I get a lot of questions about routines. “How do I create a routine that works? “
I’ve also been asked whether or not having a routine removes a child’s creativity and flexibility.
Is it possible that a balance between routine and flexibility is the key? We’ll examine the benefits of structure while acknowledging the importance of adaptability in our children’s lives.
If you’ve been feeling like each day is a struggle, a routine might help. Or maybe you’ve consulted a professional about your child’s development and behavior, and one of the things you were advised is what we call a “structured home environment.” Having a routine is part of having a structured home environment. That’s what we’ll talk about in this episode.
A routine is defined as a predictable way of doing things. For example, for a school-age child, a morning routine can include waking up, having breakfast, brushing teeth, getting dressed, then having some play time or going to school, daycare, or the park. A bedtime routine can include a story, prayer time, a hug, then tucking in the child for the night.
Why do routines matter?
Routines offer children and adults alike stability they can count on to get through their day. As adults, we complete many short daily routines without thinking about them. The steps to get ready for work, make coffee, or drive our kids to school are not things we need to think through step-by-step most of the time.
“The American Academy of Pediatrics has developed a program called Early Brain and Child Development (EBCD), focusing on optimizing brain development in the first 1,000 days of life,” says Dr. Ang-Nolasco. “The EBCD teaches the 5 Rs in promoting childhood development – READ together with your child every day; RHYME, play and cuddle with your child every day; develop ROUTINES, particularly around meals, sleep, and family fun; REWARD your child with praise for successes; develop a strong and nurturing RELATIONSHIP with your child.”
Behavior improves when children know what to expect, and also what is expected of them.
“For example, we have many patients who are brought to us for behavior problems. When we ask them about routines at home, we find out that there aren’t any,” relates Dr. Ang-Nolasco. “The child eats, plays, and uses gadgets whenever he wants. So we get a child who refuses to eat at mealtimes and is fed while being chased around the house as he plays, or refuses to take a bath or brush his teeth or go to sleep. One of the things we tell the family to do is to agree on and implement a routine, and we see the improvement when the family works together to have structures and routines in the house.”
Many people think that having a routine can interfere with a child’s independence. But in fact, it’s the opposite. Having a routine helps a child be more independent because they know what to expect and can participate in everyday tasks more because they know what’s coming.
Established routines can also lead to easier transitions between tasks, increased independence, and less anxiety about the day.
Why use visual aids?
For any child, engaging more than one of their senses when teaching a new concept can help with memory retention and the ability to absorb new information. Visual aids such as charts, timers, colorful checklists, and other props can add novelty and fun to regular tasks as well as lessen power struggles that can arise when parents must give commands.
While visual aids and charts are beneficial for all young children, they are especially helpful for kids who have difficulties with working memory or executive function. Children who are on the autism spectrum, experience ADHD, or have difficulties with verbal expression can all greatly benefit from having a visual routine chart to help guide their daily tasks.
Making visual routine charts
Before putting together a visual routine chart, it can be helpful to write down all the usual activities your child is part of during their day. From waking up and eating breakfast to getting ready for school to homework and chores at the end of the day.
For children who need extra support, you can even break down these tasks into smaller pieces and keep visual routine charts in different parts of the house. As an example, you could put together a visual chart for the steps of hand washing and hang it in the bathroom. While some kids won’t need such detailed steps, some might benefit from these visual reminders throughout their space.
After making a list of each activity you need to represent, start organizing your supplies. You can get creative as you take photos, draw pictures, or use the graphics from this chart to show your child what comes next in their day. Then, put them in order and make them visible! Give your visual routine chart a fun or silly name to add interest, or invite your kids to name it themselves.
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Implementing visual routines
Just like any new skill or routine, using a visual chart will take practice and lots of intention. Try to walk through the chart with your child every day as they get used to what each picture or drawing represents. Pairing verbal explanations with the visual chart will engage their senses and help set the stage for better memory retention and follow-through.
As your child comes to learn what to expect next from the chart, help them begin to think through the steps themselves. Questions such as, “What comes next?” or “What is the next thing on your list for today?” can help engage critical thinking and planning skills.
Remember, not every day will be the same, and that’s okay. Try for consistency over perfection, and help your child with any changes in their routine by explaining what is different and why. If you miss a day, don’t worry!
The Visual Routine Chart
Every family will need different images and structures to create a useful routine chart that works well for them. Download the free guide “How to Create a Visual Routine Chart” from the Discerning Parenting Toolkit for instructions on how to create a chart that works for your own family! Sample graphics and chart options are included but feel free to personalize them as needed.
Visual routine charts are also a great way to engage your children’s senses and get them thinking critically about the next steps in their day. This can reduce anxiety and build lifelong skills.
Get creative, personalize your routine chart, and don’t expect perfection. Like many other aspects of raising kids, patience and repetition are key to learning new things!
Sign up for the discerning parenting resource library which includes a visual routine chart for toddlers.