Why Routines Are So Important to Children
I had the privilege of working in preschools prior to becoming a therapist as both an assistant teacher and then as a teacher. It was a great education for parenting and my work as a therapist helping other parents. One thing I learned above all others was the importance of routines. Walk into any classroom where there are small children and you will see what I mean. Teachers are seriously outnumbered in a classroom so they figure out how to get the upper hand very quickly. From the first week of school the goal is to establish the classroom routines. A good deal of time is spent on this often with the assistance of props. Kids will come in hang their coats in their cubbies, get their carpet squares and come sit down for circle time. Then the circle time routine complete with the calendar, weather and maybe a good morning song. The children take turns doing the ever important work of putting the Velcro day of the week or sun on the board. And oh are they excited to get their turn to do this–like you are handing out candy! The teacher might then go over the schedule for the day on the board and then the kids put away their carpet squares and go to the their desks ready for the next part of the day. Now this doesn’t always go without a hitch but generally speaking the kids learn the routine and then they are managing themselves for the most part. And when kids don’t follow, or talk, the teacher may do a special clap to get the children’s attention; when that happens, watch–they all do the clap and then pipe down. And just watch what happens if the teacher says, “Today we will start working at our desks”. Oh, the protests: “But what about circle time?” “We always do the weather before sitting at our desks!” How do teachers achieve these fabulous results? Good news–there is no magic but teachers do understand some important things about children that are helpful to keep in mind.
#1- Kids like routines.
Children like to be competent and feel independent. Younger children always want to be like the older kids and when they know the routine it gives them a sense of mastery and predictability.
#2-Kids do not like surprises unless they are of the sweet variety.
Candy or cookies–yes, sitting at the desk before circle time–no! This is not to say that life can always be predictable. I tend to see parents struggling with one end of this issue or the other. One end is a real lack of routine, the other where the routine is carved in stone and poor Junior cannot tolerate any deviation which can be just as bad. Life is not always predictable and we need to teach children how to be flexible. A great way to do this is to prepare them for changes. If the teacher in my example says on Monday and Tuesday, “This Wednesday we will start our day by doing our desk work because after that we have a special assembly. We will do our circle time before lunch that day.” This will help a lot. When possible let children know what to expect and prepare them for changes and you will avoid many a meltdown that occurs when they’re surprised. Another great way of doing this is giving them warnings, “Junior, we will go to the playground until the big hand is on the 12 and then we have to go home.” Then give follow up warnings, “5 more minutes” and finally, “One more slide then we have to go.” And then, for goodness sake, Follow Through. Which brings me to the next thing teachers know…
#3-Be consistent, consistently.
Routines will not work if they are not done consistently. I have had parents working on a bedtime routine who will come in the next week and say “Well we tried that bedtime routine a couple of nights and that is not going to work for us. Junior did not go for it at all.” First of all why is Junior deciding? Second of all, if you are making a change prepare your child. “Starting next Monday we will start our new bedtime routine.” And then do it night after night the same way. It takes time to establish a routine and we are all slow to warm up to change. And then the next thing teachers know…
#4-Have children buy into the routine.
Let them make suggestions about how the routine should go or tell them they can pick the 3 books that you will read. They will fight a lot less if they feel they have some say about the process. There is always a way to have the major control of a situation and let them have minor control. Rather than choose any clothes from the closet give them 3 choices and let them pick one of the three.
#5-Build in natural consequences.
If the children can’t put away their crayons, push in their chairs and line up then they are wasting their recess time and may not have as much. If it is something meaningful to the child they will hustle. Teachers will often say, “You are wasting your own time.” This reinforces that children have some control and accountability for their actions.
#6-Children generally want to please teachers and parents.
Notice them doing well and they pay attention. In school kids love to get their green crayons or stickers for jobs well done. If they know what the expectations of them are and they feel they can be successful most children will try. If expectations are not clear or are randomly reinforced this can create more chaos.
The wonderful thing is that routines reduce chaos and stress in a classroom or a family. The most important things to be clear about are the expectations and the consistency. Focus on these and see if routines can help you and your children feel more in control.
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