Listen to an audio file of this tool.
Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in your child’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship, and daily routines provide a perfect opportunity.
Routines not only help your family move through the day smoothly and on time, they can have a significant impact on your child’s success. Children ages 5-10 are establishing critical habits like getting ready for school, completing their homework, and going to bed at night that can have lasting impact for a healthy future.
Yet, everyone faces challenges in establishing routines. “Why do I have to go to bed when you get to stay up?” you may hear from your child. While children may engage in power struggles when they have other goals in mind like wanting to play longer, using the steps below can help navigate this struggle with skill.
The key to many parenting challenges, like establishing routines, is finding ways to communicate so that both your needs and your child’s needs are met. The steps below include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters to prepare you.
Establishing regular routines can help your family get through the day cooperatively while building vital skills in your child. Routines can help your child feel safe, because they know what to expect and are better able to learn from the rich experiences you share together every day. Changes to your routine – expected and unexpected – can help your child learn to be flexible and practice adjusting to new situations when you guide them with confidence and sensitivity.
Today, in the short term, routines can create
- regular sleep habits, which helps children perform better in school;
- greater cooperation and motivation as you go about your daily tasks;
- connection and enjoyment;
- structure to ease stress and increase cooperation and motivation as you go about your daily tasks;
- feelings that your child can make sense of their world;
- a sense of mastery when your child repeats routines and knows what to expect; and
- added daily peace of mind!
Tomorrow, in the long term, your child
- develops a sense of safety, security, and confidence;
- builds skills to handle unexpected challenges in life;
- builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making; and
- deepens family trust and intimacy.
This five-step process helps you and your child establish routines. It also builds important skills in your child. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are done best when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your child thinking about establishing routines by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt your child’s thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges related to your daily routines so that you can address them. In gaining input, your child
- has a greater stake in anything they’ve designed themselves (and with that sense of ownership also comes a greater responsibility for implementing the routine);
- has more motivation to work together and cooperate because of their sense of ownership;
- will be working in collaboration with you on making informed decisions (understanding the reasons behind those decisions) about critical aspects of their day; and
- will grow problem-solving skills.
- Consider which daily routine needs work – morning, homework, bedtime? Questions you could ask include:
- “Let’s think about our typical day. What do we need to do when we get up in the morning?” (brush teeth, eat breakfast)
- “What do we like to do in the morning?” (watch a program, play)
- “What can be challenging when it’s morning, and we are trying to get to school on time?”
- Ask key questions about those specific challenges to really understand what’s challenging for your child. “I notice you tend to slow down when it’s time to get dressed. Why is that time a struggle for you?”
- Each time there is an opportunity, ask your child, “What do you notice? How do you feel?” If your child is feeling unsure about how to describe their feelings when a routine changes, consider asking questions, naming what you notice, and leaving plenty of quiet space after your questions so they have an opportunity to share their ideas.
- “How did you feel when I told you we were going to do something different today?”
- “I noticed you brought your book with you to Grandma’s house so we could still do that part of our bedtime routine.”
- “I noticed you felt better when you saw that Grandma has the same kind of night light that we do.”
- “How do you feel right now?”
- When reading books, point out routines that seem comforting and moments when those routines changed. Ask, “How do you think that character is feeling? What happened when their day changed?”
Your child will give you lots of cues about whether the routines you develop feel too complicated or too simple and if they are being followed consistently enough for your child to feel a sense of security. Every child is different, and your own child may change from day-to-day in how willing they are to follow a routine or how much help they need to manage planned and unplanned changes in routines.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, it’s easy to forget that children are learning to perform everyday typical tasks with greater independence each year of their lives. Though your child may easily pull a shirt over their head, that same child might struggle with tying their shoe. Learning about developmental milestones can help you know which tasks might be more difficult.
- Five-year-olds are working on their fine motor skills and may struggle with tasks like tying shoes or buttoning shirts. They may need more support in these areas.
- Six-year-olds may be more apt to question your rules and refuse to proceed with the routine.
- Seven-year-olds crave structure, so they may not be able to deal well with a chaotic morning that does not follow the typical routine.
- Eight-year-olds may have a limited attention span, so if a task is too challenging, they may drop it and move on.
- Nine-year-olds may be highly competent with fine motor skills but can become easily frustrated; they need directions that contain one instruction.
- Ten-year-olds have bodies that are growing rapidly, so they require more movement; they also are developing a strong sense of right and wrong and fairness.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.
- After talking about the routine and its challenges in Step 1, brainstorm solutions to your identified challenges. For example, when talking about your morning routine, you may have identified that you tend to start nagging when it’s time to get dressed. Generate ideas together.
- “What exactly about getting dressed is a struggle for you?”
- “What ideas do you have to deal with those struggles?”
- Now write down or draw your plan with each simple step. Let your child do the writing or drawing so that they feel a sense of ownership in the plan you are developing.
- For ages 5-7: Get out a poster board, newsprint paper, or just plain paper and markers. Have your child or children write out their routine in the simplest terms such as: 1. Wake up! 2. Get dressed. (Younger children can draw instead.)
- For ages 8-10: Create together a checklist of their routine on a whiteboard or chalkboard. Children at this age enjoy checking off a list.
