Strategies for Transitions

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We’re always excited to share posts from members of our pediatric therapy team. This post comes from Haley Payne, our very talented Behaviour Consultant and head of our Behaviour Therapy team.

Any parent can agree that at one point or another their child has had difficulty transitioning between activities, routines or events. Often, children can struggle with transitions whether they are small daily events (e.g. from a preferred activity to a less preferred activity) or larger transitions (moving, changing schools etc.) Often, children on the spectrum or those with other developmental disabilities have an especially difficult time with what can appear to be the smallest transition. This may  be a reflection of a need for predictability (Flannery & Horner,1994), or due to difficulty in comprehending what is happening next (Mesibov, Shea, & Schopler, 2005). Fortunately, there are many techniques and tools that can be used to help children transition more appropriately, independently and consistently.

Explanations and Language

  • Use concrete language and simple sentences to explain what is going to happen next. Try not to add more language or details than necessary.
  • Prime your child before the transition, using language they will understand.

Count Downs and Transitional Cues

  • Giving warnings can help children anticipate transitions before they occur. Giving warnings about how many minutes are left for an activity and using a 5 second countdown can help children anticipate the end of an activity.
  • Each child will differ in the number of warnings they will need but these warnings can usually be reduced as the child experiences successful transitions.


  • Timers can be a useful tool for helping children transition, especially visual timers which allow children to see how much more time they have before an activity will end.
  • Kitchen timers, digital timers and Time Timers are all suitable options for helping children understand when a transition will occur.

Schedules, visual

  • Visual schedules are an important tool for many children on the autism spectrum, however children who are not on the spectrum can also benefit from schedules which use pictures of activities to indicate what will happen next.
  • Visual schedules are especially helpful for children who like to know exactly what events will occur each day and they have been shown to reduce transition times and negative behaviours associated with transitions  (Schmit, Alper, Raschke & Ryndak, 2000).
  • Visual schedules can help children predict daily activities (e.g. mealtime, social groups or sport activities, school and T.V time) and larger events on a monthly calendar (e.g. trips to the doctor or vacations).
  • Knowing what information is important to your child will help determine how much detail your visual schedule needs.

Consistency and Follow Through

  • No matter what tools and techniques you use to help support your child’s transitions, being consistent and following through are two of the most important things to remember for facilitating transitions.
  • Giving an instruction multiple times or allowing a child to barter for more time with an activity can send mixed signals about the expectation involved in transition routines.
  • As a rule of thumb, repeat your instruction no more than one time and if needed prompt the child to transition appropriately (e.g. clean up toys and come to the table for lunch).
  • Prompts should only be as intrusive as necessary to complete the job and should be faded over time (e.g. using a full physical hand over hand prompt should eventually be faded to a gestural prompt).

Use Praise

  • Praising a child for transitioning independently or without negative behaviours can increase the probability they will transition well again in the future.
  • It is important to remember to praise closer and closer approximations to the desired behaviour (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2007). For this reason sometimes it is necessary for parents to look for the things the child is doing right and focus on praising these elements of the transition routine.

Each child is different and some techniques will work better for some than others. Knowing your child and their learning strengths and deficits can help you choose suitable tools and techniques to teach them to transition more independently and appropriately over time.



Cooper, J.O., Heron, T. E., Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis (2nd ed.). Upper           Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.


Flannery, K. & Horner, R. (1994). The relationship between predictability and problem behavior for students with severe disabilities. Journal of Behavioral Education, 4, 157-176. –


Mesibov, G., Shea, V., & Schopler, E. (2005). The TEACCH℠ approach to autism spectrum disorders. New York, NY: Plenum Publishers. – See more at:

Schmit, J., Alper, S., Raschke, D., & Ryndak, D. (2000). Effects of using a photographic cueing package during routine school transitions with a child who has autism. Mental Retardation, 38, 131-137


If you have any questions about behaviour therapy or helping your child with transitions, contact our Burlington therapy center at 905-633-9222. We’re always happy to help!

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