do you want to play with your trains? One more minute or two more minutes?
Child: Two more minutes.
Parent: Ok, and after two minutes, what are we going to do?
Child: Take a bath.
Parent: Ok, it’s been two minutes. Now where are we going?
Child: To the bathtub.
Parent: Ok, let’s go! What color towel do you want to get?
Notice how the parent asks questions, such as “what are we going to do?” and “where are we going?” This allows the child to feel like he is in control of the situation and generating the ideas himself, rather than feeling like his parent is giving him directions and controlling him. For example, the parent says “It’s been two minutes. Now where are we going?” instead of “It’s been two minutes. Now we are going to the bath.” This seems like a small change in the parent’s language, but this can make a huge difference to your child.
Ultimately, we know that we were the ones in control of the situation, because we are the ones choosing the activities and choosing the order. By using these strategies, we are simply giving the child a chance to provide his input, which helps build flexibility.
For children who are very rigid in their routines, it does not help them when we give them concrete, black-and-white structure, because this does not build flexibility. It is better for us to model flexible behavior, give them choices, and allow them to generate their own ideas. This is how to improve a child’s flexibility and willingness to accept change.