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Transitions - School BusTransitions are rough for many of us. As a parent, I even struggle when transitioning from the peace and quiet of my home office to the hustle and bustle that instantly ensues when my three lively children walk in the door each afternoon.

For our kids with sensory challenges, transitions can mean going from one sensory environment that they have just managed to acclimate to, to a very different sensory environment that demands an entirely different set of coping skills.

Or it can mean moving from a preferred task to a non-preferred task that is much more challenging from a sensory standpoint. Difficulty with transitions often results in meltdowns, self-stimulating or self-injurious behaviors, or even aggression toward others.  So how can we help the child achieve better transitions?

Making Sense of the Child’s Needs

To help make sense of what kids need to assist them in effectively handling transitions, think about what we use as adults to help ourselves. For my transition to the kids coming home each day, I rely on strategies such as:

  • referring frequently to my clock and agenda,
  • stopping work a few minutes before their arrival to stand up and stretch and get a drink of water,
  • thinking through what we need to do in the next hour or so to ensure a smooth evening,
  • anticipating something pleasant like hugging them or having a snack together,
  • and modifying the environment by turning the music off and lighting a scented candle to make the transition more pleasant.

These strategies can all be found in the following tips for our kids.

Five Tips for Better Transitions

1. Provide a Visual Schedule

Even if your child isn’t using one all day, set one up for each difficult transition. For example, if your son struggles with the transition between home and school, each morning, set up a visual schedule that starts with getting out of bed and ends with him walking into the school building. This will help him to mentally prepare for what comes next at each step.

2. Use Sensory Strategies

If possible, consult with your child’s occupational therapist to determine if your child needs alerting or calming sensory input during each difficult transition. Using our earlier example, your son may be needing alerting forms of movement input during his morning routine to help him cope more effectively. If this is the case, leave spaces between every one or two tasks on the visual schedule and allow him to choose an appropriate sensory strategy to add in. For instance, the schedule could show “brush teeth,” then “hoppity ball” to get to the table, “eat breakfast,” and finally “jump rope” while waiting for the bus.

3. Use Social Stories

You can find some great social stories covering many topics on the web, or you can create your own. Ideally, the social story will include pictures of each step of the morning routine and will conclude with strategies to assist in acclimation to the new environment. For example, upon arrival at school, the social story could show the child doing chair push-ups after being seated.

4. Establish a Sensory-Based Reward System

The last item on the visual schedule could be a sensory activity pre-selected by the child (based on the type of input you know will be helpful to him/her). As the child completes the next-to-last step on the schedule offer verbal praise along with the pre-selected sensory activity. “Good job. You followed your schedule and went straight to your desk. Now you may use the lap pad.”

5. Offer Environmental Modifications

Think about the sensory input that might be difficult for the child to handle in the environment they are transitioning to and be pro-active in accommodating to meet his or her needs. When transitioning to the classroom, the child may be struggling with the noise level. If this is the case, consider allowing him or her to wear headphones or listen to an iPod until the transition is complete.

It will probably take a little time to completely have a beneficial impact, but with consistency and support, you will see the transitions becoming easier for your child each day. And in the process you will be helping them learn coping skills that can apply to every aspect of their lives.