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  • Writer's pictureKatie Vahey Gaebler

Transition challenges in childhood: Published on the CADEY blog

This article was co-written with Dr. Marcy Willard for Clear Child Psychiatry's CADEY app in their Resource Library

What are transition skills in childhood

Transition skills in childhood are abilities that help a child navigate and effectively manage change.

A transition is a movement or change from one position to another. Transition skills can be big or small, are relative to age and ability, and can simultaneously impact various areas of development. Four main areas of development that transitions can affect include emotional, physical, intellectual, and physiological.

Children will face many transitions in their lives. Some common transitions that can be challenging include school changes, like from elementary school to middle school, or from high school to college. Providing support for your child struggling with transitions will help them build resilience.

Symptoms of Transition Challenges in Childhood

  • Being surrounded by chaos: your child has disorganized assignments, lost supplies, messy bedrooms, instructions that they can’t remember, late or missed appointments, forgotten responsibilities

  • Often melting down: your child is crying, silence, laughing inappropriately, bodily function shutdown (bathroom accident)

  • Refusing directions: your child can’t or won’t follow directions, hyper-engaging in an activity as avoidance of something else

  • Trying to leave: your child is walking or running away when faced with the responsibility

  • Avoiding topics: your child is often trying to change the conversation topic, for example, a high school student who avoids talking about post-graduation plans

  • Experiencing cascading problems: your child has an unanticipated poor performance on an assignment and then has trouble getting back on track

Causes of Transition Challenges in Childhood

  • Overactive prefrontal cortex: your child’s brain has areas for organization and task execution that are overwhelmed, and multiple synapses are over-active simultaneously. Their brain literally can not accept further information

  • Triggered “fight/flight” response: your child is overwhelmed and feeling stressed. They may be argumentative and dissociative, want to change the conversation topic, say they want to run away, and otherwise avoid the transition

  • Too many instructions: your child is being asked to do a task that might be too advanced for them. They are struggling to follow the order of operations and are skipping steps in a process

  • Wants to please others but can’t: your child wants to please others by meeting their expectations but can’t follow through. They may have many false starts or multiple stops

  • Over-reliance on others to execute: your child is just going thru the motions, not interested in being an active participant

  • Executive function challenges: your child has difficulty with planning. These challenges make their attempts to plan ahead inadequate or not possible

What to Do About Transition Challenges in Childhood

If your child is struggling with transitions, here are some helpful ideas about what to do.

DO use transition strategies: Transition strategies are techniques used to support an individual during changes or disruptions to activities, settings, and routines. These techniques can be presented verbally, auditorily, or visually. You and your child can use them before or after a transition. Also, you can use multiple strategies and techniques to reinforce positive behavior.

DO involve your child as much as possible: Whether transitions are big or small, it helps to provide as much intentional planning for and with your child as possible. Make expectations clear for both long-term and short-term goals. Try to use an approach accessible to them (e.g., if your child often imagines a fantasy world, help them plan their next steps through that story).

DO engage in environmental engineering: Take time to rearrange furniture, add labels, use written or picture process instructions, and record audio instructions. Consider removing the doorbell or other loud noise interruption options and enacting a video or vibrate-activated notice system. For a reward for periodic completion of necessary tasks, use your child’s hyper-focused activity or preferred props.

DO use technology: Technology for alarms and time tracking can help your child have accurate pattern recognition.

DO breakdown more significant tasks into smaller steps: Decide what is reasonable to complete today or this week. Breaking bigger tasks into the most simple and actionable steps and building periodic rewards will help your child accomplish their goals.

DO consider consequences for unmet goals: Work with your child to determine the consequences if they do not meet their goals. Together, you can decide what is reasonable and palatable.

DO take inventory of your available resources: Consider if you have ways to reallocate your budget towards resources you find in your community.

DO take the time to evaluate your expectations as a parent: Consider what responses you are modeling for your child. Work to understand your limits. If you are feeling frustrated, that feeling can snowball into your family.

How to Help Your Child with School Transitions

Understand the role of school transitions

Transitions among grade levels or similarly throughout a day are inevitable. On a positive note, transitions allow students to stretch their bodies, reflect on past experiences, and consider their goals in the next stage. At the same time, changes can also entice excitability and anxiety. These feelings can distract their focus and lead to dysregulation upon entering unknown territory. Thoughtful and team-oriented preparations that allow students to prepare and predict their next steps support smooth sailing forward.

Keep track of your child’s records

The first step to helping your child experience a smooth transition to a new grade level is to take charge of your child’s records.

Consider yourself a leader and partner with your child’s school district team. Prioritize positive relationships with key members, maintain digital and hard copies of all records, and be familiar with a school district’s primary specialty programs appropriate for your child. Whether the context is educational or medical, you, the parent, being a team leader is an advantage.

Within your school district, you can call on specialists familiar with a student’s needs or characteristics, particularly in elementary grades, to consult with you on your child’s grade level progress.

How to help your child transition toward middle or high school

For grade level change toward middle or high school, the adjustments will be for changes to teachers, classmates, buildings, schedules, and routines. It may be the first time a student is expected to maintain a locker, take a school bus, or engage in an extracurricular activity. Students who may be accustomed to a dedicated Centers program as their school’s “home base” may no longer have that as a resource.

