Tips for Transitioning Activities, from your Behavior BFF

By Leanne Page, M.Ed, BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer and your “Behavior BFF”

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?!

This is something I witness and experience regularly myself. My own Little loves the mall play area by our house and boy do we get to witness some lovely behaviors there! Transitioning from a fun (preferred) activity to a less fun activity is hard. Life can be rough on a wee person. You do not need to live with a kicking and thrashing tiny human, though. There are ways to help your Little avoid these meltdowns so you can still go have some fun.

Let’s back up this trolley for a sec. 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.” This is called the Premack Principle.  It’s probably my favorite ABA tool, and I use it every day as a parent. Be prepared to hear about it all the time. All. The. Time.

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 woes.

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 ‘em 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 Little will get used to the “First, Then” format and know that something good is coming if they do the desired replacement behavior Mom keeps yammering about. I mean concisely explaining using consistent language.
  5. Read books about transitioning nicely. Write stories and illustrate them about the “First, Then” scenario you are setting up. Read them regularly. Here’s my example story. It’s really great and sophisticated, huh?

Billy and Mommy like to go play at the mall. It’s so fun to play and climb. When it’s time to go, Mommy’s phone alarm will go off. Billy and Mommy will walk nicely to the car together. When Billy walks nicely, he gets to choose his snack! What a fun time!

This is not even scratching the surface on social stories, just FYI.

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.

Give these ideas a go and let me know what you think!

Don’t just take my word for it. There are decades of behavior analytic research backing up these practical ideas.  Here’s  just a tiny sample:

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

Cooper, J. O. (1982). Applied behavior analysis in education. Theory into practice21(2), 114-118.

Dettmer, S., Simpson, R. L., Myles, B. S., & Ganz, J. B. (2000). The use of visual supports to facilitate transitions of students with autism. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities15(3), 163-169.

Kuttler, S., Myles, B. S., & Carlson, J. K. (1998). The use of social stories to reduce precursors to tantrum behavior in a student with autism. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities13(3), 176-182.

Lorimer, P. A., Simpson, R. L., Myles, B. S., & Ganz, J. B. (2002). The use of social stories as a preventative behavioral intervention in a home setting with a child with autism. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions4(1), 53-60.

Wahler, R.G., and Fox, J.J. (1981) Setting events in applied behavior analysis: Toward a conceptual and methodological expansion, Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 14 (3), 327-338.

Do you have questions for Behavior BFF? Leave a question here in the comments, email the writer, or check out any bSci21 social media outlets to leave your question or problem scenario!  Also be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

leanne pageLeanne Page, M.Ed, BCBA has worked with kids with disabilities and their parents in a variety of settings for over 10 years. She has taught special education classes from kindergarden-grade 12, from self-contained to inclusion. Leanne has also managed a center providing ABA services to children in 1:1 and small group settings. She has extensive experience in school and teacher training, therapist training, parent training, and providing direct services to children and families in a center-based or in-home therapy setting. Since becoming a mom, Leanne has a new mission to share behavior analytic practices with a population she knows needs it- all moms of littles! Leanne does through her site and through her book ‘Parenting with Science: Behavior Analysis Saves Mom’s Sanity”.

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