November 1, 2009
The Transition Card
In my previous post about transitions, I introduced Max, who found it difficult to let go of one activity and take up another. It didn’t matter if the next one was something he liked doing. He just couldn’t break away.
Transitions can be difficult for everybody, but a behavioral problem resulting from this difficulty is developmentally most likely in preschoolers. We tend to think of young children as having very short attention spans. This is true for the activities we impose on them, such as sitting quietly at the dinner table while adults talk about stuff that doesn’t interest them and serve them food that interests them even less.
The playground is a fluid environment, where the games played by children of this age morph seamlessly as we watch with rules that change moment by moment. So in a sense, that can be taken as evidence of short attention span. A more empathic interpretation suggests intense concentration and focused attention, unwavering over the duration of the play period.
The International Correspondence Chess Federation was founded in 1951 for people serious about playing chess, one move at a time, by mail, courier, or homing pigeon. The picture above is an official postcard, a relatively recent innovation. Chess is famous for requiring intense focus and concentration. Does it require more focus than that preschool playground game of tag/rugby/steeplechase, with rules different at the end than at the beginning? The preschool game could never be played by postcard.
I think preschoolers look at the world as an unknown territory, ripe for exploration and new discovery. Their time in the sandbox, time with blocks is often overtly experimental. Watch them carefully and patiently and you’ll see it too. Maybe they want to figure out how to get a roof on the structure they made with blocks. They try one shape of block, but that doesn’t work, then another. Eventually they see that they have to change the support structure. The first time a child is able to build a little tunnel or arch in sand is a triumph of inventive engineering over the inflexible physics of gravity. This is not evidence of a short attention span.
So it’s no surprise that it can be tough to pull somebody away from an intense experiment which they feel is right on the brink of a marvelous discovery.
I suggested to Max’s mother that she give him plenty of warning. The first, without a time frame, just to give him a head’s up that something’s coming. Then a physical reminder such as a tap on the shoulder, at 20 minutes, 10 minutes, and 4 or 5 minutes. Keep these reminders consistently timed, so that he eventually will get a visceral feel for how much longer he’s got.
She loved this plan, and promised to try it right away.
It didn’t work. When I saw them a couple of weeks later, she told me that it did seem to help a little, because he seemed less surprised when she turned off the game/TV/light or demanded that he move to the next thing. But he still didn’t really start to make the transition on his own, which I had honestly hoped he would do.
When children respond to this method of transition warnings, they typically complain at the first warning, try to negotiate at the 20-minute notice, but at 5 minutes they start putting away the toys that they have been playing with. That didn’t happen with Max.
This hyperfocused state that preschoolers can be in, I suspect, is related to their concrete thinking. Since they can’t picture themselves doing something else in the future, a future activity can’t be made more attractive to them than what they’re doing right now. I tried to come up with a more concrete transition system for Max, that was less abstract than being told something would occur 20 minutes in the future. From his perspective, that’s as good as never.
I took my idea from soccer. It’s not that soccer players have a problem with concrete thinking (although it’s possible they do). But soccer is so heavily international that there is no universal language with which officials can communicate with players. They use cards.
I suggested that she work with him on making his own cards. It’s OK that the time-warning system didn’t work. At least he now knows that such a system exists and that it’s something you want him to do. So explain this to him when he’s not deep into an activity, and make some cards out of cardboard. Let him decorate or design them. Ask him which of the cards he would like to mean 20 minutes, or 10, 5, or 2. He can make these for you as a present that you’ll really be grateful for. Instead of a verbal reminder, you actually hand him the appropriate card which warns of an upcoming activity change. He may not want it, but it’s completely concrete. Remember that part of my invention is doing it together. When you sit together to make these cards, you should make a card for him. It’s a 5-minute extra card, which works like the snooze button on your alarm clock. When he gives it to you, he gets another 5 minutes. You have to honor this! Here’s a subtle point in my invention: he gives you the 5-minute extra card. That means he doesn’t get another and another and another. It becomes way more difficult to whine and negotiate when you have given away all the currency of time which these cards represent. You can show some concrete thinking, too.