Why you should think about transitions differently.


By Shelley McLean, M.Ed, BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

If you work with individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and diverse needs, you have probably encountered at least one learner who has difficulty with transitions.  Although the exact reasons why individuals with ASD may have more challenges around transitions than their typically-developing peers are unclear, the restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior that characterize ASD appear to make changes in routine particularly difficult for some individuals (Sterling-Turner & Jordan, 2007).  Whether learners are transitioning from their desks to the reading carpet, from the classroom to the playground, from the cafeteria to the gym, or from a literacy activity to a numeracy activity, the school day is composed of an ongoing series of transitions.  Since research indicates that learners spend between 20% and 35% of their typical day in transition activities (Sainato & Lyon, 1983), particularly in the preschool and elementary years, difficulty in this area can have a significant impact on the individual’s successful participation in the school setting and activities.  The challenges carry over to home and community as well, often making family outings and social events difficult for all involved.

The strategies most often used to help learners experience more successful transitions and to make these situations less challenging include a handful of antecedent-based interventions (Sterling-Turner & Jordan, 2007).  Perhaps the most common is to provide advance notice or a cue that a transition is going to happen.  Maybe you give the individual a verbal warning, such as, “In 2 minutes recess will be over and we will go inside.”  You may use a timer, turn on some music, or turn the lights in the classroom off to indicate that an activity is coming to an end.  Another common strategy is the use of a visual schedule or some type of picture cue to represent that one task or activity is finishing, and indicating what the next one will be.  Video priming has also been suggested as a possible strategy to facilitate more successful transitions.  All of these strategies are based on the hypothesis that unpredictable situations pose particular difficulty for learners with ASD and diverse needs, and that making the situations more predictable will cause them to be less aversive (Flannery & Horner, 1994).

However, perhaps you have tried some of these antecedent interventions and have discovered that, for learner the learner you support, providing advance notice and increasing the predictability of the situation did not make the situation easier and did not reduce challenging behaviors during the transition process.  If that is the case, thinking about transitions in a different way may be helpful.   We often think of “a transition” as one thing or event; however, if we break it down, any transition actually involves a series of steps.  At the very least, each transition involves stopping one activity, changing location or position, and beginning another activity (McCord, Thomson, & Iwata, 2001).  To further complicate things, the transition might involve stopping a preferred activity, like playing on the playground or eating lunch, and starting a less preferred task (Kern & Vorndran, 2000), like going back into the classroom or doing a writing task.  Problem behavior that happens around transitions might be related to any one of those individual components, and sorting out which specific element is causing and maintaining the problem behavior may be necessary to develop an effective intervention.

Decades of research demonstrate that all behavior serves certain functions.  Whether the behavior is one we want to see, or one that is challenging or interferes with learning, all behavior is sensitive to the consequences it produces.  Problem behavior that happens in relation to transitions is no exception.   Well-controlled scientific studies have demonstrated that, for some learners who display problem behavior related to transitions, providing advance notice or introducing antecedent interventions has no effect on the problem behavior (Waters, Lerman, & Hovanetz, 2009; Wilder, Nicholson, & Allison, 2010).  However, when functional analyses were conducted, the results indicated that for some individuals, challenging behaviors were directly related to stopping the pre-transition activity, while the other components of the transition resulted in no problem at all.  For other learners, problem behavior functioned to avoid beginning a new task; stopping the first task and changing locations did not result in any challenging behavior.  The studies also showed that the behavior of some learners was sensitive to having to change locations, regardless of the activities that happened on either side if that change (Kern & Vorndran, 2000; McCord, Thomson, & Iwata, 2001).

While it should not be surprising that challenging or interfering behavior surrounding transitions is sensitive to the same environmental contingencies that influence all behavior, there remains research to be done in this area.  That may be one reason why we continue to implement a limited range of antecedent interventions to address transition difficulties, in spite of evidence to suggest that these are often not successful, or at least are not effective for some individuals and under some circumstances.  It may be valuable instead to think about a transition as a series of individual steps, any one of which may affect the learner’s behavior.  Identifying the problematic step in the transition process may reveal the contingencies causing and maintaining the behavior and result in a function-based intervention that will facilitate more successful transitions for everyone involved.

Have you experienced particular challenges or successes with transitions? Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!


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

Kern, L. & Vorndran, C. M. (2000). Functional assessment and intervention for transition difficulties. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 25(4), 212-216.

