Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs a skill set to filter distractions, prioritise tasks, remember rules and goals, and control impulses. Scientists call these capabilities executive functioning and self-regulation skills (1). And these skills are crucial for learning and development. You know those learners who set goals for their learning and then attempt to monitor, regulate, and control their cognition, motivation, and behaviour, and it seems like learning is super easy for them? Those children have strong self-regulation skills. Wouldn’t we all love to help our kids develop these skills?
Luckily, there is a way or two :)
And in this article, it’s all about routines.
Interesting fact about routines (2):
- In one day, teachers make more decisions affecting the lives of others than chief executives make in a month or a year. The only way they can do that is to manage by routine.
Now, you might wonder what routines have to do with these executive functions and self-regulation. Well, without routines, life can be pretty hectic. You know the scenario - parents going crazy because the kid forgot to do the homework (again), kid refusing to go to bed because, the night before, they could stay up late, siblings fighting about cleaning the room because they don't know whose turn is it and nobody wants to do it... All that chaos and unpredictable situations and environments active so-called “fight or flight” responses. And if those responses are repeatedly or excessively activated, it becomes difficult to engage executive function skills. Don’t get me wrong - life is never perfectly organised, and children have to learn how to deal with stress. But they need to experience manageable amounts of stress in the presence of supportive adults to develop a healthy stress response system. Not being able to climb on a swing or to put two pieces of Lego together is the kind of stress appropriate for our little humans. And then, parents can talk to children, help and encourage them.
Consistent and predictable routines help with activities in family and school run smoothly. Even though life, teaching and learning can’t be automatised, establishing routines such as brushing teeth after breakfast, preparing clothes and school bags before going to bed, taking lunch boxes out of school bags after coming home from school can make your life a bit easier and save valuable time.
Oh, great! Does this mean that, once we agree on and introduce your daily routines, there will be no bedtime battles, sibling rivalries, homework struggles, mealtime clashes…? Nope. These are going to happen every now and then. But it should be easier. Routines let children know what we expect of them; they feel secure and are more likely to do what they are supposed to do. We can’t assume that children know what we want them to do and how we want them to behave until we’ve actually taught them the desired behaviour (2).
So, how can parents introduce and practise routines with kids?
Hello, daily planners :)
We started with simple images showing morning routine and put it in the bathroom for Einstein E and Power P to have a visual reminder what they should be doing every morning when they wake up. In kindergarten they had pictures of kids getting dressed before goingoutside to play. Of course we put something similar in our hall as well. It is much easier than checking on them every single minute - Do you have your shoes on? What are you waiting for? Hurry up, we have to go! Visual reminder helped us speed up this process. But don’t get a false impression of a super organised family life where everything runs smoothly because of these little routine photos. Oh, no. We still have to negotiate, explain, encourage, but also forbid and force our rules on them from time to time. It's just that planners and posters make it easier.
Here are a few steps to a daily routine for your family:
1) Brainstorm and write down (or print out pictures) what a typical day looks like for your family - time the kids wake up and go to bed, activities they (should) do in the morning, before bedtime…
2) Chose the routines you'd like to work on. To keep it simple, you don’t have to do a routine for the whole day. You might find separated lists for different tasks and parts of the day more helpful. A list that includes too many everyday activities might be overwhelming even for grown-ups, let alone children.
3) Display the routine plan where the child can see it. Bedtime routine (putting away toys, putting on pyjamas, reading a book…) can be somewhere on a wall in the kid’s room. Daily routines for afternoon activities (going for a walk, preparing a snack, playing with building blocks…) can be displayed in the living room. Learning and doing homework after school can find their place on a desk in the kid’s room.
Just making posters or writing routine lists and displaying them around is not enough for kids to get the idea of planning or develop self-regulation skills. You have to practise with them, go through the lists regularly, allow your child to demonstrate that they know and understand the routine. If there is a poster or a list of school-related activities (short revision, 15-min break, maths homework, 15-min break, chemistry homework, reading, pencil case) it is less likely that the child will forget to sharpen their pencils or do homework. And, if they follow the routine list, they don't need their mummy and daddy nagging all the time - Have you done your homework? All subjects? Have you studied today? Is your bag ready for tomorrow?
The results are even better when kids make their own lists. This is how they get a step closer to self-regulation.
Now, you might think - how am I supposed to teach my kid about planning and self-regulation when I can barely survive my own chaotic days. Luckily for you, it's never too late to improve these skills. Even after our mid-20s, we can still learn new skills and strengthen others (1). These efforts are, however, greater if the foundation is weak. So, get your calendar, set plans and start working on a more organised version of yourself.
Establishing routines is one possible way to facilitate the development of a child’s executive function and self-regulation skills. It’s not the whole recipe, just one of the ingredients. There are also choices, active participation, personalisation, questioning, setting goals and many other. More about some of them in the next post :)
(1) Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2017). Three Principles to Improve outcomes for Children and Families.
(2) Shalaway, L. (1998). Learning to Teach – Not Just for Beginners: the Essential Guide for all. Scholastic Inc.