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Tovah Klein, Ph.D.
Tovah P Klein Ph.D.

The Kids Are Alright, But They Don’t Like Change

Why transitions present a challenge and learning opportunity at the same time.

It is all over the news — neuroscience and developmental research repeatedly show that the early years before age five are foundational for setting up optimal lifelong development. Facing transitions is a daily dilemma for young kids, even as it presents the opportunity for lifelong skills to grow.

Young children have difficulty with change, and transitions are change. Life is filled with them — daily, weekly, seasonal or occasional. Moving through transitions presents a hurdle for many people, young or old. Most of us prefer consistency, to have things stay the same. Comfort comes in knowing what to expect. Nowhere is this more apparent than with children before age five.

What are transitions and why do they matter?

A transition is a shift from a moment of familiar-and-known to the next step or place. Each transition entails ending what is currently happening and shifting to something new. Coping with change is part of developing flexibility, an essential skill needed for success in learning (as in, if this strategy did not solve my math problem, I have another approach to try).

Flexibility is needed to get along with peers, from learning to cooperate to knowing when to compromise or stand firm. Studies show children who do well with peers are successful in relationships and learning more generally. Flexibility is the basis of resilience, another developing skill required for learning, relationships, and being able to handle adversities and disappointments. Studies identify resilience as a hallmark of good mental health.

Why transitions challenge young children (and others)

Young children lack the brain capacity to regulate themselves or handle their emotions, and have little sense of time. Ask a two, four, or five-year-old to stop playing and come to dinner? She may let out a high decibel scream of "No!" as if she were being tortured!

Transitions challenge but they are also a rehearsal for life. Lacking a sense of time means young children can’t plan for what comes next. What they are doing right now is what they are focused on. Period. They are not future-oriented (which comes with a better sense of time). Yet, being able to sequence (i.e., know what comes first, then next, as in, “First I put socks on, then my shoes. Then I get my coat”) and predict what happens next are part of learning to think through situations and problem solve. Adults play a key role in helping children move forward with these foundational skills.

What makes it easier for some children to handle transitions than others?

Some children are naturally better at transitions than others. Managing transitions depends on multiple factors, including a child’s inborn temperament and natural capacities to be organized (or lack thereof), developmental level (they get better at over time) and context. For example, a tired or overwhelmed child has a harder time handling change than a well-rested one; being in a new place is harder to manage change than a familiar one.

Children have difficulty handling emotions because their brains are still developing regulatory capacities, which are not fully formed until they are young adults. Living in the moment means that what comes next is unnerving. They don’t know what to expect. And that triggers strong emotions associated with the unknown. Handling transitions is about managing these emotions and requires adult assistance.

Helping with the upheaval of transitions

Children rely on adults in their lives to be there when the going gets tough. Transitions are tough. This is a place where early attachment relationships feed into a child’s ability to become independent. The attachment relationship serves as the base for how a child understands and interacts with the world and where they learn to depend on others to help them. They also learn to trust themselves.

Recent neuroscience findings show just how un-developed the regulatory part of the brain is during childhood, and particularly in the years before age five. Children have to rely on adults to help them get from one side of the transition (where they are now) to the other (where they are going). I call this the great divide: one foot still in the old, ending a task, the other foot moving into the new. It is unstable, creates feelings of vulnerability, and fills them with worries of the unknown — what lies ahead. For children at a stage of life when they thrive on routine, consistency, and repetition, transitions work against all they desire. No wonder toddlers struggle in this domain.

How can we help our toddlers manage change on their way to becoming independent?

At the heart of any transition is supporting a child to switch his or her attention, give up something they are currently doing and comfortable with, and helping them focus on something new. As brain development and self-regulation mature, they get better at making this switch. Every time we guide a child through a transition, they are getting assistance with important growth in skills, including learning the flexibility to shift attention, how to plan what comes next, how to manage emotions, and how to sequence.

These are pieces of becoming able to think through decisions before acting on them. They are essential life skills. The adult role is to put routines in place, remind them of when something is ending and what is happening next, and helping manage their emotions associated with change. All this is on the path to becoming their own, independent person.

Children encounter many transitions. A sampling is below:

  • Waking up, sleep to awake
  • Getting dressed, pajamas to clothes
  • Switching from playing to mealtime
  • Leaving home for school; coming back home from school
  • Going to the playground; leaving the playground
  • Going to visit grandparents; returning home again
  • Change in weekday routine when the weekend comes
  • Stopping play to get into the bath; out of the bath to getting PJs on
  • Going to sleep
  • Moving from crib to bed
  • Giving up diapers and using the toilet
  • Starting a new school or class; leaving school each day or at the end of the year
  • Moving to a new home
  • Becoming a big brother or sister
  • A new babysitter
  • Changing activities at school
  • Mommy or Daddy coming home at the end of the day

No wonder they need help managing them.

About the Author
Tovah Klein, Ph.D.

Tovah Klein, Ph.D., is the director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and an Associate Professor of Psychology.

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