McCord, B. E., Thomson, R. J., & Iwata, B. A. (2001). Functional analysis and treatment of self-injury associated with transitions. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 34(2), 195-210.

Sainato, D. & Lyon, S. (1983, October). A descriptive analysis of the requirements for independent performance in handicapped and nonhandicapped preschool classrooms. In P. S. Strain (Chair), Assisting behaviorally handicapped preschoolers in mainstream settings: A report of research from the Early Childhood Research Institute. Paper presented at the National Early Childhood Conference for Children with Special Needs, Washington, DC.

Sterling-Turner, H. E., & Jordan, S. S. (2007). Interventions addressing transition difficulties for individuals with autism. Psychology in the Schools, 44(7), 681-690.

Waters, M. B., Lerman, D. C., & Hovanetz, A. N. (2009). Separate and combined effects of visual schedules and extinction plus differential reinforcement on problem behavior occasioned by transitions. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 42(2), 309-313.

Wilder, D. A., Nicholson, K. & Allison, J. (2010). An evaluation of advance notice to increase compliance among preschoolers. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 43(4), 751-755.


smclean-headshotShelley McLean, M.Ed, BCBA is passionate about empowering educators with an understanding of behavioural principles to give them the tools and the confidence to ignite the potential in all of their learners.  She is the Coordinator of the interprovincial Autism in Education (AIE) Partnership for the Atlantic Provinces Special Education Authority (APSEA) in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.  Shelley has worked as a classroom teacher, guidance counselor, high school administrator, itinerant ASD consultant, and provincial Learning Specialist for ASD and Complex Cases during her career in education, which spans more than 17 years.  She has also served as a part-time instructor for ABA courses at the University of New Brunswick and Western University in Ontario.  Shelley holds Bachelor degrees in Arts and Education, and a Master of Education degree in Counseling Psychology.  She completed a Graduate Academic Certificate in Applied Behavior Analysis from the University of North Texas and has been a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) since 2010.  You can contact her at [email protected]

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5 Comments on "Why you should think about transitions differently."

  1. Dear Shelly,

    Thank you for this interesting article. It is an excellent reminder of the role of the ABCs (Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence),and the crucial importance of the Consequence in maintaining behavior.

    It seems that many people turn to antecedent-based strategies because they are unaware of how to implement consequence-based strategies.

    In regards to transitions, the consequence-based approach known as Teaching with Acoustical Guidance (TAGteach) has been demonstrated to be effective in reducing problem behavior during transitions. Please see link to the research abstract here: http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/etd/5443/. The PDF of the complete report is available at the bottom of that reference.

    Thank you for raising this important issue.

    Martha Gabler
    Autism Parent
    TAGteach Faculty

  2. Teaching students the classroom schedule, flow of it, areas, and activities in each area is where I start in the beginning of the year. Each area is paired with reinforcement and once the students are willfully moving through the classroom schedule, reinforcement is then made contingent on engagement in other learning tasks. This shaping takes about a month from my experience. Task completion is not a goal for all students, but helping them build their stamina for longer periods of focus is. I too find that antecedent interventions aren’t always effective for a variety of reasons, and sometimes adding additional reinforcement procedures in response to this lack of transitional behavior may not always be necessary if we take the time to mindfully and patiently shape behavior.

  3. I think it depends on where the person is transitioning to/from. My grandson is 4 1/2, he lives with his mom in a very poverty stricken situation. My family, his fathers family are not in that situation. His transition from her to me is wonderful, he practically runs away from her, but his return is very traumatic for us all. He begins to cry as soon as we turn onto the street where he lives with her. He goes into a sad, depressed state screams and cries excessively. I believe these children should be taken seriously as to why they don’t want to transition at a time. I prepare him 4-5 days in advance of the transition. I know that he knows that he does not want to go there. He’s not fed properly, her home is filthy and crowded, he has no down time and no space to move around. We should take the child’s feelings into consideration as to why he/she does not want to transition. Why can’t the therapists move, or the teachers move. Not the child. Their brains don’t work like ours, but they do function and some very well. My grandson is high functioning.

  4. Nice analysis of different functions for different components

  5. Valerio Celedon MS CCC-SLP, BCBA | June 16, 2017 at 11:54 am | Reply

    At times and not with all learners, visual schedules do serve as an SD (discriminative stimulus) for challenging behavior, as we are nonverbally signaling to the student, “Here comes the nonpreferred task buddy.” Great article. Thanks and praise to you for contributing continuously!

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