Sand Timers: Help with those difficult transitions

Hello folks! I realised that I have been meaning to share a bit with you all about this tool for literally months and months now. So here it goes, I hope it’s helpful!


Sand Timers are a wonderfully visual, non emotional, non personal and non confrontational way of signalling to your child that an activity will end, and that there will be expectations of transition to something new. You might use them for sharing something with another child. We use them a lot for signalling to everyone in our home the start time, end time or duration of meal times, screen times, leaving the house, bath/shower times etc.

Time is a very abstract concept for all little ones, but kids on the spectrum especially. This gives them a concrete, visual way of seeing time actually pass. It is surprisingly reassuring.

We use sand timers everyday in our house. They have just become part of our routine like brushing teeth or sitting down for dinner (in fact we use them for those tasks a lot!). This has helped make them a neutral and non confrontational way of communicating which my son in particular appreciates. They live in central places (the kitchen or bathroom counter for example). They are so normal for our kids they are pretty boring, which is good because it’s non confrontational and non threatening when one comes out which aids smooth transitions.

They are great for use with all kids, so your child will probably appreciate them whether they are neuro typical or not. I know as a neuro typical person I appreciate warnings about transitions to something new – so why wouldn’t a younger person? I don’t appreciate someone just suddenly announcing to me that I have to, say, stop watching something or chatting to a friend to come and do something new immediately.  It makes a lot of sense that little ones would find this hard, even if they are generally pretty laid back about transitions and pretty ‘obedient’ little souls. Sand Timers are considered ‘good practice’ with all preschoolers in professional settings and are appropriate for most infant schools and infant school children at home. Most SEN kids who can get the concepts and rules will like them. We have tried to normalise them at home and use them for the whole family, so they don’t feel ‘unfair’.

top tips for using sand timers with kids in the home:

  • Try to introduce it when you are not frustrated with your child or building up to a tense moment together. We explained (and re explained) it initially in moments that weren’t going to be too challenging. Then eventually moved it to meal times (our toughest sand timer moments).
  • Involve them where possible. Let them take it in turns to turn it over for meal times etc. This really helped diffuse tension and engage my son. It didn’t give him the authority to decide the time limit, because it was already set. But he felt engaged in the process which helped. He loved having a role and it showed he was buying into the concept. If they think a time limit on an activity is not realistic, ask them if they can tell you why they feel that, maybe you can make a more informed decision about what it should be?
  • Try to hold them right in front of your child when you notify them of the transition. I put my hand on my son and present it with the other hand when I think it will be hard for him to accept. It is a visual form of communication after all. Verbal instruction just doesn’t cut the mustard with many autists. I try to talk simply, without emotion, in a very calm voice. “In 5 minutes it will be dinner time. Finish your play. Start to put the toys away”. It is usaully met with no response at all; nothing. But when I return in 5 minutes he has had time to come to terms with the transition which is coming.
  • Be ready to put them somewhere they can see, but not steal them from! Our son constantly tries to get to the sand timer to hide or turn it at bath time because he simply does not want to get out. We learnt our lesson pretty quickly.
  • Decide in advance with other carers in your home what your party line will be about deadlines (for now at least). Don’t negotiate them or it just looses it’s value. We started with an hour for dinner times for a while, then after a month of loosing our minds we realised that after 30 minutes the whole affair very rapidly snowballed into a complete nightmare. 30 minutes was long enough to eat any food that they were hungry for before it got cold and unappetising. They had lost concentration by 30 minutes completely anyway. Any tension had already escalated. My son was stemming like nobody’s business. Spending more time on the whole affair wasn’t helping anyone. Now we have 30 mins to eat our main meal. Any dessert we do have goes after the sand timer but they don’t have dessert if they haven’t touched their main meal (we often get protest food refusals in our house). They can have fruit, toast or occasionally we offer a smoothie instead if we have something in. They know the rules, we don’t discuss it lots but we do stand our ground. They have never woken hungry in the night. The sand timer sits in the middle of the table and we move on quickly and without any big emotionally laden conversations after 30 minutes. It has defused tension immensely and promoted much happier family meal times. I don’t want to paint a perfect picture here; I am still close to ‘the edge’ by 5.31 each day, but it has helped.
  • Set realistic time limits and praise lots. You want them to succeed and get positive feedback. Praise lots when they manage it at first so they have more incentive to take part next time. Maybe even praise Daddy lots if he gets his dinner finished or turns off the TV willingly on time too!?
  • Once you’ve decided on time frames for specific activities, be consistent for a while. If you think you are only organised enough to give 5 minute warnings before leaving, then stick with them. Don’t give 10 minute warnings every day for a month and suddenly throw a 5 minute one in instead. Most kids won’t understand the difference but will panic at the change. Time is an abstract concept, but most kids understand demands and their instinct is to resist them. You might use a visual timetable instead if, like us you struggle to be organised enough before heading out to know when you will actually get all your stuff and people together in one place, clothed and vaguely presentable to the outside world.
  • Engage your child in the process. Keep it fun and light if at all possible. I know, what a killer right? But this goes for all behavoural tools. I learnt it from a wonderful Autism Behavoural Support Adviser we met at a local SEN school. She rocks my world. She was so right. Everyone loves to laugh, so if you can make a tense subject a bit funny or silly, or fun and playful, kids will take it up much better. It’s not about loosing a sense of authority, it’s about enthusing them about a subject which is, lets face it pretty boring or unenjoyable. There will be plenty of time down the line for straight to the point, no time wasting parenting with these tools. You want them to jump on board now, for your sake and theirs!

We bought ours online. You can get them from a lot of the big retailers. I specifically chose the big bright coloured robust ones. I wouldn’t want to have one thrown at me, but they look like they could stand up to it, or maybe a wall. We started with 5 minutes (I use it to show turn taking or if we are starting dinner soon), 10 minutes (when a shower or bath time is likely to end) and 30 minutes (used everyday for meal times which are a killer in our house!).

We now use 2 minute timers for teeth brushing and I hope to get some more in the future, but you can manage very well with just one or two.

There are heaps more ideas on using Sand Timers online, I won’t bore you with more now. Let me know how it goes.


What do you use sand timers for? Do you use other tools to aid transitions? I’d love to hear from you.

For other information on some of the tools I use, see ASD Tools for Parents and Carers



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