Kristen McNeely

consulting & family Counseling, INC.

Kristen McNeely

consulting & family Counseling, INC.

Do Routines Matter for Children?

The short answer?  Yes!  But let me give you the long explanation too 😉

Having a routine is one of the best ways to build structure and predictability for children – and this is a proactive strategy to reduce both anxiety and problem behavior.  Routines can be especially helpful for times of the day that may be more inherently stressful for kids – getting ready for school, coming home from school, and bedtime, just to name a few.  Let me give you a few ways to get the biggest bang for your buck when it comes to establishing routines. 

The Morning Routine

School day mornings can be hard – factors like fatigue and potentially limited motivation to get up and get moving both contribute to this being one of the most challenging times of day for many children (and parents!).  While it may never become “easy,” it doesn’t have to feel impossible every day.  A few things that can help in the mornings – 

  1. Use an alarm clock (or maybe 2) to help your child wake up in the morning – this way they aren’t needing to communicate with a parent first thing.
  2. Use a visual to remind them of things they need to get done.  This can be a list of pictures for younger children, or words for children who are able to read
  3. Set boundaries.  In our house, one of our rules is that on school days, our kids cannot come out of their rooms until they are dressed.  This has removed the battle of trying to get them to go back upstairs to get dressed after eating breakfast.  This rule took time and practice to teach, but it is now well established and no longer an area we have to remind them of.  
  4. Following a routine is a skill, and skills need to be taught.  It’s great to communicate expectations, but if we don’t take the time to actually teach the skill, we can’t expect it to be followed.  So in addition to using visuals and verbal explanations, using a reinforcer is a great tool.  For many families, having a small amount of tv time once a morning routine is completed is an easy reinforcer.  Maybe for your child having access to toys would be motivating.  Or, maybe you turn following the morning routine into a sticker chart and they can earn a prize at the end of the week for following each day.  There are many options!  Just be sure to pick one to really build this skill.

An Afternoon Routine

For many children, after school is even harder for children than before school, especially if you have a child who struggles with restraint collapse (falling apart after holding it together all day).  Routines can be helpful here too, and trial and error will be really important. Let me give you some examples: 

I would argue that most kids will want a snack after school.  If your kids are like mine, it may need to be a big snack because they haven’t eaten much at school!  But here are some other parts of the routine that may vary – 

  • Some kids will want to watch a short TV show and can tolerate this, while others will melt down if they have to transition off of a show.
  • Some kids will do well completing their homework right away, while others legitimately need to give their brains a break. 
  • Some kids may want to socialize in the afternoons, while others may need a lot of quiet down time. 

If your child is really struggling after school, I recommend really paying attention to these parts of their routine, and noting if behaviors were better or worse when you tried different variations. 

I also recommend considering a visual support for the afternoons.  Just like a list can help the morning routine, it can help with the afternoons too. 

If you and your child struggle with an evening routine, you are not alone!  There are so many factors that contribute to difficulty going to bed, including more serious challenges like separation anxiety, in which a child is genuinely fearful of being separated from their parent. 

The same strategies discussed above can be very helpful for an evening routine.  Bedtime is a time, however, that may require even more consistency and predictability, particularly if anxiety is one of the factors for your child. 

Another important consideration is scheduling.  Some kids are really sensitive to that “wind down” time, and really need it in order to start calming down.  For these kids, having a consistent routine that includes this time is important – doing things like turning off the TV a little earlier, and then having them take a bath or shower prior to some quiet activities can be very helpful.

If you found this helpful, be sure to follow me on Instagram at @childhood.empowered for more free educational content on childhood anxiety and behavioral health support.

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