How to Help Young Children Stick to Routines

how to help young children stick to routines

I remember getting my first dog when I was 28—I had absolutely no clue how to be a dog mom. My husband grew up with dogs his whole life, and he knew all the things. I spent a lot of time in those early days letting him take the lead, and asking, “How do you know that?!” Our new black lab Champ was “bitey” and bigger than I wanted our dog to be. I didn’t understand his cues for when he needed to go out, and don’t get me started on picking up after him when we were outside.

A few months later, my husband was deployed to Afghanistan, and I had no choice but to figure out how Champ and I were going to make it work together. By this time, I knew the basics of how to feed him and keep him alive, but to say he was well-behaved would be a bold-faced lie. So I reached out to a local pet store and enrolled us in their puppy training program. We went to each class, and I quickly realized that they weren’t just training my dog—they were training me! I was learning how to be more structured and have more discipline with Champ.

After we graduated from the training program, I continued to implement everything I learned for a time, but after a while, I started to slide. I was struggling with my husband’s deployment, small-town isolation, and a totally overwhelming teaching job. Long story short, I fell off the wagon—and Champ fell off with me.

I tell this story to illustrate the importance of structures and routines. It’s that time of year when many of us are trying to put new routines into place. Some of them will stick and others won’t. Instead of giving up (like I did with Champ), here are some tips for getting back into the swing of things and maintaining a natural rhythm and routine with your child:

Getting Started

Prioritize Structure

Structure helps kids learn how to constructively manage themselves and their environments. Providing structure for your children teaches them what behaviors are okay and not okay as well as what to expect throughout their day. This is really powerful for kids because it lets them feel more in control of what is going on around them. When the opportunity arises to play outside past bedtime, think back to your plan. Will this benefit the overall goal of getting back into the swing of things? It’s hard to make these decisions (and the fear of missing out is real!). But prioritizing structure and routine is what’s best for your young child, so if you can, stick to it.

  • Looping in your young child: Provide reminders for your child about the new routines and structures you have begun to implement in the family. Offer reteaching as necessary, and continue to practice routines. If there is pushback (this is a reality with my kids), try using “5-minute warnings” and timers to let your kiddo know what to expect.

Get Organized

I’m certainly not a professional organizer, and this step can be painful for me. At the same time, it makes me feel like I’m on top of my game and can tackle anything thrown my way. So what does organization look like? It can include Writing things down,
syncing calendars as a family (Check out this popular family organizer app), creating checklists for individuals and for the family, meal planning for the week ahead, determining specific places for things to go, and purchasing or creating organizational tools (such as bins for shoes or a hook for a backpack).

Looping in your young child:

Most young children love to be helpers, so getting organized provides many opportunities for them to participate. Use a visual checklist for young children to keep track of their tasks. Give your child verbal praise when they can check things off their list and when they put an item where it belongs. Involve them in meal planning by having them make suggestions and check the fridge or pantry to see what the family needs to replenish at the store.

help children stick to routines

Maintaining structure and routine

Be Clear

From start to finish, clarity is key. If you find that you haven’t been clear with your children, or you want to change things up on a random Tuesday, that’s okay! You don’t have to wait until a specific time or feel stuck in the unclear routine you established. Start now, be clear, and go forward.

Be consistent

This means doing the same thing every time. You should respond to behaviors, schedules, and distractions in the same way every time, even if you’re tired or not feeling it. People used to say that habits take 21 days to form, but a 2009 study shows that habits can take around 2 months to form. Give your plan time to work and be as consistent as possible.

Be Predictable

When your child knows what to expect, it helps develop their self-discipline and supports self-regulation. It also provides a sense of security because you have removed the fear of the unknown. With a predictable schedule, predictable routines, and predictable responses from the adults in the family, young children learn to master their own lives.

Don’t Give Up

If you fall off the wagon, revisit your plan and tweak it as needed. Review the initial ideas you had in mind about what you wanted to happen in your household and with your family. Is that still what you want, or do you need to adjust things a little bit? During your review, it’s important to decide the outcome you’re looking for. Use these questions to support you in thinking about what your plan looks like:

  • What does your plan look like for your family? What small adjustments can we make?
  • What does morning time, after school time, bedtime look like?
  • What do meals look like? Who goes to the store? Who cooks? Who cleans?
  • How do we handle chores and other household tasks?
  • What are the big and small things you can do each day to get to a routine that works for everyone?

It’s okay to start small and implement one or two things at a time. An important piece of making a plan is sharing those expectations with family members by clearly explaining how things will work. Especially with young children, it will help to explain the plan with words, draw pictures to show how things will work, and practice! Young children will need gentle reminders of the new plan, and practice will help them.

When getting back into the swing of things with young children, trial and error can be a part of the process. The first few days might be a little bumpy, and that routine takes time to stick. See what works for your family, and if something doesn’t work, ditch it and adjust course. The most important thing is to be clear and consistent, and to follow-through. Give it time and you’ll see the fruits of your labor—a house with less stress and kiddos with more independence!

By Caitlin Hardeman, former third through sixth grade teacher specializing in English Language Arts.

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