The Importance of Routines for Kids
Information developed by Dr. Erika Bocknek, Educational Psychology, Wayne State University
It’s commonly understood that routines are good for children and support their development. However, in uncertain times like these, families are working hard to figure out…what’s essential about routines for their young children? Why do they matter and what kind of characteristics matter most? Unlocking these secrets will help families adapt to changing and uncertain times.
Why routines matter
Research shows that routines support healthy social emotional development in early childhood. In particular, children with regular routines at home have self-regulation skills, the building blocks of good mental health. When children learn to regulate feelings and behaviors, it means they are able to identify their feelings and have skills to manage those feelings so that they don’t feel overwhelmed. Young children who learn to do this well are better able to adapt to everyday challenges, stressors, and new expectations. Children do not learn to do this all at once. Just as when a child is learning other important skills, like reading and writing, self-regulation is a set of skills that build over time. Every stage includes age-appropriate milestones and important things parents can do to coach children from one stage into the next.
There are many parenting behaviors that are important. These include talking about feelings with your child and helping your child respond to his feelings in ways that feel right for your family—such as by taking deep breaths or getting hugs. Parents can also provide structure and support routines for children. When children live in organized and predictable environments, they learn to self-regulate in organized and predictable ways, leading to optimal mental health over time.
What about routines matter
Often parents hear the word routine and imagine it is a proxy for schedule or even more generally structure. Those constructs are similar, but routines require a particular set of characteristics for children to be most developmentally supportive: predictability and accessibility. Children benefit from relationships and environments that are predictable to them: this includes important caregivers who behave in predictable ways, and events that occur at predictable times. For example, many studies demonstrate the benefit of bedtime routines and dinnertime routines. Children can anchor their day according to these expected interactions with their families. Furthermore, these are routine moments that provide a high level of accessibility to children. Not only can children know easily when and how they will occur, but even young children can often participate in these routines in meaningful ways by helping to set the table at dinnertime or choose their own book to read with a parent at bedtime.
A special kind of a routine, a ritual, adds an additional layer to the significance of predictable family experiences. Rituals are routines that also impart a sense of family identity and promote connection among family members. Rituals give children a growing sense of themselves as a member of a greater whole which promotes positive developmental outcomes. In addition, the joy that families experience inside of rituals together can leave an “emotional residue” that children keep with them to cope during stressful times. When times are uncertain, and children experience worry or sadness, rituals provide the internal sense that they are not alone and have a balance in their lives of positive and negative experiences.
How parents can adapt routines during the current crisis
Many parents are struggling to adapt their children’s routines in the current crisis. Without school, family, and regular activities, parents are aware their children still need structure. Here are some tips to incorporate the most significant features of routines into your children’s current lives.
“Only the family, society’s smallest unit, can change and yet maintain enough continuity to rear children who will not be ‘strangers in a strange land,’ who will be rooted firmly enough to grow and adapt.”
Salvador Minuchin, a famous family therapy scholar
Each family has the capacity to support their children’s adaptation with positive routines and powerful connections.