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The power of routine and how to create one (that works!) for your child

Routines are things we do over and over, usually in the same order, in the same way, or at the same time of the day. They are the predictable events and habits that we repeatedly do that provide a sense of structure – a foundation for the daily tasks in our lives.

Most families have routines in place, even if they are unspoken. We often have routines around things like bedtime, meal times, or leaving the house in the morning. But sometimes, these routines are not working well, or are actually creating more chaos instead of cultivating calm.

In fact, when I talk to parents about routines, I usually get one of 2 responses:

  1. Parents tell me that they don’t have or want a routine because they don’t want to get stuck in a rigid schedule.
  2. Parents tell me that they’ve tried to implement a routine or schedule but no one will stick with it.

Both of these approaches lead to people believing that routines “don’t work” for them and their family. But a successful approach to routines lies somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. It’s about striking a balance between rigidly scheduling in an activity to fill every minute of your day, not planning anything at all, and having no one in your home know what to expect or what’s coming next.

A successful routine creates ease and flow in your day. And a good routine is one that works for your unique family and for the stage of life you’re currently in.

Why is routine important to children?

Routines create predictability and safety for the brain. They give our life a sense of order and predictability which the brain loves! When we repeatedly do the same things in the same order, we are creating pathways in the brain that help it know what to expect. And a brain that knows what to expect, is a calm brain.

Unpredictability is stressful for the brain and the nervous system. Creating predictable routines and rhythms for our children can lower central nervous system reactivity which means fewer meltdowns, tantrums, and big emotional outbursts. Routines can significantly reduce overwhelm – for you and for your kids. They can also be a great opportunity for connection when we embed rituals within them, like a story at bedtime, or a special goodbye kiss at school drop-off. 

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How to create a successful routine for your family

1) Evaluate your current routines

The first step in creating a successful routine for your family is to think about whether there are areas in your life where you’d like to add more structure. You may have routines already in place around getting ready in the morning, going to bed, meal times or coming home from school. And you may like to add routines and create more structure around things like homework, or cleaning up during the day. This will be entirely personal and unique to your particular family! So what’s currently working, and what needs some tweaking right now?

2) Prioritise

The second step is to think about all the things you need to do as part of each routine, and prioritise them according to their importance. What absolutely needs to get done as part of your routine? These are the non-negotiables – things you cannot leave the house without doing, or things you cannot go to bed without doing. Then think about what you’d like to get done as part of the routine once all the essentials are completed. This is what you’d like to do if you still have time, so take the pressure off when it comes to these items!

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3) Give yourself enough time

The next thing it’s important to do is to think about how much time you have to complete the routine, and how long each step is likely to take.  And it’s important that you’re realistic here. Things often take longer than we expect! Once you know how long each step takes, add it all together and see if it all fits in the time you have available! A lot of the time, our routines feel chaotic and stressful when we try to implement them because we try to fit too much into too short a time frame.

So if everything doesn’t fit, consider whether you can increase the amount of time you have available for the routine. If you can’t do that, try to remove some steps of the routine and break it down to just the essentials. If your routine has more than about 7-8 steps, it’s too long. Kids cannot and will not be able to maintain a routine with that many steps, it’s just too much for them to do! This will result in resistance, refusal, meltdowns, and power struggles. The opposite of what we’re trying to achieve with a routine!

4) Manage your expectations

Our expectations of children are often too high. I’ve seen many routines fall apart because parents expect their children to complete tasks on their own that they simply don’t have the skills to do yet. So think about this – can your child actually complete the tasks in the routine – consistently and independently – or will they need some help? Do you need to simplify the steps for your child to better suit their age and stage? Do you need to find ways to support them to complete the steps? And will this add extra time to your routine?

For example, do you need to break any of the steps in the routine down even further? Is “get dressed” a sufficient instruction, or does your child need to know what the steps involved in getting dressed are? And here’s a hot tip – they probably do! Not because they’re not smart or capable, but because they’re little and their brains are still developing. Their executive functioning skills that allow them to plan and initiate tasks, and to be self-motivated, are still under development. So think about whether your child needs further support for some of the steps and how you can do that.

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5) Find your anchor points

When it comes to planning out an entire day, I like to talk about rhythms rather than schedules. A rhythm is a pattern of doing things within your family. A flow of events that reflects the natural flow and balance of your lives. Rhythms typically revolve around anchor points or events that occur at around the same time every day, week, month, or year. Your rhythm consists of your usual routines and rituals, as well as other events that need to happen in your household, such as meal times, activities, and chores

The rhythm is not a structured schedule, but instead, is shaped around and aligns with the lifestyle already in place for a family. It helps children know what comes next in their day and allows them to make an easy transition to the next activity or anchor point.

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So what are the anchor points in your day? Do you always have lunch at around the same time? Do you drop older children off at school and pick them up at the same time? Is there a swimming or soccer lesson that you always go to on a Thursday morning? These are your anchors. Predictable events that always happen around the same time. When you create a daily rhythm, start with these anchor points and then schedule in other activities and events around those. This will allow both flexibility and flow AND predictability and containment for your child.

6) Schedule in downtime

When creating your daily rhythms, be sure to plan for downtime. A mixture of both BEING and DOING activities is essential throughout the day. For example, if your morning consisted of errands and school drop off and lots of out and about type activities, then you might return home for morning tea and do some quiet activities at home, like craft or reading, before heading out again for the afternoon school run and a play at the park. When we over-schedule children, we create stress and overwhelm. Rest time is essential for everyone.

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7) Use visuals

Visual cues are a great way to stay on track with your routines and rhythms and ensure everyone in your family knows what to expect and what is coming next. They are especially useful for very young children, but everyone can benefit from visuals! I like to use a simple chart (with some pictures for younger children) that shows the general flow of the day and includes your anchor points. You can even get your child involved in creating the chart. When children feel a sense of ownership and feel they have been included, they are far more likely to follow along. Give them some power, and they will have no need to fight for it!

8) Review and revise

The final step in creating your routines is to return to them regularly. Routines and rhythms will change, grow and develop as your family does. They need to. If you have a baby or a toddler, then your daily rhythm will look very different to a family with two school-aged children. So it’s important that you periodically come back and review your routines and rhythms. Are they still relevant? Are they still working efficiently? Does everyone have the skills they need to complete them or do you need to teach some new skills? Do you need to adjust your expectations about how long things take or what you’re capable of managing at this current stage of life you’re in?

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Most importantly, try to remember that a rhythm is a guide, not a detailed minute-by-minute schedule. When you create your rhythms and routines, the idea is not to plan out every moment of your day, but to map the flow of your day, so everyone knows what to expect. A rhythm should always align with the natural flow of your family life – it fits with you and your family, you don’t force your family to fit into it.

Sarah Conway is a child and adolescent psychologist, mother of 4, and founder of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 15 years of experience working in mental health with children, teenagers, and families. Sarah’s mission is to help parents move away from punitive parenting strategies and towards mindful, intentional parenting that builds emotional intelligence in kids and parents alike. As a busy mum herself, she knows firsthand how difficult mindful parenting can be, particularly when it was never modeled by our own parents. That’s why she provides parents and children with simple, practical strategies and tools that help them learn to manage emotions – together. She believes that changing the way we parent will change the world.

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