The How and Why of Routines

Dear Parents,

Last week I wrote that if your child is misbehaving, one of the items to check is if you have set up environmental systems for good behavior. One of the systems we use to draw out a child’s good behavior is the use of routines. A routine is any activity that happens day after day, or a way of doing something—behaving in a particular way at a particular place. One can have bedtime routines, going to the park routines, or even eating dinner routines. Parents teach their children routines to support their children’s good behavior and to increase their independence and self-confidence. Routines or patterns make life easier for parents and children.

As adults, we make routines and then attach and combine them. For example, I have a routine for doing the dinner dishes which is made up of smaller habits, such as clearing the table and cleaning off the stove. My reward for doing the dishes is not a gold star, it is walking into a clean kitchen in the morning.

Routines have a marked beginning and end. One has to know when to begin and how to tell that the routine is finished. Most routines require a skill set, and often these need to be taught and practiced. A routine needs time to become a habit. The routine has a built-in reward, though it may take time to realize what the reward is.

Perhaps a parent wants his child to take off his own coat and hang it up upon arriving home from preschool or playtime at the park. The first step is to select a consistent “home” for the coat. The next steps involve teaching the child how to unzip or unbutton, take off the coat and straighten the sleeves, and then hold the coat at the collar and place the coat on the hook. For the child to learn this routine, the parent must consistently work with the child each day until this process becomes an automatic habit.

What is the reward? The built-in reward is being able to find the coat and easily put it on when it is time to go again. Children rarely show that they understand this concept, but they do, and catch on to this pretty fast. Parents still need to occasionally offer up praise such as, “I’m glad that you are grown up enough to take care of your coat,” or “Thank you for hanging up your coat. It helps keep the house nice.” After all, don’t we all appreciate thanks and praise now and then? Sometimes there is an extra reward built into the flow of the day. For example, upon coming home from preschool and hanging up his coat each day, the child is able to play in his room, or has reading time with a parent. Another advantage, or reward, of mastering a particular routine is that children are able to take the learned skills and routines and use them in new situations.

Establishing routines for children takes planning, time, and consistency. It is work for the parent. Once established, however, routines save much more time and energy than it took to establish them. Routines create independence and self-confidence in children. Routines make parenting easier. Routines are win-win.


Evelyn Satterlee, M.Ed.

Leave a Comment