The child is getting fussy, the parent is getting bored, and the therapist is starting to sweat. It’s time to change activities, and stat. But it’s not as simple as pulling out a new toy. How you make the change makes a big difference.
An ounce of prevention. To avoid even getting to this “gotta get outta here” moment, evaluate your plan. Are the activities you’ve chosen fun and engaging? No drill and kill here! Do you have appropriate expectations for how long the child will attend to the task based on his developmental levels? Maybe you have a great activity, but you’re expecting the child to stick with it for too long. Or maybe the child would attend if the activity was more interactive or fun.
End on an upswing. Sometimes, children want to change activities because what you’ve chosen is just too hard. Maybe it’s a stretch goal that’s really presenting a challenge for the child. I hate to end after a string of unsuccessful attempts. Even if I have to manipulate the activity slightly or cut down the goal a bit to help the child experience at least partial success, that’s how I like to end. I want to make a point of showing the child what he did right in this activity, even if his “right” is only halfway to what I was hoping we’d accomplish. We (parent, child, and therapist), should walk away from an activity feeling good about progress, no matter how slight, not like we’ve abandoned the activity out of futility because we’ve been defeated.
Two conditions. I tell parents that children getting antsy is inevitable. They’re kids! That’s what they’re supposed to do! I am completely fine reading the child’s signals and switching activities in therapy under two conditions:
We end on my (or the parent’s) terms. I don’t want to teach the child that acting out is an automatic pass for getting out of an activity she doesn’t like. Instead, I give a predictable ending point (“We’ll read two more pages” or “Let’s take one more turn each”), and then I am in control of how the session ends. The trick is to do this quickly. This is not a “you have to sit through the rest of the book” negotiation. Just a little more so that you end on the adult’s terms and then move along quickly.
You have to talk your way out of it. Fussing, yelling, or pushing the toy away is not the way to get what you want. It’s important for children to learn how to express their needs, wants, and emotions. Whether it’s a simple as saying, “All done!” or as complex as saying, “This game is boring to me. Can we play something else?” I want the child to use language to “talk himself out” of the situation. This teaches the child that if you speak, I will listen to you and honor what you’re saying. You might not always get your way, but I will always be here to listen.