Start the process early to identify key contacts at the new school

The early spring before the school change is an ideal time to call a district team meeting to identify key members at the new school to join a team. A staff support or admin such as a school-based Psychologist or Assistant Principal is ideal as a point person. They can review your child’s records, provide a potential anticipated schedule, and discuss key campus players (e.g., instructional assistants, nurses, club leaders) when the new team convenes the following fall.

Meeting agenda items can include a discussion of a student’s strengths and motivations, known trigger incidents, and effective de-escalation techniques. The team should review past accommodations, new possible accommodations, and how those will be executed. Daily schedule considerations, possible scenarios for modification, and an ideal in-person or video conference date for a walk-through tour, including your child, can be set.

Before fall school starts, an established method of ongoing communication, including journals, daily/weekly progress notes, environmental changes, and clear expectations for mid-term grades, scheduled conferences, or phone calls, will support all team members in staying on the same page. For high school students, the expectation of their involvement in such conversations reinforces their agency and self-advocacy, which is critical for college-ready success.

How to help your child transition from high school to college

Regardless of ability status, any student’s high school to college transition is exciting and stressful.

These factors are exasperated for students with higher accommodation needs. It’s essential for both students and parents, individually and together, to have a communicated reality check on expectations for post-secondary experiences. Considerations for expectations on a timeline to completion, total financial commitments, academic performance, extracurricular involvement, home visits, summer plans, career intentions, and coordinated campus support staff meetings can provide a clear road map for all parties involved on how to maximize the investment of a post-secondary education opportunity.

Review the support opportunities available on campus

Once a student has graduated from high school, the legal bindings of an IEP or 504 no longer apply. An academically motivated student intending either 4-year or community college should anticipate and be ready to exercise the expectations of independence, autonomy, and self-advocacy required of all college-ready students.

Variables abound when registering with a campus Disability Services office after admission. The school can need the submission of recent diagnostic assessments and comprehensive school records, and a campus specialist may require their own assessment processes. Also, different colleges will have various available support programs and resources. The student who is self-aware of their need level and paired with a campus with existing support for those needs will be advantaged as they navigate both student service and academic paths to degree completion.

What to prioritize when reviewing colleges for your child who struggles with transitions

When your child struggles with transitions, it will help if you take the time to review your priorities when reviewing colleges.

A family that anticipates investing in the college experience should prioritize established support levels of Disability Services staff, availability and communication methods with academic advisors, personal counseling, career service members, and available housing needs.

It is also a good idea to look at various academic program majors that are realistically accessible to your child’s ability. A student that has excelled academically- let’s say in STEM- at a small private high school with optimal family executive functioning supports might not be ready to move into a dorm and pursue the engineering program at a state’s flagship university. Considering a community college and Pathways (to 4-year degree) program can ease the transition and build familiarity with college-level expectations.

Resources for Transition Challenges in Childhood

Program options to seek support

For a young adult seeking college experience- which may or may not be degree-bearing- with a high-touch model, families may consider collegiate programs.

Here are some sample programs.

  • IN! Pathways to Inclusive Education (Colorado)

  • CLE College Living Experience

  • University of Denver Learning Effectiveness Program

Professional resources

You can hire independent counselors for admissions or continuation support.

Here are some examples.

  • Top College Consultants

  • Collegiate Coaching Service

  • AutismNERD

Sometimes, you may apply a 529 College Funds plan to affiliate program fees and resources. Check with your financial services advisor to determine applicability.

Educational consultants

Listed below are Educational Consultants (EC’s) who may be able to guide parents in finding an appropriate placement for their adolescent or young adult child. Dr. Willard does not specifically know any of these resources and cannot recommend any in particular. These were provided by a list-serv of parents who have used their services.

Pam Sheffield Ford at Educational Connections (with bi-weekly support groups, virtual)

Kristen Katherine-Cline in Seattle Educational Connections

Ricky Becker – Bend Oregon – Ricky Becker Inc (541) 312-4316

David Gold – Columbia MD – David A Gold

Mike Balotti- Redwood Educational Services (215) 888-1318

Elm Street Placements –

Pat Burns ( Educational Consulting Services

Betsy Grigoreau ( in Ithaca, NY: Educational Consulting Services

Nancy Edwards – Nancy Edwards & Associates, LLC (315) 277-6063

Stephanie Crossman – NY Stephanie Crossman Consulting (917) 923-0305

Stratus Consulting –

Wendy Williams – Atlanta

Tamara Bolthouse –


360 Transitions

Beth Laughlin, MA, Director of Admissions: (919) 428-0048

Next Level Recovery

Blake Cohen, Cofounder/Coach: (561) 451-6361


Ft Lauderdale, FL

Book resources

Miller, A. (1997). Drama of the Gifted Child.

Pozatek, K. (2010). The Parallel Process.

Van der Kolk, B. (2015). The Body Keeps the Score.

Additional resources

  • Consider a mindfulness approach such as the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 exercise to manage anxiety

  • The Sunsama app is a daily planner that assists with realistic goal planning and execution

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