Kids are born to play. Their favorite activities involve playing, and they learn best when play is at the center of what they are doing. As a consequence, they have a hard time stopping play when they are required to move on to other, less-fun activities. While watching my daughter play on park playgrounds, I have seen countless parents struggle with children deep in the throes of a temper tantrum. The transition from free-play to leaving the playground is difficult, and the children often respond with frustration and anger.
In our Wee Warriors program (for kids ages three to five), we see something similar almost daily, but this time, the primary emotional reaction to transition is anxiety and fear. Particularly among new or younger students, it is common for children to hide behind a parent and refuse to communicate directly with a teacher, let alone get onto the floor and participate in class. In addition to the obvious stress that the child is experiencing, it can be very frustrating for parents. They have invested time and effort to get their child to a class that the child has been previously excited about. Now they are stuck with an uncooperative child and a room full of kids, parents and instructors watching them struggle.
As adults, we are constantly making transitions throughout our daily activities. We have no choice. We are parents, we have jobs, and we have relationships with spouses, partners and friends. We have interests, responsibilities and obligations that we constantly juggle. As adults, the transitions can still be stressful, but we have enough experience that we can typically just deal with it and move forward.
For children, especially young children, transitions are more difficult to process. They do not have the experience we adults have for dealing with the discomfort. This is complicated by where their brains are developmentally.
When we are stressed by strong emotions, such as fear and anger, our amygdala can take charge. The amygdala manages our fight-or-flight response, and it allows strong emotions to overwhelm brain function. Self-regulation of behavior and basic thinking goes right out the window at this point.
So the child who is overwhelmed by their emotions of fear or anger cannot process things that you are telling them.
This can be frustrating for parents because it seems so obvious that if they understood what they were being told, the child would calm down. But they cannot seem to understand what they are being told because of the intensity of their emotions. So they are just stuck in a loop.
One thing that can really help you with these transitions is what our teaching staff calls pre-framing. The term is borrowed from a sales strategy.
In sales, sometimes people are stuck selling something that has a really obvious reason against buying it. So the salesperson will pre-frame the sale by addressing that issue first and converting it into benefit. For instance, you might be looking to buy a used car and are shown a vehicle that seems overpriced.
The seller might say something like, “You seem like you have been shopping around, so you probably noticed that this car is a few hundred dollars more than others in the market. But that pricing is because, unlike those other cars, this one has Corinthian leather seats, spoked hub caps and an 8-Track player with stereophonic sound!” (Yes, my first car was a ’77 Cordoba)
The example is a bit silly, but it shows how the salesperson is attempting to address your biggest concern before you get to the decision-making stage when your emotions can sway you towards making the purchase. He does not want you to get distracted in the middle of that by a “rational” excuse for not buying, it would distract from the emotions that lead to you being the proud owner of that car.
Pre-framing for children works in a similar way. You know that when it is time to transition from a fun activity to one that is not-so-fun, a child’s emotions can get away from them. So you pre-frame the transition by discussing it well-before the fun activity (when they are more focused on having fun), let alone before the transition itself.
A simple example is what my wife (Julie) and I do with our 4-year-old daughter (Imogen) whenever she is doing an immersive, fun activity like running around on the playground, playing with friends outside or watching a video. Since she was about eighteen months old, we have used a timer.
We begin by setting the timer and letting her know that, not only are we setting a timer and for how long, but that we expect her to quit what she is doing and transition to the next activity without any fussing. This is done only when we have her full, undistracted attention and we always require confirmation from Imogen that she understands before she is allowed to begin or resume her fun activity.
We then give her regular reminders. If a timer is set for ten minutes, she usually gets two or three reminders, “Imogen, you have two minutes left on the timer. When it goes off, we are going to go with no fussing, right?” We expect a response confirming her understanding or she has to pause her activity until we get it.
When the timer goes off, we reaffirm our expectation that she make the transition with no fussing. Occasionally, she will start to complain anyway and we remind her of our expectation and that if she does not uphold her end of the bargain, we will have to evaluate if she should still have access to that activity.
Very rarely, she spirals into fussiness anyway, but this is almost invariably the result of being too tired or hungry.
The timer serves as a reference point for discussing the transition before we get to it. She is able to process what is expected before the emotions of the transition can kick in. Interestingly, this process seems to reduce the intensity of those emotions, if they come up at all. It seems that by processing the transition beforehand, she reduces the shock of the transition itself. Plus, her understanding the reasons behind the transition helps her stay more rational during the shift.
We encourage our Wee Warrior parents to do this with their children. New students, and especially children in early stages of development and self-awareness, can find the newness their first class too much to handle. It is a big, strange building filled with new kids and unfamiliar adults. The simple act of inviting one of these children to join class can put overwhelming social pressure on them. They respond with anxiety and fear.
So we encourage our parents to discuss the new elements of the class. Discuss the room and the uses of all the different types of equipment. Review the names of classmates and teachers. When talking about teachers, you can also explore what they were like and what their role is to the class.
You can also discuss behavioral expectations for your child. Our instructors use the short-hand “Like a Wee Warrior” to describe behavior we want to reinforce with students. “Sitting like a Wee Warrior” describes a collection of behaviors like sitting with their legs crossed and paying attention to the instructor. “Listening like a Wee Warrior” involves having eyes on the teacher, listening to and following instructions, and limiting off-task or distracting behavior.
Discussing what it means to do something like a Wee Warrior helps reinforce the short-hand and the behaviors it represents. You can also extend how you discuss it to include behaviors at home (“Are you sitting at the dinner table like a Wee Warrior?”).
These conversations about novel things, people and activities in the martial arts school, along with what it means to do something like a Wee Warrior, should be ongoing in the days leading up to the class, and should be part of the car ride to the martial arts school.
This gives children the ability to process the newness of the environment (one source of emotional stress) outside of the social pressures of learning and engaging with new people (another source of emotional stress).
In addition to pre-framing, it is important to give your child the space for pre-framing. With how busy families are these days, we often see children arrive just on-time or late for class. In addition to denying them the time to settle into the new environment before the class begins, it creates a situation where your child is processing your tension at hurrying to get them to class. As they marinate in the juices of your hustle and bustle stress, they absorb it and become more stressed themselves.
Pre-framing is a valuable tool to help with all kinds of transitions. We have explored the small day-to-day transitions that occur between activities, but it is also helpful to applying it towards larger transitions such as starting to a new school, moving, anticipated changes to your schedule, etc.
As a parent, pre-framing is helpful for pre-school aged children. Do not forget that you are not just raising a child, but raising the adult that they will become. The technique of pre-framing as it is applied by you, their parent, should be a skill that they learn to apply to themselves. By their teens, you want it to be second nature. This will help them be happier, healthier and more functional adults!