Here is a piece I recently wrote for submission to our local newspaper.
During my almost 30 year career as an early childhood teacher and administrator some of the most common advice families ask from me is how to get their child to eat or to get dressed or go to bed on time without tears and tantrums. My answer always starts with a question, “can you tell me about your routine?” As a creature-of-habit myself, I know that I depend on my rhythm and routine each day to keep me moving forward and happy. Having a basic routine helps me manage my time, move from one activity to another and reach my goals. I have a sense of how my day or week might go and it keeps stress at bay.
For young children daily routines are especially important. Without them their lives can seem chaotic and out of control. Young children do not have the ability to tell time or understand minutes and hours so they use predictable events and routines in their day to understand what comes next and keep track of their progress. Having this ability allows them to feel secure and to become confident in themselves and the world around them. They can trust their needs are going to be met, allowing them to focus on growing and developing.
When routines are predictable for young children it makes transitions to and from activities such as meals, chores and bedtime easier. They know what to expect, how they are going to get there and that their participation is not optional. When the daily rhythm remains consistent there is less room for arguments and pushback. The following are some strategies I have found to help make routine events predictable and easier to manage.
Meals and eating can be a problematic time for young children and families. It has been well established that children need fuel in the form of healthy food to develop and learn. We also know children can be picky, choosing to eat little at meals and holding out for unhealthy snacks when they are hungry. This can be quite frustrating and worrisome for families. To help children become healthy eaters, responsible for taking care of their bodies, mealtime expectations must remain consistent. To do this the important adults in a child’s life should set meal and snack time routines that include when meals take place, where meals take place and what food is being offered. The children then become responsible for if and how much they choose to eat. By making mealtimes predictable and eliminating on demand snacking, children learn to eat when food is served, to try new things and if they choose not to eat, they know when the next meal or snack will be served reducing the potential for argument.
Enforceable statements are an excellent tool to help children move from one activity to another, especially when the appeal of one exceeds the other. For example, when it is time to get dressed for the day, but the child would rather play with a favorite toy, an enforceable statement would be, “when you have your cloths on then you can play with the toy”. Or when it is time to clean up before going outside the enforceable statement would be “when your toys are put away then we will head outside”. The key to enforceable statements is not just saying them, but to mean what you say by following through while remaining calm. When children experience adults using enforceable statements routinely, they quickly learn to take the adult at their word and know what is expected of them.
Bedtime can be another challenging time of the day for families. The best way to eliminate much of the bedtime challenge is to develop rituals and routines that occur in the same order each night. Include activities such as taking a warm bath or reading bedtime stories to create a sense of calm and comfort. (Avoid using television or other electronics as a calming technique as they have been found to stimulate the brain). Use each step of the routine to cue the next, for example you can say “after we get your PJs on what happens next”? A great item to include as part of the bedtime routine is talking together about the day; what happened, what they enjoyed, and any frustrations they may have had. It is also a great time to discuss the events of the next day setting up expectations and preparing for any changes in routine.
Children thrive and are able to become more independent when they have the consistency and limits that are available through a predictable routine, but we all know that life happens and unexpected changes are also important for growth. Occasional unpredictability helps children learn to be flexible and resilient, especially when they know they can count on an adult to support them. These changes help them learn to face and work through life’s problems as they occur.
In today’s world we are all juggling many things that make a consistent routine daunting, however it can also make life run a little easier. Start small, adding predictability where it may already be and don’t give in to pushback. Who knows by adding some rhythm and routine you may find everyone has a little more time for fun!