The Importance of Routines

foodforthoughtI’m back in Philadelphia, from our month-long cross-country trip, and it’s great to be home. You may have noticed that my blog-posting got pretty erratic (read: seldom) while I was on the road. Which is no surprise, right? A lot of things got a little disorganized and behind while we were gone—I’m behind on emails on blog-reading; there’s a stack of bills that need paying; there are projects that badly need attention. I can’t blame it on being away from home: those are all things that I do from my computer, which I had on the road. It’s just that my routine was up-ended, and even though there was technically TIME to do all that stuff it just didn’t happen. (This is coming around to early-childhood relevance, I promise.)

It’s not just logistical stuff that got out of whack, either. My sleep schedule feels weird, I’m hungry at strange times, I feel a little out of it. Definitely not back in the swing of things yet. Even my dog notices the difference. In some ways it’s convenient—he’s not waking us up at 6:45 demanding breakfast, because he doesn’t know when the heck 6:45 is—but he’s obviously a less happy dog at the moment. The disrupted routine is hard to work with, and we all feel at loose ends until things get back to normal.

The problem with not having a routine is that you don’t know what to expect. Okay, yes, maybe your big grown-up brain can say, “Okay, what with the time-zone change and being on the road, dinner’s going to be almost two hours late today.” But your body will still get hungry like normal, and that’ll make you feel crappy. Or your body WON’T feel hungry when it IS time to eat, and that makes you feel weird too. And you’re tired at the wrong times, and awake at the wrong times, and maybe at different wrong times from anyone else you’re traveling with, so you’re out of sync with each other. And your body being out of whack makes your emotions and your thoughts feel weird too—you feel touchy, or grouchy, or tired, or stressed, or out-of-it, or just plain weird.

There are a few people whose brains and bodies don’t need routines; and as adults most of us can cope with small changes in routine without too much trouble. But most of us need a semblance of regularity, of fulfilled expectations, to function comfortably in an ongoing way.

And young children ALL need it.

The world is an incredibly confusing place for young children. Why is it okay to jump on the trampoline but not on the bed? Why does dad make me eat all my broccoli but not mom? Why does food go in my mouth and not in my nose? Why does grandma like to tickle me but doesn’t like it when I tickle her? There are a million things in the world that just make no sense at all to young children, but their job is to try to figure out how to behave in the world, and so they have to try to make sense of it all.

In trying to make sense of it all, anything that is predictable is incredibly rewarding. It feels good to have your expectations fulfilled; it feels comforting. For infants, the routine of, “I feel hungry; I cry; someone puts a bottle in my mouth” becomes an expectation, and every time the system works the way it’s supposed to, they feel a little surge of understanding and comfort. For toddlers, the routine of, “We finish dinner, I take a bath, we read a story, I go to sleep” is a very comforting, reinforcing routine. Even if they don’t want to go to bed, knowing that it WILL be time to go to bed is a comforting thing to know. (Indeed, if they find out they can change the routine simply by putting up a fuss, they get very unnerved—the routine’s not dependable after all!)

As children get older, they can deal with more complicated routines: “Every day after breakfast we go to preschool, except on Saturdays and Sundays when we stay home, and at school every day is the same except Tuesdays when we have music time before lunch and Thursdays when we go on field trips except when we don’t.” Most children begin to tolerate bigger and bigger deviations from routine without much stress (though all children have a different tolerance for that). But still, having an idea about what’s going to happen, and then that thing actually happening in real life? That gives children a sense of control and comfort and pleasure and calm. That’s why you’ll see children play the same game over and over again, getting equal pleasure every time the little song plays at the end. That’s why your child might find a particular behavior that drives you crazy—every time you eventually explode, there’s that pleasant thought: “Yup! The world still works the same way!”

All of this is to say: young children need routines. They need to learn, through repeated experience, that life works in a certain way, and that they know what that way is. When kids don’t get routines in their lives, they feel stressed and anxious, and their behavior reflects those negative feelings. Many, many challenging behaviors in children can be usefully understood as an expression of anxiety over not knowing what to expect, and can be addressed by imposing a clearer routine or set of expectations. (Other challenging behaviors, of course, are the result of knowing exactly what to expect but not liking it one little bit. That’s another blog post.)

The good news is that kids’ brains are natural pattern-finding machines, and they’ll figure out routines you didn’t even know you had. “Dad likes to watch the news at 6 and he gets mad if I interrupt him then.” “Friday nights everyone’s tired so we get pizza for dinner.” “Every time I hug my sister, my parents get happy.” Stuff like that.

The other good news is that kids are flexible. Running late on bedtime one night? No big deal. Taking a weekend trip to grandma’s? Don’t sweat it. Changing to a new school with slightly different hours? It’ll work out. Remember: kids are going to be fine.

But you can help the young children in your life feel calm, confident, and comfortable by helping to build recognizable routines for them. Help their lives be predictable, and everyone will feel much better.

* * *

In other news: I’m glad to be back, and hope to be back on the blog-horse—though I’m buying a house moving and starting a new job, all in the next month, so we’ll see what happens. But I’m looking for more questions to answer in my “Ask a Preschooler Teacher” series. I have a couple questions in the pipeline, but I’d love to have some more to chew on. If you have something you’d like me to discuss, please let me know!

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