Ten tips to dealing with those troubling transitions

If you work with young children then you naturally have small to big transitions that take place in your classroom. Transitions can be simply described as those times throughout the day when your students change focus from one activity to another. In many cases, transitions can be a source of trouble in the classroom so here are a few tips for dealing with those troubling transitions…

Transition Tips for the Preschool Classroom

I recently participated in the Bam Radio show titled “Creating Trouble Free Transitions.”  Before reading on, you will definitely want to take a minute to listen to what the experts have to say about dealing with troubling transitions.  My discussion today will highlight a few things I have learned by participating in the show as well as my own experiences in the classroom…

Creating Trouble Free Transitions  on Bam Radio!

Rae Pica with Michaelene Ostrosky, Kristen Vincent, Joan Young, and Deborah J. Stewart

Tips for Transitions from Bam Radio

1. Take time to observe

To really know where the trouble lies in a transition, one of the first things you will want to do is to step back and take the time to observe what is happening around you.  Ask yourself, “Where are my transition problems?”  You may think you know the answer already but taking a couple of days to really observe the classroom in action, you will most likely see things you have missed before…

Ten Tips to Dealing with Those Troubling Transitions by Teach Preschool

2. Be aware of yourself

In the process of observing what is happening around you, be aware of how your own actions, tone of voice, and decisions are affecting the different transitions throughout the day.  Are you mentally and physically prepared for the transition or are you running around like a crazy person trying to get things done? Are you using a loud voice that makes everyone in the room even louder? Are you distracted by too many details and can’t give your undivided attention to the kids? Or are you fully present and ready to gently and calmly guide children through the process?

3. Give the children a heads up

Are you asking the children to suddenly stop and drop and roll up everything they are engaged in or are you walking around the classroom nudging them to wrap up their play because soon it will be time to clean up? Giving young children a gentle warning that soon it will be time to clean up helps them mentally prepare for the change.  I recommend going around the classroom and calmly share the news rather than shouting it over a loud intercom. Remember, you want to calmly lead your children into change not make every change a 911 emergency!

Ten Tips to Dealing with Those Troubling Transitions by Teach Preschool

4. Keep the flow

In the process of changing from one activity to another, there are ways to make the process flow more naturally which will smooth the process.  For example, having one group clean up their area then head over to wash hands then go sit down for snack and get busy serving and eating their snack while another group then begins to clean up their area and so on.  If all the children clean up at once then head over to wash hands, this means everyone will be waiting in line for their turn to wash hands which leads to a longer transition for the children rather than a smoother transition that keeps them flowing from one thing to the next.

Ten Tips to Dealing with Those Troubling Transitions by Teach Preschool

5. Adjust classroom setup

Classroom set up makes a difference in whether children will be successfully independent or constantly dependent. To help transitions run more smoothly, you will want the set up of your classroom to lead the children towards taking care of their own needs rather than always being dependent on you.  From simple to big changes may be needed. Simple things like making sure paper towels and a trash can are within kids reach and right next to sink so kids won’t have to walk across the room (dripping water that you will have to dry up) to dry their hands and toss a towel in the trash can.  Bigger things such as making sure you position the furniture in your classroom so it gives clearly defined areas for play and ultimately clearly defined places to put things away.  Whenever you find yourself having to follow behind the kids sorting things that landed in the wrong place, consider whether your classroom needs to be more clearly defined and intentional in its design so the children can meet expectations with greater success.

Ten Tips to Dealing with Those Troubling Transitions by Teach Preschool

6. Limit the number of transitions

Consider your daily schedule or routine. Does each part of your day naturally lead to the next or does it require a complete stop and start over?  When planning your classroom routine or schedule, visualize how your students will be able to naturally migrate from one part of the day to the next or one experience to the next without having to come to a complete stop and without having to wait on you or wait in line or wait, wait, wait!

Ten Tips to Dealing with Those Troubling Transitions by Teach Preschool

So far we have been talking about about how to view and manage transitions as a whole in your classroom. But there will always still be transitions so let’s take a look at a few tools for transitions…

7. Sing songs and Fingerplays

Sing simple songs with hands and motions that promote fine motor control, listening, working together, rhyme, rhythm and so on.  Songs such as “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” can be shared with sound, without sound, and the words can be changed to a teeny tiny spider to a great big fat spider!   Choose songs or fingerplays that help to keep little hands and voices and bodies busy and focused on enjoying time in music together. And remember, a transition isn’t a time to teach a brand new song as much as it is a time to pull out the old favorites and modify them.

Ten Tips to Dealing with Those Troubling Transitions by Teach Preschool

8. Play simple games

  • Play games that build on math and language concepts such as “I Spy a Shape” or “I Spy a Color” or “Simon Says Touch Your Nose!”
  • Clap and Tap with the kids to build a sense of listening and completing simple patterns. For example, “clap hand, tap knee, clap hand, tap knee” and so on.  As the children improve in their ability to follow a simple pattern, you can make it more complex.

