By Kathie Sarles, M.Ed.
As an early childhood educator, I have often discussed the need for routines with many parents. Some parents tell me that they used to have daily routines but once their first child came along their routines were gone. Children, they claim, change the trajectory of the day. Other parents have never seen a reason for routine and often feel it is wrong to impose a structure on a toddler. Although I understand that each family must find their own system to cope with daily life, structure is not just a good idea, it is necessary. It is a fact that children who understand what is coming next in their day are more secure and calm and therefore ready to learn and develop, than those who are unsure and therefore anxious about what is coming next. “Consistent routines, activities that happen at about the same time and in about the same way each day, provide comfort and a sense of safety to young children.” (Zero to Three: www.zerotothree.com). This is especially true for children who are already experiencing a challenge with development.
If this is true and children need routine, how do we find a way to incorporate it into our busy and changing lives? First of all, not every minute of every day needs to be scheduled. The routine does not need to be detailed or at a specific time. Children just need to feel comfortable that things in their life are predictable, that one event happens before another. For instance: we get up and we get dressed, then we eat, or we get up and we eat breakfast then get dressed. If this is the way the morning goes, then our body embraces it more willingly. If on the other hand, every morning is something different, and we are hungry, then we don’t know when we will feel satisfied, our morning consists of high alert for food. This can lead to poor behavior while we wait and wonder. Children diagnosed with a disability or delay,often have a harder time regulating their emotions and systems which makes them on high alert often throughout their day. If we help them to regulate by offering them an understanding of what comes next, then they are less likely to fall apart due to dis- regulation. “When young children know what to expect, they become more confident in both themselves and the world around them.” ( Lisa Medoff, PhD. Education.com)
For parents creating a routine means thinking ahead and planning a bit. Thinking about what the day can look like overall. What are the few consistent steps we can incorporate to help our children feel safe and secure and ready to learn and grow. Start with meals and bedtimes and go from there. Inevitably there will be a need to introduce new activities that can be uncomfortable or may cause anxiety. Children will be better able to handle these new challenges if the rest of the day feels secure.
Daily routines should include: Getting up/ dressing/ eating/ playing (or childcare/ school), snacks/ naptime/bedtime. Children begin to incorporate the cues of what is next into their schema which in turn helps them to regulate. If they know that snacks only happen after they come home from childcare, then they are less likely to cry and whine at other times. If they know that brushing teeth is the last thing before leaving the house, getting out might be easier. “ Stable routines allow babies and toddlers to anticipate what will happen next. This gives young children confidence, and also a sense of control..” (Zero to Three)
The benefits of creating predictable routines for our children outweigh the challenge of making these routines happen. The time spent on thinking and creating predictable schedules is well worth it. Your child will be able to tackle a new challenge while trusting you to keep the rest of the day consistent. It is never too late to start.
“The earlier that you begin to order your child’s life, the easier it will be. When you stick to a routine, you teach your child how to arrange her time in a manner that is efficient, productive, and cuts down on stress. This sense of order is not only important for making your young child feel secure at this moment, but it will also allow your child to internalize an automatic sense of how to organize her own life as she grows up.” (Lisa Medoff: PhD.)