Classroom Management

Effective Transitions for Preschool Students

Teachers can use fun activities to help young learners ease into daily classroom routines.

July 5, 2024

Routines are important to children, yet warm weather and longer days might mean changes in the structure of a child’s day. This can bring up some big emotions for them, like fear or anxiety about what comes next. Likewise, within the preschool day, transition times can be turbulent—students may have difficulty understanding why things need to change, or they may simply not want the fun to be done.

We can help students deal with change by using transitions between activities as an opportunity to strengthen their executive functioning, resilience, and independence. Executive functioning development grows cognitive flexibility, working memory, and self-control. These are skills that require guidance and practice, as they do not come naturally.

By using positive language, modeling and co-regulation, we encourage children to be actively involved in planning and making choices. These important life-long skills also increase their social emotional well-being. Our support and intervention can be adjusted based on a child’s skill set and progress.

Offer Visual Supports as Decision-Making Tools

As adults, we count on our sticky notes, calendars, and other visuals to help us make choices and plan. Using visual supports and reminders can support children in decision-making while providing clarity. It’s important to remember that different visual reminders work for adults, and the same is true for children. Considering personal preferences, progress, and interests helps make these evidence-based tools create predictable and tranquil transitions:

Use a timer. This lets everyone know how much time there is for an activity and how much time is left. You can use a simple kitchen timer, a visual timer, or even an app on a phone.

Create a written or picture schedule of the activity or day. Adding in “choice” times gives a child the ability to make decisions and feel independent, while still working within your guidelines of choices available. Embrace opportunities for change and backup plans. If it begins to rain, and outside time changes, modeling flexibility and resilience will help children adapt too.

Share a book about transitions or a similar experience or outing. Ask questions about how a character in the story may be feeling and acting, and if they might feel or act the same or differently.

Add a first/then choice. With this very flexible  and powerful tool, you set a necessary activity and allow a child to choose the preferred paired activity. For example, you let them pick the last activity on the playground before having to go indoors: First slide, then head inside.

Pictures of the slide and entry door on your phone serve as a visual reminder of the agreed-upon activities, adding the words, “First slide, then indoors.” You can also choose the first activity, such as sitting and eating lunch, before they pick a preferred choice that follows. There are lots of free resources available for first/then cards and Picture Exchange Communication System on the internet.

Include a favorite transition toy. This not only can be comforting for students but also is a visual reminder of a transition. It moves with a child and can be left in a safe place during an activity. 

Set Clear Expectations with Students

Setting expectations that are age-appropriate and clear supports children in feeling safe while still being curious, playful, and adventurous. Co-construction of expectations empowers children by setting up a plan that they understand and remember and helps them develop their own decision-making skills. Structure not only benefits a child but also gives parents and caregivers a repeating framework, so that they don’t have to come up with a new plan for every situation. 

Be clear with timing and space allowances (if there are boundaries or there’s a limit to how many times they can do an activity). Using visual or verbal countdowns can be especially helpful for task switching. Try to notice individual progress with positive encouragement and statements to build confidence and further growth. 

Implement Engaging Transition Activities

Keep in mind that uncertainty and change can cause stress hormones to be released. Those hormones can interfere with impulse control and targeted behaviors, causing us to react with our downstairs brain. Understanding that play, laughter, and fun is extremely important to a child’s well-being and development, we can plan fun transition activities that boost relaxed or happy hormones. This assists the upstairs brain to think and respond rather than react, allowing for more flexible thinking. These happy hormones will work for adults too, so be sure to join in the fun.

Here are 10 simple activities to try:

  1. Play students’ favorite music, or sing a song and dance to the next location.
  2. Share a gratitude walk. As you move on, name all the things you are thankful you did or are returning to. 
  3. Create a fun challenge. Set a timer for the transition, and work together to beat it.
  4. Pretend you’re different animals as you prepare to move. Take turns choosing the action, such as: Let’s walk like a duck or gallop like horses!
  5. Play Red Light, Green Light as you move to your next destination.
  6. Hold hands together and swing your arms or do a silly walk.
  7. Partake in a unique race where you tiptoe, hop, or sway as you move.  
  8. While transitioning, notice and count things that are a certain color or find objects that are the same.
  9. Water soothes. Consider pausing to have students wash their hands or faces, grab a drink of water, or even listen to the sounds of waves or a waterfall during transition. 
  10. Have a cooperation walk, where children help carry things and open doors, being sure to practice our “please,” “thank you,” and, of course, our best smile! 

Positive interventions and supports will allow you to develop a toolbox for tranquil preschool transitions when practiced together. Modeling positive behavior with playful ideas will bolster emotional wellness and help our preschoolers learn how to work through their big emotions.

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Filed Under

  • Classroom Management
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Pre-K

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