9. Build in teachable moments

  • Keep a few tools in a bag and carry the bag with you. You can use the tools for simple teachable moments. For example: place an object like a pair of scissors in your bag. Pull out the scissors and say, “Hmmm, I wonder what these are?”  “What can I use them for?” “Are they for eating food?” “Are they for cutting hair?”  “How should I hold them?” “How should I walk with them?”  “Should I leave them on the floor?” and so on.  Essentially you are taking a few minutes to teach a mini-lesson in a fun way that will help improve children’s understanding of simple tools around the classroom.  You can also fill your bag with a pair of mittens or a ball of play dough. Don’t spend time on every tool in one session – just one will be fun then save the other things for another day.
  • Transition times (or times when children have to wait) are also a good time for teachable moments in classroom routines such as hand washing or throwing a paper towel in the trash.  For example, place a few paper towels in a basket and set it in your lap.  Talk about how we only need one paper towel to dry hands and demonstrate the process.  Now invite each child to come and take a paper towel, pretend to dry their hands, and throw the towel in the trash.  Then send each child off to wash hands and put his or her new understanding into real life practice. As your student become more adept at meeting small expectations, your transitions will naturally start to run more smoothly.

Ten Tips to Dealing with Those Troubling Transitions by Teach Preschool

10. Build Community

Use transition times to build community. This is never going to be achieved if you are spending all your time trying to control all kid-movement and discussion. Instead you need to lead kid-movement and discussions by being fully present and prepared with ideas for keeping kids engaged in the process of going from one thing to the next. Building community is all about positive interactions and conversations so bring your best to every transition as a teacher and lead your students toward having a successful experience.  Where things start to go awry, then observe and modify and rethink your plan for next time. You will only get better and so will your students!

To learn more about creating smoother transitions, be sure to hop on over to Bam Radio and take a listen to the terrific ideas shared by our panel of experts.

Creating Trouble Free Transitions  on Bam Radio!

Rae Pica with Michaelene Ostrosky, Kristen Vincent, Joan Young, and Deborah J. Stewart

I am sure you have great ideas for helping transitions run smoothly! I would love for you to share your ideas in the comments below for everyone to see them and benefit from the too!

By |2014-02-16T16:33:51+00:00February 16th, 2014|

About the Author:

Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. has been working and teaching in the field of early childhood education for over 30 years. Deborah currently owns and teaches in her own part-time, private preschool called The Children’s Studio. Deborah’s deep passion for teaching and working with young children is documented and then graciously shared with millions of readers around the world through her blog and other social networking communities. Deborah believes that young children learn best through play and exploration and embraces this belief in all that she does in her own classroom so that she can effectively and passionately share rewarding, real- life, tried-and-true practices with other teachers, parents, and leaders across the field of early childhood education.


  1. Mary Catherine February 16, 2014 at 4:56 pm - Reply

    Oh, this is so very important Deborah! My preschool director and I were just discussing transitions the other day. We do a lot of silly songs and rhymes, but I needed more ideas. Thank you!! 🙂

  2. Jan K February 16, 2014 at 8:50 pm - Reply

    What an important area of instruction. I started posting the schedule a few years ago (pictures in a pocket chart) and my transitionss during the day are soooooo much better. I have a clothespin that we move down the pocket chart to indicate what is next, until we are on our goodbye picture. We talk about our schedule each morning and put the pictures in order.
    This helps with all children and especially those visual learners.

  3. Louise February 17, 2014 at 1:26 am - Reply

    Our centre has a ‘fiddle basket’ that comes out during times when there is waiting. like when some children are ready to go outside but not every one has on their jackets yet. The ones who are ready play with the fiddle basket. It’s full if small toys from the dollar store. Things get switched out occasionally but they rarely tire of it because it’s only available for brief times during the day. And it’s incentive to get ready too.

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. February 17, 2014 at 7:00 am - Reply

      I love the fiddle basket Louise! Thank you for sharing the idea here so others can see it too! Awesome!

    • Jan K February 17, 2014 at 5:36 pm - Reply

      Fiddle Baskets are excellent idea Louise ! I had never thought of having them out for transitions. I’ve just used them during Morning Meeting and Group Reading times when students are sitting mostly.

  4. Jamie White February 17, 2014 at 9:57 pm - Reply

    Your posts are always so thorough and informative. This one was a great reminder for me. Even after so many years, sometimes it is a good idea to get back to basics. When transitions are smooth, the day seems to fly by. When they are not… it seems like an eternity!

    Thanks for sharing!
    Play to Learn Preschool

  5. HOLLY ALLEN January 5, 2017 at 10:29 pm - Reply

    This is a wonderful site!!

  6. Krista J Johnson March 20, 2017 at 4:38 pm - Reply

    I agree with you very strongly that observation of a classroom is a wonderful way to get a more impartial picture of the issue. One tool we use in my school district is called a Routines Based Interview. This format leads a teacher or family through their daily experiences with a child or group of children. Each part of the day is described with particular emphasis on the children’s interactions, engagement and independence. The adult being interviewed is asked to target anything that would make that time of day better for the child or children (McWilliam & Casey, 2008).
    I also appreciate your suggestion that we need to be very aware of our own reactions during transitions for them to go smoothly. It is so easy to get caught up in the moment and begin to act in ways that are not helpful.

  7. Krista J Johnson March 20, 2017 at 4:39 pm - Reply

    In my district we are just beginning to use a philosophy called Conscious Discipline. When using this philosophy, we seek to build strong school families by first being aware of our own reactions and consciously choosing to compose ourselves as adults so that we are then able to pass our self-regulation and composure on to our students (Bailey, 2015).
    Thanks again for sharing all of your thoughts on transitions. I am on Spring Break right now, but can’t wait to get back to my program and share your information with the teachers that I support. I am certain that they will be able to use many of your suggestions to create transitions that go more smoothly. Thanks so much for sharing.

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