“Transition” refers to a period of time when a person stops or is required to stop one activity and to begin another. It may also refer to a prolonged period of time (days, weeks, months), when something in a person’s daily routine changes in a significant way. Young children with sensory challenges struggle with transitions for multiple reasons and it is a common symptom or indicator of sensory processing disorder.
Some examples of both big and small transitions include:
- cleaning up the toys at the end of a playdate,
- turning off the television/iPad in order to come to the table for dinner,
- putting down the Legos in order to use the bathroom,
- getting out the door in the morning to go to school,
- switching classes at school between periods,
- change of season which requires different clothing, or
- adjusting to a new teacher
- vacation or re-entry after vacation
Why are transitions hard for kids with SPD?
1. CHANGE – All of the above scenarios present some level of change; even if it’s familiar, desired, exciting or interesting to the child, and even if/when the child is motivated. Change is an alerting experience, meaning a person’s sympathetic nervous system gets activated by change and at a very primal level, so that we can guard against any possible threat. This means a person’s nervous system responds to change as though that change IS a threat. The American Psychological Association describes how stress affects the body:
“The central nervous system is particularly important in triggering stress-responses, as it
regulates the autonomic nervous system and plays a central role in interpreting contexts
as potentially threatening.”
And what do people do when they feel threatened? They protect themselves and go into defense mode. Defense mode for many children means opposition & being “stubborn,” sometimes it means resistance and procrastination, or sometimes it means meltdowns and tantrums. These “problem” behaviors present as willful and sometimes they are but very often what starts as willful becomes a big reaction beyond the control of the child.
2. THEY PROCESS EXPERIENCES DIFFERENTLY – Science is now showing us that some children with certain types of sensory challenges, have differences in how certain parts of their brain respond to different stimuli. We also know that children who over-respond to sensory input take longer to recover or reset their nervous system than typically developing children. (Miller et. al, 1999; Owen et. al, 2013; Shaaf et. al 2003, 2010;) This means that children who are over-responding have heightened levels of nervous system arousal more often. So if a child is already in a stressed state i.e. their nervous system is already alert, they are likely more prone to defensive responses, during a time of transition. The transition signals something new or that something different is happening, thus “new or different” poses a possible threat to an already threatened or over-responsive system.
3. NEED FOR CONTROL – We’ve established that transitions cause stress in the body. When a person feels stressed, one way some people/children cope with that stress is to attempt control of the people in their environment and/or their surroundings. This over-controlling is an attempt to minimize additional stress or to escape the stress that is being imposed upon them. Some children with sensory challenges have a higher need for control because they are guarding against experiences that physically or emotionally feel bad to them. Because transitions can be unpredictable or because they are perceived as unpredictable and present unpredictable stimuli for the child, they feel more out of control and have a harder time implementing positive control during that time of transition. If a child is transitioning from a preferred to a non-preferred activity, the need for control may be even greater (and sadly, the negative behaviors may thus be even more negative).
There is a wonderful explanation of the nervous system and stress response at this website. This explanation is a great way to teach school aged children about how their brain and body work together and doing so, helps to set the stage for mindfulness practice and stress management, even in young children. Engaging a child’s cognition, i.e. teaching them about how their brain and body work, can help to engage them in whatever coping strategy you want them to learn and it can motivate them to want to change behaviors.
What parents can do:
Claire Heffron, OTR/L of The Inspired Treehouse shares 10 Calming Techniques & Transition Strategies for Kids. As with most things sensory, these strategies can be helpful for most children, not just kids struggling with sensory challenges.
Dan Siegal, MD and Psychiatrist, author of the Book, “The Whole Brained Child” discusses the technique of “connect and re-direct” in this short video. Connecting to the emotion the child may be having at the time of transition, may help to redirect them toward whatever activity we want them to do next.
Transitions are an unavoidable part of every day life. Successfully managing transitions is a critical life skill that can take longer to develop in children with sensory issues. The stress that comes from unexpected change and experiences beyond their control can produce some challenging behaviors for parents to manage but with supports in place, practice and repetition, along with emotional connection, transitions may become a thing of the past.
If you have additional questions about transitions for your sensory child, or you want to sign up for our newsletter, you can call our office. You may also want to like and follow our Facebook page or follow me on Instagram (@sensoryexpert). Consider joining the next round of our sensory parenting course (Sensory Parenting: An EASIER Way) which is a small group online learning format for connecting with other sensory parents and learning about many topics related to parenting a child with sensory processing challenges. Not all children need therapy but every parent can use support and information along the way.