The bell rings. Recess is over. Instead of getting in line, your student makes a mad dash for the swings.
When you ask your child to stop playing and go brush her teeth she has a fit.
You dread going to the park because when it’s time to leave, you end up having to carry a screaming, kicking six year old to the car. Every time.
These are examples of kids who have difficulty transitioning from one activity to the next- especially if the current activity is really fun. Now, most children aren’t going to do something as soon as you ask them to, but with children with autism or other special needs, the transition battle can be extremely intense, and can seem to occur all day long, with just about everything.
It’s tempting to walk on eggshells around your child and avoid placing demands on him or resort to bribing him with cookies whenever he refuses to transition. But this will only mask the issue. It is important for your child to learn how to cope with change and accept that sometimes we have to do non-preferred, but necessary tasks.
The following strategies are tried and tested strategies used by applied behavior analysts to make the transition process easier:
Following a Schedule
Routines can help reduce anxiety about what comes next. For children with special needs, picture schedules are very helpful and can be used to show the child that other fun activities are coming up later in the day.
If you consistently give your child a warning, such as “5 more minutes” it reduces the shock associated with suddenly having to stop a fun activity. Providing a warning or countdown allows your child to process the fact that the activity will soon be over. Don’t worry about whether or not your child actually understands the concept of time- if you say it often enough, and always follow through, he will get that “5 more minutes” means very soon, it’s time to clean up, or go home, or eat lunch, or whatever. Also, a timer is a good tool to use to signal the end of an activity. For some reason a child is less likely to argue with a timer!
If you ask your child to do something, follow through! This is probably the most important factor in teaching your child to follow instructions. After all, if you constantly give in, your child will not take you seriously.
Sometimes, children will fight their parents or teachers tooth and nail because what they really want is some control over their lives. So whenever possible, allow your child to make a choice. “Do you want to run to the car or skip to the car?” “Do you want me to help you brush your teeth or do you want to do it all by yourself?” “It’s time for lunch! Do you want apples with your sandwich or do you want carrots?” I’ve seen many children beam with pride because they got to choose which pair of pants they are going to wear to school. Choices give your child a sense of control and, when used during transitions, choices take your child’s mind off of the transition itself and get him to focus on something else.
Sometimes kids need to be told exactly what to do. “OK, we are going to sit in our car seat and buckle up.” Or “When the bell rings, get in line.” “Say, bye-bye truck!” “Say, bye-bye swings, see you tomorrow!”
By now you should know that reinforcement is a very huge part of applied behavior analysis! You always, always, want to reinforce your child anytime they do something good. In this case, when your child stops an activity and transitions to the next, you should reward him. You may need to start with tangible reinforcement such as a favorite snack, or toy, but gradually, fade to simply praising your child when they follow instructions.