Activity changes and challenging behaviour
There are many times each day when your child has to stop doing one activity and start doing something else. Examples include:
- leaving the park to go home
- putting away toys before bedtime
- turning off the TV or putting away a device
- getting out of the bath.
These activity changes can be hard, especially if your child is happy with what they’re doing and doesn’t want to stop. Challenging behaviour like tantrums can happen in these situations.
Being able to change from one activity to another involves self-regulation. Children learn self-regulation as they grow and develop, as well as through warm and responsive relationships. They also learn it by watching how the adults around them behave.
Planning activity changes
Children can accept change better when they know it’s coming. So a predictable family routine is one of the best ways to help with activity changes that happen every day.
Here are other tips for planning activity changes:
- Explain what’s happening to your child before you start the day or leave the house. Knowing what to expect will help children – especially older children – have realistic expectations.
- Use a family calendar that shows what different family members are doing each day. You could use a calendar with pictures for younger children.
- Consider whether your child needs new skills or knowledge to help them with daily changes. For example, you might need to help your child learn to tie their shoelaces to make leaving the house easier. Or perhaps your child needs a written or visual list to help them pack their schoolbag each morning.
- Role-play changes in activities, and talk with your child about how they might go. For example, ‘Let’s pretend we’re at the park and you’re playing with your friend. I’ll say it’s time to go. You say, “OK Dad, I’m ready now”. Then we’ll say goodbye and leave’.
Timing activity changes
Activity changes are a part of every child’s day. If you get the timing right, it can make it easier for your child to change from one thing to another. Try these tips:
- Choose your timing. If you can, stop one thing and start another during a natural break in your child’s activity. For example, wait until your child has finished their puzzle before you tell them lunch is ready. If you’re sensitive to what your child is doing, it can make these changes easier for you both.
- Give your child some warning about activity changes that are coming up. For example, ‘Derek, you have 5 more minutes to play. Then it will be time to go home’, or ‘Derek, one more go on the slide and then we’re going home’.
- If your child finds activity changes very challenging, consider allowing more time between activities. This gives your child extra time to make the change and adjust.
Giving choices about activity changes
You can’t always give your child a choice about stopping one activity and starting another. But sometimes you can give your child a choice about other things. Here are some ideas:
- Give your child a choice about things that are part of the activity change. For example, ‘Evan, we have to go in the car in a minute. You can take one toy with you. Which one will it be?’ or ‘Do you want to do that yourself or shall we do it together?’
- Limit options. For example, let your child choose between 2 different t-shirts, but not every item in the wardrobe!
- Avoid giving your child a choice about an activity change if there isn’t really a choice. For example, when you say, ‘Orla, would you like to pack up those toys now?’ you suggest a choice. Instead you could say, ‘Orla, please start packing up those toys now’.
Making activity changes more positive
If you point out the positive side of an activity change, it can direct your child’s attention away from the change and onto something that they like or are happy about. For example:
- Try making activity change fun. For example, ‘Can you march like a soldier to the car?’ or ‘How about we play “I spy” on the trip home?’
- Link something your child doesn’t want to do with something that they like – for example, ‘First we clean up the toys, then we have a snack’.
- Point out any good things your child can look forward to after the change. For example, ‘If we leave now, we’ll have time to play with your trains before dinner’.
- Praise your child for handling changes well. Emphasise how good it is when you both work together as a team.
When activity changes are very hard for children
It’s natural for your child to be disappointed about having to stop. You can use the disappointment as an opportunity to talk about emotions, and encourage your child to use words to express feelings. For example, ‘I know you feel frustrated that you didn’t have time to play another game’.
Also, if you can stay calm when you’re managing a difficult activity change, your child is more likely to stay calm and cooperate too. You can set the tone by getting down to your child’s eye level and saying their name first in a low, calm voice. Then calmly tell your child that it’s time to stop what they’re doing.
If your child has a tantrum, be careful not to accidentally reward that behaviour by giving your child more time on the activity – for example, by giving them more screen time while they calm down. You can be understanding, but also clear and firm. Gently insist that your child does what you ask.