The Importance of Routines for Children

Young children thrive on routines. Whether it’s a bedtime routine that calmly gets children into bed, or a meal-time routine that encourages a picky eater to clean his plate, all families with young children typically have at least a few routines scattered throughout their day. There are a number of reasons why routines are especially critical for young children.

  • Through a routine, children know what to expect throughout the day. As a result, the child is rarely surprised or caught off-guard. Being surprised is an anxiety-inducing scenario for most children so having a routine can help your child feel stable and secure as he moves through his day.
  • By knowing what lies ahead, children do not need to expend energy wondering about what’s to come. This allows a child to focus 100% of his energy and attention on his current activity as opposed to wasting that same energy worrying about what lies around the next bend.
  • Routines help to minimize lengthy discussions or arguments with your child, since (once a routine is in place) you will not need to constantly explain to your child what is coming next. This is especially helpful for younger children who love asking “Why?” after each instruction you give. Once you have explained why teeth brushing comes after breakfast, for example, you will not need to explain why it is time to brush teeth every day.
  • Having a routine helps manage discipline issues and separation anxiety by adding a predictable structure to those stressful times.

child crying due to separation anxiety

Routines and Disciplinary Issues

Through a consistent routine, a child will know what is expected of him and what the consequence will be if he does not behave appropriately. By knowing, in advance, the consequence for inappropriate behavior, there will be no bickering, pleading or negotiating about discipline. For example, if your child has difficulty cleaning up his toys after playing with them, consider getting into the routine of boxing up all toys left out and putting them in a place your child cannot access for a certain amount of time (such as one hour or one day). If you are consistent in this response, your child will learn that if he leaves his toys out, he will lose them for a certain amount of time, without exception.

children leaving a messy living room with toys strewn around

When my children were young, I relied on the same statement time after time: “Please clean up your toys. And if you don’t, I will.” I never asked them twice and never bargained with them by offering extra television at night or an extra book before bed if they cleaned up. After losing their toys once or twice, they quickly got into the habit of cleaning up after (and sometimes even before) hearing my request.

Try this at home

If you don’t yet have a routine for your days, consider adding a few structured activity periods to your day.

The most effective place to start is with the times of your day when your child is most rested and alert such as immediately after waking up or immediately after a meal. Your child will be rested and fed so right off the bat you’ve eliminated two common reasons for an irritable or distracted child—hunger and fatigue.

The specific type of activity can vary from day to day. But follow the same routine every day where, at a certain time, you and your child together go to a designated place such as an art table or the dining table, bring out whatever tools or materials you’ll need for the specific activity, and work together for 5 to to 30 minutes, depending on your child’s attention span.

mother and child working together

One day the activity can focus on developing letter and word awareness and you can finger paint letters in chocolate pudding on a cookie sheet together. The next day the activity can focus on developing fine motor skills and you can work with lacing cards or thread beads on a pipe cleaner. Although the activity can vary from day to day, your child will quickly learn that immediately after his nap, for example, is time when you and he will work together. Within a few days, your child will likely instinctively go to the designated place at the designated time in the day, as he’ll begin to rely on this activity as part of his day.

To help your child follow the schedule throughout the day, consider creating a “picture schedule” for your child to post on the refrigerator or other easily accessible place.  The schedule does not need to include actual times (such as 7:30 breakfast, 8:00 get dressed, etc.) but it should outline the basic flow of the day by including one picture after the next, moving from left to right across a page or index card.  For example, consider putting pictures of your child’s bed, his favorite breakfast cereal, his tooth brush, and, lastly, a typical outfit on a piece of paper and labeling it “Morning Routine.”  By having something to refer to, your child will easily be able to see what comes next in the day, without needing to constantly ask you or be surprised by your suggested activities.

What can you share with other parents?

What routines do you follow at home?  How have these routines impacted the time you spend at home with your child? How has your child’s behavior changed as a result of these routines? How do you handle unexpected events like out-of-town company or inclement weather?  How does your child seem to respond to those unexpected events?

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Images used under Creative Commons from emrank and {N}Duran.