The Importance of Structure and Routines for Children
As all of us realized during the COVID shutdown, change is an inevitable part of life and is tough for many children to process. When things change quickly, children can become confused or overwhelmed. When children feel this way, parents begin to see "bad behaviors." How can you help your child flourish in an ever-changing world you ask? By implementing structure and routines in your child's life from an early age.
Structure and routines consist of tasks that we need to do each day. Routines are NOT overrated! They provide structure, normalcy, predictability, expectations, order, and comfort to your child. They give children a sense of security, no matter what is happening in the world around them.
The most important routines are there to maintain a balanced life pattern for your child. Some examples of routines are morning, transitions, and bedtime. Depending on the age of the child and the expectations of the parent, children may or may not be able to complete these daily tasks by themselves. So, how can you help your child have structure and routines at home? Have a parent/child craft time of making a household chart with pictures or words to help them understand what task they have to perform next before they can get a reward (TV/ iPad/toys).
Set a consistent time to wake up every morning.
Do the same actions each morning, such as get out of bed, get dressed, eat breakfast, brush your teeth, etc.
Transitions are routines that children will perform to help them move into the next activity. Some children can struggle with starting and stopping activities, so these will help.
Give them a "heads up" that the activity will soon end
Children can begin to tell time between ages 5 - 6. So, a child younger than age 5 will need an alternate cue. So avoid saying, "We are going to leave in 5 minutes." The 4-year-old will not understand time. Instead, you might say, "We are going to leave when I put my tennis shoes on."
Consider using a timer so your child will have an audible cue that the activity is over
Try to make the transition “fun” for the child by singing or playing music
Give praise to a child when they have a successful and smooth transition
Consider using a "comfort" item the child prefers if the transition is difficult
You can practice the transition so the child will understand and know what to expect.
Preparation and planning for the next day: Pick out clothing for the next day, make lunch and have the child pack the backpack or bag with everything ready to go so it is easy to grab and go in the morning
Reduce screen time at least 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime
Do the same bedtime routine: change into PJs and brush your teeth
Do a calming activity like reading to your child or saying a prayer with your child (or both) just do the same thing every evening
As adults, we have had many years to practice and develop our routines. As children carry out their routines, they adapt their behaviors and learning occurs. We naturally get better at the things we do all of the time and "practice makes perfect!" Children rely on adults to provide them with a schedule. This allows them to accept the changes in the world and become independent in their future adult lives; such as knowing when to brush their teeth, dress, and do homework.
When a child's routines are disrupted, as all routines were during the pandemic, a parent might see an increase in "bad behaviors," poor mental health, increased screen time, and poor sleep. Structure and routines help decrease these outbursts and meltdowns. If a parent continually gives into a child's behavior so they will 'STOP', the outbursts and meltdowns then become a ‘Learned Behavior’. This is why schedules and routines will ultimately be the better alternatives in the long run.
The only thing we know for sure about the future is that things will change. Children go to daycare, meet new classmates and teachers every year, parents unexpectedly go out of town for work, and parents get divorced or move. The list goes on; however, children can transition better with the help of routines and structure. It teaches them how to perform everyday duties, follow directions/rules and respect their parents or other adults. Additionally, it gives them a sense of security and accomplishment that they can take with them as they grow.
McKim, Weaver and Sternberg, 2021
By: Cindy Liska, OTR and Abbie Campbell, COTA