Trouble with Daily Transitions


How do parents and educators of children with special needs facilitate smooth daily transitions from class to class, or from one activity to the next?

“Transitions can be difficult and confusing for students with special needs,” says Terry J. Page, PhD, BCBA-D, director of clinical services for AdvoServ, a behavioral healthcare provider with locations in NJ and DE. He adds, “If not handled correctly, transitions may result in an increased likelihood of anxiety, agitation and behavior problems.”

Kris Foglia, a South Jersey mom of three teenage daughters, the youngest of whom is on the autism spectrum, understands the complexities of trying to follow strict routines and prepare her daughter for what comes next. Foglia also works as a registered behavior technician. In her experience as a mom and in the classroom, she finds that there is not one solution to this problem. “Like individualized education plans, an individualized approach to daily transitions is what works. It depends on the child and his or her disability.”


Helene Greenstein, elementary school program supervisor at The Vanguard School in Malvern, PA, suggests rehears- ing, reinforcing, and reassuring students. She recommends the following steps to prepare a child:

  • Preview the schedule in word or picture form.
  • Review how that part of the day will look different and how the other parts of the day will remain the same.
  • Provide the student with what he may need in the different situation or environment, such as fidgets.
  • Make an alternative plan for the student if the transition is too overwhelming.
  • Break the transition into small pieces, and practice each step.
  • Preview and rehearse expected behaviors for the transition.
  • Use a social story that the student can read with an adult.
  • Offer reassurance that anyone can feel anxious when there is a change.


Foglia knows from experience that it can take weeks for some students to be comfortable moving from one classroom to another. She has helped students prepare for new classrooms by moving into the hallway a little bit each day with a comfort or reinforcing object until the child is in the new room and enjoying the new activity.

A countdown can help a child who needs to make a transition. Set up a timer that allows the child to see how much time she has left.

Picture graphs help prepare children for their next activity, whether you post the pictures on the wall or give them to the child to take to the next activity. The pictures create a connect between the child and the transition.

Unanticipated transitions

What happens when there’s a fire drill or you need to rush out of the house for an emergency of some sort?

Foglia uses role-playing to tackle these situations. “You create a problem, then teach them through it,” she explains. The idea is to practice in advance so when an emergency arises there is a routine connected to it and the child can settle into that routine.

Greenstein adds, “We can’t always control the environment, but as much structure and predictability as we can provide is always a plus. Reassure, reinforce the positive. Review with the child that not everything in life is predictable. Role-playing possible scenarios can be useful. Reassure the child that it is ok to feel nervous or uncomfortable with unexpected changes.”


Greenstein believes “transitions provide opportunities for supporting social skills and emotional competencies. We can encourage children to do their best.”

Freelancer Janet Tumelty is a South Jersey mom.


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