Tuesday, September 14, 2010


This morning, as my kids were getting ready for school, there was a lot of grief. Somebody needed to use the bathroom while somebody else needed to brush their teeth; people trying to figure out when to eat breakfast; kids making mad dashes in changing their minds about what to wear, what to take to school, and if they had packed their entire lunches. If you have older kids, you probably know what I'm talking about. It's basically falling back into the routine of school.

When my kids were younger, I was a huge nut about routine. We woke up, ate breakfast, brushed teeth and hair, and got dressed. Always in the same order. Every. Single. Day. Not a lot of excitement going on, and as any parent of a young child knows, that's a GOOD thing. When the excitement stays down, the drama stays down, and unless you're hugely into that kind of stuff at six a.m., life goes a lot more smoothly!

Young children rely on routine like you and I rely on our planners. It's the planner in their heads. Kids who know what's coming next are able to meaningfully guide themselves and practice self-discipline. Anyone who's ever spent time in a classroom with young children knows that the more kids can self-discipline, the less the adult has to monitor and direct all behavior. And after all, isn't self-discipline the ultimate goal for people--the ability to make good decisions without being distracted by all the other possibilities?

Whether you're a teacher or a parent, following a routine helps to eliminate all the "extra" barrage of possibility, so that time goes more smoothly. It helps kids know what's next, helps them feel more secure in being able to predict their day, helps them begin to make good choices. If a child knows that he is supposed to eat breakfast before brushing his teeth, and the family always eats breakfast before brushing their teeth, it's one less decision he has to make. That creates a sense of security and stability, so he can focus on decisions that are more age-appropriate, like which pair of shoes he's going to wear to school.

Teachers of young children utilize this concept all the time. When I taught two- and three-year olds, we never varied from the routine. Young children are creatures of habit, and if you vary their routine, craziness will ensue! Case in point: several years ago when I was teaching at a lab school, I used music as a cue for children to come to the group area. When the children heard the music, they would get a carpet square and join us for group time. One day, one of my student teachers decided to play music during centers. In and of itself, it was a fun idea, but it turned into a meaningful (and hilarious) reminder for us all when the music came on and fourteen little children began gathering carpet squares and heading to the group area. As the teacher told the children they did not need their carpets and it was okay to keep playing, one little boy continued toward the group area shaking his head, saying, "We don't need our carpets, we can keep playing." Routine is so strong for young children that the routine will and often does override any other directions!

My own children are now eleven and thirteen, and are at an age that they need to start developing routine for themselves. Making decisions about whether to dress or eat first when preparing for school are important life skills for them. School just began in our city last week, so it will take a couple of weeks for them to iron out the kinks in their routine (and boy, will I be glad when they do!). But in the meantime, I'm resting easy in the fact that developing a routine is a learning process for everyone.

Are there tips and tricks you use to develop routine in your home or classroom? What helps things go more smoothly in your neck of the woods?


  1. Routine is key here at home with my 7 month old and at school with a room full of eight year olds. In the morning when I get up for work my little man and I already have a routine. He plays in the pack-n-play while I'm in the shower, then heads for some tummy time while I make my lunch and eat breakfast next to him. Yesterday, my husband picked him up to play with him for a few minutes from the pack-n-play and then put him back down. He was so thrown off for the rest of the morning...and so the drama ensued!
    Thanks for a great blog Michelle-I'm looking forward to following it!!!

  2. I'm kind of bad at routines -- introducing intentional ones, anyway. But routines that just happen (when they happen over and over) are routines, too. It took me a while to figure out that a not-particularly-wonderful routine was okay and that doing something "better" was often not better because it just messed up the so-so routine. Like breakfast time with little kids. I sucked at breakfast-making and at being cheerful and upbeat in the morning, so our usual routine was that everyone fended for themselves (this is with school-age kids). The kids ate breakfast cereal or string cheese or leftover pizza or whatever, and I spent that time dressing and puttering and trying not to snap at people. Once in a while I would read some "perfect parenting" magazine and get it into my head that I was supposed to be waltzing around all cheerfully, making eggs and toast and orange juice and engaging the kids in sunny conversation. These attempts at being Perfect Mom just upset the usual good-enough routine. Waiting for eggs and sitting at the table listening to Mom nattering away instead of eating cold pizza over the sink just bugged everyone. So I guess I hope that people examine their current "descriptive" routines and decide if they're working before introducing new "prescriptive" routines. Maybe what they're doing works great! Or well enough.

  3. It makes so much sense when you say that by following the routine it's "one less decision they have to make" and allows them to make more developmentally appropriate decisions. I've known that routine and predictability are important but stating it like that really helps me think about WHY we have drama when outdoor recess is cancelled or we have to go to a Friday assembly. Thank you for starting this blog, Michelle! I'm really looking forward to more entries!

  4. A very helpful thing for us is routine cards with pictures. We have a 3 year old and he helps me to draw up certain routines and it is posted. We don't always need this but at times when a routine needs to change or when following a routine can be difficult (like bedtime, because no matter how much habit I put into my son he always wants to buck that routine!)it is really helpful.