By: Kari Walters, LPC-IT, Evaluation Coordinator/Licensed Professional Counselor In-Training
When we think back to our preschool or kindergarten days, almost all of us will be able to recall a daily schedule of some variety that hung on the wall of our classrooms. These schedules included a list of activities that would occur throughout the day, which the teacher would consistently refer back to as the day progressed. This routine provided us with comforting reminders and the security of knowing that we were prepared for what the day would bring.
Why, may you ask, did routines provide us with such a sense of security (and still do)? Because humans are creatures of habit. We thrive on knowing what is to come, and through this knowledge, can prepare ourselves mentally, emotionally, and physically for whatever events these may be. Depending on each of our own personalities and temperaments, some of us may enjoy the idea of repeating the same activities over and over more than others. Regardless, even if you may be someone who likes each day to look a little different, you may still look forward to knowing that you can have your coffee while reading over news headlines each morning, or knowing that every Friday you talk to a friend on the phone. Overall, everyone enjoys a routine to some degree, which is why these current times of future ambiguity can cause anxiety in children and adults alike.
Imagine that I were to tell you that there would be three random events that would occur throughout your day which could be good, bad, or anywhere in between. How does that make you feel? My guess would be, not the greatest. This is how a young child may feel who lacks a daily structure and routine, particularly if some of the unplanned events they’ve experienced in the past were scary or stressful. The only information they have to learn from are past experiences, which may have shown them that life is full of uncertainty and possibly danger. The frequency of these events and the extent of the lack of structure may also contribute to the difficulties a child may have getting through each day. The more reason the child has to believe that something stressful may occur, the more anxiety they will feel.
However, regardless of whether a child has had past stressful experiences, all children and adults can benefit from implementing a structured routine. Routines can provide security and entertainment for children, both of which will help decrease difficult behavior that may be occurring and improve caregiver’s sanity. These routines can be as general as, “wake up, eat, do an activity, eat, nap, do an activity, eat, bed” or be as detailed as, “wake up, have breakfast, play with Legos, read, draw pictures, have lunch, nap, do yoga, play in the yard, have dinner, have a bath, watch TV, read, put on pajamas, go to bed.” The activities don’t necessarily have to be exactly the same everyday, but having a general structure is helpful. In addition, every child is different in how detailed a routine they prefer. Some children may like to know exactly what they will eat for breakfast and what activity they will be doing after, and some may be content simply knowing they will eat breakfast and then do something else after. Combining your expert knowledge of your child with how the child responds to trying out different types of routines will aid in creating a schedule that will help your child function most successfully.
Once a general routine or structure has been created, finding a way to visually remind a child of the routine can be the next helpful step and can be done in a variety of ways. The schedule could include only pictures, pictures and words, or only words if your child is old enough to read. Creating a wide variety of activity cards where each card contains one activity can be useful, as they can be reused and interchanged as the daily routines vary. For example, each day may contain an “activity time”, but within this time a child could choose whether they would like to play with play-doh, color, build, or play outside. The child would then choose the corresponding activity card to include in the “activity time.” Incorporating choices into the routine additionally provides children with a sense of control and independence. These cards can then be secured to a piece of paper, a fridge, or the wall with tape, sticky velcro, or even magnet strips. If you would like to get fancy, one option could be creating the cards on the computer with graphics and then having a child help you cut them out. Another simple but effective method could be you or the child writing or drawing the activities in a list on a sheet of paper. The schedule could be listed only on the paper, or the paper could be cut into strips with each strip containing an activity to be organized in different orders. All of these choices provide an opportunity for children and caregivers to work together in a creative and hopefully enjoyable way.
Overall, creating a routine provides both children and adults with a sense of safety and security for the future. In addition, creating a visual schedule for this routine can be a fun and interactive activity to keep children engaged and help nurture a family bond. Though there are many uncertainties in life, especially during the present time, reflecting on the daily events that we can rely upon helps ground our minds, calm our anxieties, and reminds us to simply take one day at a time.
What activities have you worked into your child’s daily routine?