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How we support young children through everyday change and transitions

by Sonia Mainstone-Cotton on September 21

7 min read:


Transition is something we are familiar with thinking about with children regarding significant changes such as moving to a new school, a new sibling arriving in a family, moving house. As Educators and parents, we often think about how to support a child through the more significant transitions, but we don’t always consider smaller changes and transitions and the impact on a child. In this article, I will explore change and transitions by looking at the smaller and everyday changes and how this can sometimes unsettle a child and how we can support them. I work with four-year-olds who have high social, emotional and mental health needs. Looking at everyday small changes and transitions is an area I spend a lot of time talking to staff and parents about and helping them reflect on.

I want to encourage you to think for a moment about one child you know, think about their morning, and see if you can add up how many transitions they have experienced before lunch.

Here are a few ideas for a 15-month-old.

  • Get out bed
  • Move to a different room
  • Have breakfast
  • Face washed, and teeth cleaned
  • Nappy changed
  • Dressed
  • Playing with a train set
  • Put coat on
  • Put into the car
  • Taken to nursery
  • Arrive at nursery
  • Playing in the main room
  • Nappy change
  • Moved to the garden
  • Hands washed
  • Snack in the garden
  • Nappy change
  • Move to the main room
  • Hands washed
  • Lunchtime

You may find the list you have is more. The list I have given is just a general idea. When we break it down, we often find there are many small changes and transitions throughout a day for our children. Some children cope with these fine, they are calm and able to follow through whatever is asked, but for some children, they can find change and transitions tricky, unsettling; others find them frightening.

So, going back to your list, one question to ask is do they need every transition? The answer might be yes, and that is ok, but you may look at your list and think, wow, that is a lot, and decide to review it and maybe make some adjustments.

How can we support children with transitions?

The key element is communication; if we can tell children what is happening, this often helps them to feel prepared and alleviates any stress. Just for a moment, imagine how you would feel if you were sat in your living room drinking a cup of coffee and reading a book, when your partner comes into the room, passes you your coat and tells you that you are both leaving the house now. I wonder how you would feel? I would feel surprised and probably annoyed. So often, we do this to children: we approach them, pick them up, move them to another room, get them dressed, take them to be changed, or have a meal. These may sound like small changes, but they can be a surprise or a shock if the child is unprepared. If children feel surprised or shocked, they often respond by crying, maybe refusing, possibly hitting out and then adults get frustrated and sometimes cross. However, if we take a moment to prepare, warn, let the child know what we are doing, tell them about the change that is about to happen, this can often help the child, and we are less likely to see them upset.

I know this sounds very simple, but it can help. For example, if it’s lunchtime in 5 minutes, we can pre-warn the child, most early years settings do this, and we can do this at home. Going to the child, at their level, and letting them know we will have food in a few minutes. In early years settings, we often do this as a pre-warning for the whole group, but there will be some children in your setting who still find this tricky. I would suggest the key worker approaches them individually, gets at their level, looks them in the eye and explains it is time for food. You may also find some children find a visual aid helpful, e.g. a picture of mealtime.


Embedding communication about change from birth

The practice I describe above might be something you think about doing with older verbal children; however, I believe this is a practice we can embed from birth. In my work in schools and training, I regularly talk to staff and parents about how we embed an emotional vocabulary and understanding with our children; we need to do this from birth. For example, when a baby is crying and needs soothing, we pick them up, rock them and tell them we are there; if they need changing, we pick them up and say, I can see and smell you need changing, I am going to change you now.” By communicating with the baby in this way, we recognise and validate their feelings and speak to them about what we are about to do. We are giving them information about the change that is about to happen. A baby won’t immediately understand these words, but by embedding this from birth, we are laying the foundations for them to understand. We can do this with all the small changes, telling a baby when we are going to feed them, or change them or leave the house; as well as telling them we can also show them visual clues, showing them a nappy, a spoon or a coat and then continue this as they get older.

How this supports wellbeing

Wellbeing is now a word embedded in our vocabulary; we know how important it is to support our wellbeing and the wellbeing of the children. For many of the children I work with, one of the early signs that their wellbeing needs are high is when they show us that they are finding changes hard. We know that when a child is focussed and in the moment of flow, they find it hard to suddenly stop. If a child is in the garden engrossed in playing with some mud and water, when an adult comes up to them to tell them it is lunchtime and they need to go inside, this can be upsetting. The child may refuse or shout or both. When we think about it for a moment, this isn’t a surprise, but sometimes we are surprised by how children react to changes.

There can be many reasons for children to react to change. Some children find the many changes in a day overwhelming. Some children find change from their normal routine challenging and upsetting. Other children are fine with changes when they are at home with their family, but it is too hard for them in the early years setting. We need to try and ask ourselves what is it the child is finding hard? Is it the sudden change? Is it the activity they are being asked to do? Are they upset about stopping what they were doing? Are there sensory issues for the child with the change? They may dislike the sound or the light in the room they are being moved too. When we reflect on these questions, this can help us to understand what is tricky for the child and how we can then help them. We can reflect on how many changes and small transitions we expect the children to do and consider if these are all necessary.


A reminder of the main points

Many of our children experience a lot of mini changes in a day; some ways we can support them with managing these are:

  • Pre warn them when you are about to do something
  • Use visual clues to help the child know a change is happening, and with words, tell them
  • Think about how many changes there are and if they are all necessary


For more ideas, please see my book Supporting young children through change and everyday transitions published by Jessica Kingsley publishers.


Listen to this episode of the FSF and Tapestry podcast, when Anya and Jules from our Education Team were joined by Sonia to talk about everyday transitions, how educators and families can help very young children build resources to manage change, and why adults need to consider their own wellbeing and experiences and the impact they can have on children.


Sonia Mainstone-Cotton

Sonia Mainstone-Cotton is a freelance nurture consultant, she currently works in a specialist team in Bath supporting 3 and 4 year olds who have social, emotional and mental health needs. Sonia also trains staff across the country on children’s and staff wellbeing. Sonia has written 8 books, all available on Amazon. Her latest book is supporting children with social, emotional and mental health needs in the early years. Sonia wild swims across the country all year to support her own wellbeing.