Tips for Transitioning Activities

Posted on September 20, 2016 · Posted in Parent Tips

A mom writes:

“I enjoy taking my 4-year-old son to the park, play areas at the mall, and other fun places. Lately, though, he pitches a huge fit whenever it’s time to leave. He just wants to play all day and he screams all the way to the car. It’s so embarrassing and makes me want to just stay home. How can I get this kid under control?!”

Transitioning from a fun (preferred) activity to a less fun activity is hard. You do not need to live with a kicking and thrashing tiny human, though. There are ways to help your child avoid these meltdowns so you can still go have some fun.

Before you try any strategies, you need to directly teach your kiddo the replacement behavior. What do you want/need them to do INSTEAD of having a fit in public? Keep it simple. Teach it and talk about it consistently. “When it’s time to leave, we will walk nicely to the car.” Say it over and over before you ever get to the park.

The other MUST-do before trying the strategies below- choose a reinforcer for your child’s replacement behavior. “When it’s time to go, we will walk nicely to the car. After you walk nicely, you can choose a show to watch in the car.”  If you want that desired behavior to increase, you’d better reinforce it. Every. Single. Time. You can word this using “First, Then” language. “First walk nicely to the car, then choose a treat.” 

Now that we’ve laid the groundwork of: teach replacement behavior, provide a reinforcer for it, and talk about it simply, consistently, and often, we can move on to some strategies to try to help ease your transition struggles.

Strategies to try:

  1. Countdown to time to leave. Give verbal 10-minute, 5-minute, 3-minute, 1-minute warnings. That way the time to go announcement does not catch them off guard. Warn them that it’s on the way.
  2. Set a timer. Let your child help you set the timer on your phone. Tell them they have 35 minutes to play, and then let them set the timer for 35 minutes. The timer says it’s time to go, not me. Don’t be mad at me; be mad at the timer.
  3. Plan out the day/morning/afternoon before leaving home. First we’re going to the grocery store, then the park, and then home for lunch. That way when it’s time to leave, you can talk about what is coming next. It’d be wise to leave a super fun activity in order to go do something that doesn’t suck. Like eating or going another place your child likes. Going from fun playtime to grocery shopping with mom is not exactly the way to set your kid and yourself up for success.
  4. Practice transitions at home. Do it the exactly same way you would when it’s time to leave the play place. But instead it may be how you end playtime with toys to go get in the car and run errands. Use the same “First, Then” language and provide a reinforcer for transitioning nicely.  Your child will get used to the “First, Then” format and know that something good is coming if they do the desired replacement behavior Mom keeps talking about. I mean concisely explaining using consistent language.

Make sure all the grown-ups are handling transitions consistently. Use the same replacement behavior expectations, use the same “First, Then” language, use a reinforcer.


Page, Leanne, M.Ed, BCBA

Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Basic Concepts. In Applied Behavior Analysis (2nd ed.) Columbus: Pearson.