For such tiny little humans, preschoolers can have BIG feelings about change. Often, moving from one activity to the next can be thrilling—marked by little preschool-sized cheers and excitement. However, it is just as possible that transitions will cause trepidation and tears—both for the children and for the adults charged with their care. Though this is a normal part of development—expected during the ages of 2-5—it can be a source of confusion and even frustration for ministry workers who often, with only slight exaggeration, compare moving preschoolers to herding cats.
The good news is that there are some simple things we can do in preschool ministry to help make transitions smooth (well, smoother). While transitions will always be harder on some children than others (just like with grownups!), with a little intentionality and a lot of patience, it’s possible to prepare our kiddos for big moves (like changing classes at promotion time) and small ones (moving from playtime to storytime).
- Keep a consistent routine: A predictable schedule is essential for preschool brains. It may take a while for kiddos to catch on, but when we offer activities in the same order each time we meet, the stability eases the stress level for everyone. Of course, we have to be flexible (a minute-by-minute plan is sure to fail), but when children know what to expect, they are less likely to panic when we move on to the next activity.
- Cut back on the number of transitions: Though preschoolers’ attention spans are notoriously short, expecting littles to transition several times in a row can be asking too much. For everyday schedules, this might mean offering children choices of activities (like with centers or stations) that they can move through at their own pace rather than a series of events that they are shuffled through as a large group. In a larger sense, it’s usually best to allow preschool children to stay in the same classroom (ideally, with the same teachers) for an entire year.
- Give ample warning: When it is time to move on to something new, giving children warning is key. Because it takes little brains extra time to switch gears, allowing them a few moments to prepare for a transition is super helpful. A general “five minutes ’til cleanup” announcement or song can help kiddos know that it’s time to finish up what they’re doing. Think of yellow traffic lights—these help us transition from going full speed to sitting still without the shock of an abrupt stop. It’s also true when we’re thinking about moving children up to an older classroom: giving a few weeks’ notice can be just what a child needs to prepare for the big jump.
- Offer a preview: Whenever possible, give the children a peek at what they’re headed into. So often, we expect kids to just go along with the flow, without any idea of what’s next. Instead of just announcing, “Time to clean up!” try “We are going to put these blocks away and go see what’s in that sparkly box I brought to church today!” If you’re getting ready to move up to a new room with a new teacher, you might find a little field trip is in order, or a visit from the new teacher. This can make move-up time feel less jarring.
- Make it fun! If you watch a professionally trained preschool teacher at work, you’ll soon find that they have songs and signals for everything! Try singing the clean-up song and watch the children tidy their toys with near-Pavlovian responses. Use a fun instrument when it’s time to come to the reading rug! Discuss moving into the big-kid classroom like it’s the MOST EXCITING THING THEY CAN DO! Talk about the new teacher like they are a superhero! Mention looking forward to the art project several times during the day to build anticipation! Sing a song about snack! When the kiddos see you’re excited, chances are the upcoming changes won’t seem so scary