- Post their plan in a visible location.
- Teach your child how to perform the routine. Particularly if there are new responsibilities or challenges, be sure that you’ve tried those steps out together first. There is a simple process called interactive modeling that teachers use that can become a powerful teaching tool for parents.1
- Say what you will model or demonstrate and why.
- Model or demonstrate the behavior.
- Ask your child what they noticed.
- Invite your child to try it.
- Ask what they noticed with their own modeling.
- Practice together.
- Provide specific feedback starting with strengths using “I notice…” statements.
- Make your thinking and emotions explicit. Talk about what you notice, how you are feeling, and why you are feeling it. “I love that you help me prep our dinner each night. It is one of my favorite times of the day because I get to spend time with you.”
- Talk aloud about the ways in which you respond to your own big feelings: “It made me feel so much better to tell you how I was feeling and to ask for help.”
- Grow confidence. In addition to having consistent daily routines with your child, point out when they are following the routine on their own and when they are able to manage changes in the routine. “I noticed that you have been following your plan to get your backpack ready for school the night before, so you don’t feel rushed in the morning.” When something is different you might say, “I noticed you adjusted easily to our night routine when we had guests staying with us. You knew how to handle that change, and it was not a big deal at all.”
Don’t create the plan when you are either in the routine itself, are hungry or tired, or have time pressures.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills and Develop Habits
Your daily routines can be opportunities for your child to practice new skills if you seize those chances. With practice, your child will improve over time as you give them the chance with support. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your child performs the routine.
Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy — a child’s sense that they can do a task successfully. This leads to confidence. It will also help them understand that mistakes and failures are part of learning.
When experiencing daily routines, it is important to notice how comfortable it feels to know what to expect and follow the routine. It is also important to plan ahead for expected changes in the routine and to talk about how hard it can be when unexpected changes occur. Help your child develop strategies for handling change and remind them that their trusted adults are always there to help.
- Learn about your child’s development. Each new age presents different challenges. Being informed about your child’s developmental milestones promotes your empathy and patience.
- Allow your child the chance to try out the routine, taking responsibility for their own tasks — even when you know you could do it faster and better.
- Be sure to consider how you can create the conditions to support their success (like making sure they wake up with enough time to complete their morning routine).
- If there is part of a routine that is not working, talk with your child about ways that you might change your plan for it to work better. “It seems to take a really long time for you to decide which books to read for bedtime. I am usually feeling tired then, and it is hard for me to be patient while you choose. Is there something we can do to help you choose the books more quickly? Could we choose them in the morning? What do you think we should try tonight?”
- Initially, practice may require more teaching, but avoid taking over and doing it for your child.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you are developing routines and allowing your child to practice so they can learn how to stick to the plan of their usual routine and be flexible enough to manage changes. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, coaching, and, when appropriate, applying logical consequences. Parents and those in a parenting role naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Use “Show me…” statements and ask them to demonstrate tasks or even the whole routine for you. When a child learns a new skill, they are eager to show it off!
- Recognize effort by using “I notice” statements like, “I notice how you went in to brush your teeth after breakfast without me asking. That’s taking responsibility!”
- On days with extra challenges that make completing routines harder, proactively remind your child to help them be successful. In a gentle, non-public way, you can whisper in your child’s ear, “Remember our next step? What is it?”
- Actively reflect on how routines are going. You can ask questions like:
- “How are you feeling when it’s time to get dressed? Is it working to select your clothes in the morning? Or do you need to set them out the night before?”
- “Seems like you got to bed later than we hoped last night. Were you feeling tired today? Did you have a hard time paying attention in class?”
- Apply logical consequences when needed. Logical consequences should come soon after the negative behavior and need to be provided in a way that maintains a healthy relationship. Rather than punishment, a consequence is about supporting the learning process. First, get your own feelings in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your feelings are in check you are able to provide logical consequences that fit the behavior. Second, invite your child into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2 for the routine. Third, if you feel that your child is not holding up their end of the bargain (unless it is a matter of them not knowing how), then apply a logical consequence as a teachable moment.
- Don’t move on or nag. Children often need more time to perform tasks that challenge them even if you believe they are simple and don’t require much time. Be sure to wait long enough for your child to show you they are competent. Your waiting could make all the difference in whether they are able to do what you need them to do.
Logical consequences should not be used as a threat to get your child to complete their routines. Threats harm the relationship with your child and decrease your child’s decision-making skills.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your child is working to grow their skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting positive behaviors and expanding your child’s self-esteem and confidence. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your child’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior of which you want to see more. For example, “You easily adapted to the changes we had to make to our routine — love seeing that!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you get your chores done before dinner, you’ll get extra screen time tonight” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You were a big help getting the chores done today. I really appreciate that!”
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When children are completing their homework tasks on time, for example, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed: “I notice you completed your homework today on your own in the time we agreed upon. Yes! Excellent.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments – like the full bedtime routine to go smoothly – in order to recognize effort. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. For example, after getting through your bedtime routine, snuggle together and read before bed. Or, in the morning once ready for school, take a few minutes to watch a favorite cartoon together. Include hugs, high fives, and fist bumps as ways to appreciate one another.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.