To kids with sensory integration and sensory processing issues, the world is filled with abrupt and unpleasant transitions. What seems to us to be an easy shift in activities may be, to them, like slamming on the brakes and or making a sharp turn that causes them to feel disoriented. To help a child transition to a new activity, first, get her attention. Call her name and tell her that she is going to switch activities soon, and give her a time frame for completing the switch. For an older child, you might say "In fifteen minutes you need to do your homework..." and set a kitchen timer. For a younger child, you might say, "When you've gone down the slide three more times, we're leaving the playground," and encourage her to count each of those last trips down the slide. Keep your voice inviting and warm but firm when you give warnings about transitions.
Remind the child of the positive aspects of the new activity he will be switching over to. Even if it is not his favorite task you can remind him of the upside of it. If he has a dentist appointment, remind him that the dentist has that box of terrific toys to choose from when the appointment is over. If he doesn't like to leave the playground, tell him he can choose the music to listen to in the car when you drive home.
To help him switch gears when time is up, the sensory child may well need a calming or focusing activity. Climbing some stairs, marching, stretching, having a nonsugary snack, doing jumping jacks, or engaging in a fun little shuffle race (shuffling provides a lot of good, strong input to the legs) may be what he needs to regroup and ready himself for the next activity on the agenda.
If the child resists a transition and protests, think of it as an old car making creaky noises as it starts up in cold weather. Don't give the resistance too much attention, but do give her some time to adjust to the transition. Ask yourself, does this have to happen instantly or can you take a few more minutes? Plan for extra transition time, because the more patient you are, the easier it will be to diffuse her anxiety about the switch. As you observe her carefully, you'll see which transitions are the most difficult for her and be better able to prepare her. Use calendars and clocks, even with young children, to give them a sense of what's coming up.
Remind her what she needs to do to prepare for the activity ("You'll have to dress warmly to go on the walk."). Don't assume she will account for the preparation time, such as gathering the materials to do her homework, or the clean up time, such as putting away her toys. Leave plenty of time for her to accomplish these activities and praise her for doing the prep work or cleanup, offering a sense of how long the activity took: "Good for you! You got all your dolls and their clothes put away in just three minutes!" "I know it took ten minutes to find your shoes, coat, hat and gloves and put them on. That was frustrating for you, wasn't it? Let's talk about how to make it easier to find them all so it's not so much work to go outside to the park." Be light and positive as you discuss how long tasks take and what is involved and you can help your child understand the beginning, middle, and end of a task and predict how long each step will take.
Talk to your child about possible accommodations for her concerns and her sensory issues as she switches from one activity to another: "No, we can't make the walk only 5 minutes long, but you can keep your hands in your pockets instead of wearing mittens. You can rub your head before you put your hat on so the tightness doesn't bother you so much. No, you can't get candy at the corner store we'll be passing."
The more prepared she is for any transition, the less anxiety-provoking the transitions involved will be. And whenever you can, cut yourself some slack as you work to help your child transition. It's challenging to do, but in time, your child will learn to better tolerate the unpredictability in his day.
copyright (c) 2012 Nancy Peske
Nancy Peske is the mother of a child with sensory issues and coauthor of the book Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Issues. You can learn more about practical ways to help children with sensory integration issues at http://www.sensorysmartparent.com