Jul 10, 2024, 10:54:40 AM CDT Jul 10, 2024, 5:16:23 PM CDT

How to create a daily routine for kids

Learn the benefits of providing structure for kids and tips to establish daily practices and family rituals

Little girl and dad brushing their teeth. Little girl and dad brushing their teeth.

Routines have many benefits for kids and families. But knowing exactly what your child's routine should include and how to get them to stick to it can be tricky — especially during summer holidays or school breaks when there may be less structure in the day.

Natalie Escalante, Psy.D, Neuropsychology Postdoctoral Fellow at Children's Health℠, explains why routines are important, what they should include and how to get your family in the practice of a daily routine.

"One of the best things you can do is have your kids take an active role in building routines," Dr. Escalante says. "This gives them a sense of ownership and helps create buy-in. It can help create a shift from your child feeling like they're being told what to do, to doing things because they helped choose them."

What are routines?

Routines are set patterns of activities that you do every day. Routines for kids include:

  • Morning routines, where they wake up at a certain time, get dressed, brush their teeth and eat breakfast.
  • Bedtime routines, where they bathe, put on their pajamas, brush their teeth and read.
  • Daily routines, where they eat meals and do other set activities at certain times.

"If you ask your child whether they like having a routine, they may tell you ‘no' and that they prefer doing whatever they like," Dr. Escalante says. "But in practice, most children respond really well to daily routines and like having some idea of what to expect or look forward to throughout the day."

Why are routines important for kids?

Having a daily routine for kids has many benefits, including:

  • Building their independence and self-confidence
  • Creating stability and lowering anxiety
  • Helping them know what to expect and look forward to
  • Improving their planning and organizational skills
  • Giving them a feeling of accomplishment when they carry out their routine
  • Promoting good sleep habits

"Once a kid gets into the rhythm of a routine, they often feel the benefit. They wake up well-rested. They also have less anxiety of the unknown because they know what to expect," Dr. Escalante says. "Routines can also make executive functioning tasks like time management, prioritizing tasks and organization easier, especially for kids with ADHD or complex medical needs."

What happens when a child has no routine or structure?

When kids have no routine or structure, they may feel confused and uncertain. They may also be slower to develop planning and organizational skills.

"Learning how to organize your day and make a routine when you are young sets you up for success later in life," Dr. Escalante says. "Not learning those skills can make a child less prepared as they get older and become less independent."

How to create a routine with your child

Having "anchor points" – or a few specific things that happen every day – is a good place to start when building a routine with your child.

"An anchor point can be as simple as a consistent sleep and wake time," Dr. Escalante says. "Mealtimes are also great anchor points."

Your child's routine might include:

  • Set wake and sleep times
  • Approximate mealtimes and/or family rituals around meals (e.g., washing hands before dinner, setting the table, or helping to clean up after dinner)
  • General activities between meal and sleep times (e.g., play time, outside time and quiet time)
  • Unstructured time where your child can pick an activity such as reading or drawing

In general, putting a limit on screen time is also a good idea.

There is no perfect routine for every family. Each household is different and your routine will be based on many factors – number of children, number of caregivers, whether parents work and if they have flexible hours. Your routine is all about finding what works for your family.
Dr. Natalie Escalante
Tip: Give your child choices about activities to build into their routine. Your local library, community center and YMCA can be good places to start. Present a few activity options that are affordable, convenient for you and fun for them.

The importance of unstructured time in daily routines

Having a routine does not mean that your child needs a planned activity for every hour of the day. Dr. Escalante recommends some unstructured time where a child can pick an independent activity to do.

"Being bored can actually help a child get creative and be independent in finding an activity," Dr. Escalante says.

If your child often says they're bored, try an "I'm bored" jar. To do this, you can:

  1. Brainstorm ideas for activities your child can do independently when they're bored.
  2. Write those activities on post-it notes and put them in a jar.
  3. When your child says they are bored, they can pull an activity from that jar and do the activity.

"This approach can help a child take ownership and start thinking ‘I don't need to feel bored, I know what I can do,'" she says.

See more tips for handling summer boredom.

Are routines important for teens, too?

Routines are just as important for teenagers as younger children. Using those same anchor points — sleep, wake and mealtimes — can help teenagers build structure into their schedule.

As kids get older, they will likely want more independence and control over their routine. When building a routine with your teenager, especially when school is out, Dr. Escalante recommends working to find a balance of flexibility and structure with your teen. Some ideas for doing this include:

  • Setting expectations. For example, they can go out with your friends after they have dinner with the family — and will need to be home by 10 p.m.
  • Making it clear that there will be consequences if those expectations are not met. For example, if they come home too late, they will not be able to go out with friends next Friday.

So, what if your teen really wants to stay out later?

"You may say yes if they can still wake up at a reasonable time and accomplish the things that need to be done the next day," Dr. Escalante says. "If they do, great. But if they don't and instead sleep all day then they won't be able to do it again."

How to stick to a routine

Creating a routine is one thing, but how do you get your child to stick to it?

Dr. Escalante has a few recommendations:

  • Start small. First, define a few anchor points like mealtimes and bedtimes and then add activities from there.
  • Use a daily routine chart. For younger kids, a daily routine chart gives them a helpful visual to understand what they need to do and what comes next.
  • Provide positive reinforcement. A reward or incentive like going out for ice cream when they stick to their routine consistently.
  • Be patient. It can take a while to establish a full routine. But even just consistent sleep and wake times can have many benefits for kids.

Helping your child adjust to a change in routine

Transitioning from one routine to another (for example, from school schedules to summer break or from summer back to school) can be difficult.

In general, try to keep as much of your child's day as consistent as possible, such as keeping similar sleep, wake and mealtimes. If your child has a later bedtime during the summer, start to transition them back to going to bed earlier about a month before school starts. Check out these tips to help reset your child's sleep schedule for back to school.

Some children take very well to routines and may even get concerned, nervous or confused if the routine changes.

"We encourage you to be flexible when routines change and show your child what that looks like," Dr. Escalante says. "This can be as simple as explaining that things are changing today and acknowledging that this is outside of the usual routine and that's OK."

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