Sometimes a change in routine can be exciting and fun. Other times, especially for children with sensory sensitivities associated with autism, ADHD, and sensory processing disorder, changes in a child’s routine can be upsetting and make it difficult for the child to maintain a sense of security. Routine disruption can even cause issues with self regulation – the ability to maintain a calm and stable control over one’s emotions and actions.
Young children do not yet fully understand the concept of time, so they do not order their lives by hours and minutes, but rather by the events that happen. When events happen in the same order every day, children have a better understanding of their world, and therefore feel more secure. A regular schedule gives children a way to order and organize their lives. When young children know what to expect, they become more confident in both themselves and the world around them.
A young child’s brain is still undergoing major development, especially the part of the brain that is able to plan ahead and make predictions about the future. A routine helps kids practice making these simple predictions, as well as understand concepts such as “before and after.” Routines also help children develop self-control because they know they have to wait until a certain time to do a particular activity. A regular schedule fosters responsibility and independence because children will be able to perform more activities on their own if they have done the same activities many times before in the same environment.
That being said, it is also important to maintain a balance between routine, and moments of fluctuation in routine because as we all know, change is a constant in our busy world! Children can become too dependent on a routine and it is important for children to develop the skill of adjusting and adapting to changes. If a child consistently has an adverse response to fluctuations in routine, or gets severely thrown off by changes throughout their day it may be a good idea to have an OT screening to see if there are other underlying issues at play.
Here are 5 ideas for starting a routine in your home:
- Morning routine. Have clear expectations for what your child needs to accomplish after they wake up. This could be, go to the bathroom, brush their teeth, and put on clean socks and underwear. Try to incorporate a healthy breakfast even if it is a quick 15 minute meal. This allows for time in the morning to discuss plans for the rest of the day. This is a great way to start a routine that allows children to take responsibility, even for something small, such as carrying the silverware to the table.
- Have a bedtime ritual, which will help children slowly calm down, and allow them to associate certain activities with getting sleepy. Think about what calms your child. Is it taking a bath? Reading a story? Listening to soft music? Always do the bedtime preparation in the same order, and ask your child questions such as, “What do we do after we put on our pajamas?” A great item to include in the bedtime ritual is that of talking about your day. Let your child tell you what they did that day, and prompt them if they forget. This part of the routine not only helps children with memory, time orientation, and language skills, but it also shows them that you care about what they did that day.
- Include preparation for transitions in the routine. For example, say, “We have 10 minutes left before we start getting ready for bed. When the big hand gets to the 12, it will be time to put on your pajamas.”
- Work together to make pictures that indicate each step of the routine, put the pictures in order on a colorful sheet of paper, and hang the finished product in your child’s room. You will not only be helping build creativity in your child, but you will also promote self-sufficiency, as your child will be able to look at the pictures to identify what step comes next.
- Although routine is very important for young children, it is important not to be too rigid. Children need to learn how be flexible and deal with minor changes. If there is an interruption to the routine, you can say “I know we usually do x, but today we are going to do y because (reason). Tomorrow we will go back to our usual schedule.” If most of their day is predictable, young children will be able to deal with small changes, especially if they are prepared for the changes and see you modeling calm behavior as you deal with problems that occur.
The earlier that you begin to implement routine into your child’s life, the easier it will be. When you stick to a routine, you teach your child how to arrange time in a manner that is efficient, productive, and cuts down on stress. This sense of order is not only important for making your young child feel secure at this moment, but it will also allow your child to internalize an automatic sense of how to organize their own life as they grow up!
-Stephanie Earl, COTAL