In support of National Mental Health Awareness Month, this May we are exploring simple strategies that can help children and families build lifelong skills for managing stress and fostering wellbeing. We thought we’d take a look, from a mental health perspective, at an area of particular focus in the KITS Program: the importance of routines and how to make them work for you.
If there’s anything we’ve learned in the past year it’s that life is full of surprises and uncertainty. Predictable and reliable family routines help children know what to do and provide structure and comfort during times of instability.
When my children were very small, I balked at the idea of setting up routines; feeding schedules, established bed times? Who needs them? And everything went along just fine for a while…until I began to recognize that we were struggling with the same things every day and sometimes multiple times a day. I was losing my patience and found myself saying the same things over and over. It became clear to me that my children simply didn’t know what was expected of them at different times of the day. Luckily for me I had been working for KITS for a number of years and I knew what I needed to do. It was time for a routine. We started with just one, a bedtime routine, and now we have a routine for nearly everything.
Routines have many benefits for our mental health. Routines help children gain a sense of mastery over their lives and their activities, which makes them feel good about themselves and fosters a positive self-image This sense of satisfaction carries over to the parents when we experience the fruit of our efforts to set our children up for success while paving the way for easier interactions for all. Routines also help build constructive and positive habits (like, brushing teeth, reading before bed, schoolwork). Children who master routines gain self-regulation skills and self-reliance.
It’s not surprising that my family is thriving on routines. Routines make life predictable and help children feel safe. Once they learn a routine, they will be more cooperative which is a huge plus for the whole family.
Setting up solid routines takes a lot of effort at the beginning, but the reward is great. Sometimes we have to make changes and try different things until we find the right “fit”. Here are some KITS tips for establishing routines.
Start with ONE routine. To get started, choose one simple routine that will make your days flow more smoothly. We started with the bedtime routine because it had the added benefit of paving the way for smoother mornings as well as providing time for parent self-care after the children settled in for the evening. Maybe you’ve already got a solid bedtime routine, but you’d like to help your children learn to participate in clean-up after meals, or get in the habit of putting away their toys or activities after they’ve used them.
Give good directions. The way we ask children to do things has a noticeable effect on their willingness and ability to cooperate. Some KITS strategies for giving good directions have made a gigantic difference in my children’s level of cooperation and my stress level as a parent.
- Tell children what you want them TO DO (instead of what you want them not to do)
- Make directions short and manageable
- Wait 10 seconds to give them time to process your request and get started on it.
Pre-teach the new routine. Choose a time when you and your child are calm to teach and practice the new routine. When we pre-teach a new routine, we let our child know what is coming up and how we expect them behave. To pre-teach a bedtime routine we might say something like, “Lately we’ve all been having a hard time when it’s time to go to bed. We’re going to work on having a calm and enjoyable bed time. So when I say, ‘Kayla, it’s time to get ready for bed,’ I want you to say ‘ok’ and put on your pajamas. Then we will brush teeth and read for 20 minutes before lights out. Let’s practice now. You are such a big kid, I know you will be great at this!”.
Recognize children’s efforts and progress. Let your child know that you appreciate their cooperation throughout this whole process. This looks different for different families, but focusing on their effort is a great way to motivate children to keep up the good work. Incentive charts are a great tool to help your family set up a new routine. Remember to keep the directions simple and the goal attainable so your child will feel successful and continue to make an effort to master the routine.
Balance is important. While we know that children (and consequentially, families) thrive on structure and routine, the ability to flex with new circumstances, or unexpected situations is also important. Having solid routines in place, will make it easier for children to handle a surprise visit from a family friend or relative, or a late night event for a special occasion.
Unstructured play time. It is also important for children’s development and mental health to have plenty of unstructured play time and time to relax during their daily routines. Children need unstructured, child-led play for appropriate physical and emotional development, to work through difficulties and upsetting events, and even to recover from trauma.
Below you will find links to ideas for setting up different kinds of family routines. We’re sure one of them will strike a chord and help to relieve stress and pave the way for mental health balance in your family. Let us know how they work for you!
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Text: © Kids In Transition to School 2021
Image: © Monkey Business Images | Dreamstime.com