Back in the day when I was a student teacher in a kindergarten classroom, I learned a lot of songs and games to use to help my students transition from one activity to the next. They were fun ways of getting the children to pay attention and do what was needed to clean up and get ready for the next thing. Like spraying magical dust upon them, it worked miraculously! At the time, I had no idea what I was doing was assisting the children with transitions by providing them a secure routine which they understood and knew what was expected of them. In my new teacher mind, I was simply doing what I knew worked to keep those thirty little munchkins from chaos!
Children do not like chaos!
As a parent of a child with special needs, I truly learned that children don’t like chaos any more than anyone else. Since their worlds are mostly controlled by the adults in their lives, they might feel like the world around them is chaotic when things suddenly seem to happen and everything changes quickly – too quickly - and they don’t know why or what is going on. These changes are transitions. Every day we go through multiple transitions; some go smoothly and some knock us around a bit.
It only goes to reason that if all children can feel the world around them is moving quickly and unpredictably, how much more so does the child who processes things slowly or differently. For the child with Auditory Processing Disorder or Mixed Receptive Expressive Language Disorder, language may be less than 50% understandable at times. Noises and movement in the environment may make things seem encroaching upon a child and always worrying that they just don’t understand can make the world seem out of control – chaotic. So when a transition, a change from one activity or place to another, is suddenly thrust into the middle of an already somewhat chaotic feeling world, it can simply be too much. The child understandably reacts with a meltdown.
When our daughter was very little, before we realized the significance of transitions, she would cry, get scared, panic, and grab me with such intensity her fingernails would embed into my skin. In our adult minds it made no sense. We had told her we were going to the store. So when we put her shoes on and put her in the car, why did she suddenly freak out? If we had only stopped to think about how it might have seemed from her point of view, we wouldn’t have been so shocked, and we would have been able to prevent it. Eventually, with the help of our occupational therapist, we did.
From her point of view, she was sitting playing nicely with her toys in the comfort of her living room. She heard some blah, blah, blah talking, but who knows what that was. Then we came with shoes and put them on her feet. She never had to wear shoes in the living room before, so that seemed weird. Besides, shoes aren’t comfortable. Somewhere in the recesses of her mind she remembered wearing shoes before and it involved going outdoors, but maybe she sort of remembers this and maybe she doesn’t. Suddenly we are picking her up and putting her in the car. She was in the middle of playing and she didn’t want to stop playing. She hates car rides because they are loud and sometimes there are weird smells. Cars stop and go and things whiz past outside. Moreover, she doesn’t want to go anywhere: home is predictable, usual, has the same sounds, smells, people, etc. Other places are stressful, loud, smell funny, and may be too cold or too hot. Even more frightening, what if people try to talk to her? What if they touch her? What will be expected of her? Leaving home is always stressful and she wasn’t prepared.
Preparing for Transitions Does Wonders!
So we learned how to best prepare her for transitions. We learned to use picture cards to show her the car and the store. We told her we would be going in the car to the store. We gave her time to process this information. We helped her put away her toys. We made sure she had her special blanket and her special chew toys. We showed her the pictures again. We encouraged her to repeat to us what we were doing. We reassured her that she was safe and we would be with her with our words and with pictures of us at the store with her safely sitting in the cart seat with her blanket and mommy beside her. Yes, it took some time. Yes, we had to plan and prepare for transitions. It was well worth it! They went smoother and without meltdowns – visibly she was still stressed, but they weren’t full-on panic meltdowns.
She still had to deal with the stress of being in the car and at the store. She had to feel the panic when the cashier made eye contact and tried to talk to her. We also learned sensory calming techniques to help with these things as well – her special blanket with scents on the corners and a vibrating chew toy or spicy candy, rubbing her hands, and speaking for her to the cashier (yes, she is a sweetheart – do I swipe my card here?) while comforting her all helped significantly.
It Gets Better With Time:
Okay, for all you poor panicked souls who are fearful that life will always be this difficult with your young, sensory sensitive child who processes things differently; I have some hope to offer. This scenario I just described was our daughter at 2-3 years of age. Today, at 11 years old, she is nothing like this! She rides well in the car, she loves to go shopping, and she mostly does well responding to the cashiers. She still hates to be rushed (she needs time to emotionally prepare she tells us) and wants to be told exactly what and when we are doing things. Mostly we can tell her in words, but if it is a long list or complicated, we usually draw/write a flow chart or list. And I have not had fingernails or teeth embedded into my skin for at least 7 years!