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Transitions Without Tantrums

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Transitions Without Tantrums

By Pat Crissey

Autism Asperger’s Digest | March/April 2012

Having difficulties with transitions is a common behavioral characteristic of young children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and often the child has the most resistance when our patience is at its lowest point.  So, what can teachers do to help? Most teachers have a strategy or two up their sleeves for dealing with transitions, such as using a schedule or giving a pre-warning, yet for some children problems persist.  In most instances children can learn to transition smoothly if the teacher provides a wider array of strategies, applies them effectively, and gives the child sufficient time and practice to establish the new behavior.

Gather Information

The first step is to gather as much information as possible to understand why a child struggles with transitions. When do the problems arise, and what is the function of the behavior? What is the child gaining or avoiding by his resistance?  Is it the uncertainty of what happens next, a desire to continue with a preferred activity, avoidance of an activity he doesn’t like, or an attempt to gain attention or control?

Make Transitions Manageable

Regardless of the behavior’s purpose, it’s generally helpful to make transitions as motivating and easy as possible. Try to set up the schedule so that difficult transitions are followed by somewhat desirable activities. For example, you would not want to follow a particularly difficult transition, such as coming in from recess, with a less favored activity such as seatwork. An easier transition would be to have the student come in and eat a snack, and then, with the student already seated, present the worksheet.

How you arrange the environment can make a difference as well. Arrange furniture to provide a clear, unobstructed pathway to the next activity, keeping distractions at a minimum. Favored items, such as toys or computers, should be kept away from transition pathways. Visuals, such as taping a line or arrows on the floor, can also be used to point the child to the next activity.

The use of schedules and transition cues are invaluable tools to let the child know what happens next and what is expected. However, the child needs to understand the visuals for these to be effective.  Does she understand symbols, or does she need realistic photos or real objects? It’s easy to assume the child knows what the little picture represents when she may not. Use an informal assessment (Crissey 2009, pp. 96–99) to assess what the child understands.

Knowing which activity comes next does not guarantee that the child knows how to transition (i.e., walking back to the room and sitting at the table). Strategies that can be used to clarify expectations include taking photos of the child transitioning, using Social Stories™, making a list of steps, or video modeling.

Reinforce Transitions

Transitioning appropriately is a behavior and a skill.  Like other behaviors, transitioning needs to be reinforced. This may require more than verbal praise. The key is to find what motivates the child. The use of checklists and a reinforcer assessment can help expand the list of items and activities that interest the child (Crissey 2009, pp. 33–62).

There’s an art to using reinforcement effectively. In the beginning reinforcers need to be given immediately. The most powerful rewards should be used with the most difficult transitions. For example, a child receives ten minutes of computer time for transitioning in appropriately from the playground, versus one minute with a toy for an easier transition.

When the child does not transition appropriately, the natural consequence is that she does not receive the reinforcer.  The only way to receive the reward is to transition at the appropriate time. Praise the child as you give the reward, but if the child is not complying, keep your emotions neutral and give the child as little attention as possible.

It’s important to set a short time limit in which the child can transition and receive reinforcement. A pre-warning can be given ahead of time, which is not part of the time limit. This gives the child time to process what’s about to happen. However, once it’s time to transition, the child needs to comply in a timely manner. Too often what happens is the child resists, finally transitions, then receives praise and a reward. Or, after the child refuses to transition, she is offered a treat, which entices her to comply.  What the child has learned in both instances is that it pays to resist and delay.

Set a short, non-negotiable time limit and make it visual. For example, you could write the numbers one through five on a board, and erase one at a time until they are gone, count down with your fingers, or use a sand timer. If the child refuses to transition, she will have another opportunity with the next transition. If she eventually does transition, she could be mildly praised for finally doing the right thing but not given the reinforcer.

Provide Opportunities to Practice

Few behaviors change immediately. The child’s behavior has been serving a purpose; it will take time for the child to understand that we are now doing things differently. Take time to talk about transitioning, model transitions, and use visuals or video modeling. Then take time to practice (i.e., walk out to the playground, take a five-minute recess, come back in, receive a reward). Those who transition appropriately get to immediately go outside again.

Setting up stations within the classroom is another way to practice transitions and establish the habit of responding to a visual transition cue. Set up several color-coded stations, each with a fun activity, and show them to the children. Then each child is assigned to a station, and a timer is set for a short period of time. When the timer goes off, each child is handed a color-coded ticket to go to the next station.  Children can usually be motivated to move on to the next fun thing, and this activity helps establish transitioning as a routine.

Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that the ability to successfully transition is a vitally important skill. We sometimes gloss over behavior challenges in trying to meet academic goals. Yet behavioral issues, such as difficulties with transitions, will greatly limit the child’s ability to integrate and take full advantage of educational and leisure opportunities.  Transition issues need to be addressed head-on in the child’s early years to allow the child to be fully engaged and ready for the challenges he will face throughout his school years and beyond.



Pat Crissey has worked as a teacher and autism specialist for many years, and has written numerous autism-related educational materials.



Crissey, P. 2009. Teaching Communication Skills to Children with Autism.Verona,WI: Attainment Company.


Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2012. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.

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