Routines for Preschoolers

By Kelly Bartlett, certified positive discipline educator and leader for East Portland API, Oregon USA

Many parents fall into a routine with their new baby sometime in the first few months of life. Eating and sleeping habits go from having almost no predictability to settling into some level of expectedness. Over the first few years, with the addition of family activities, classes, friends, and preschool, parents and kids must somehow find a way to fit everything efficiently into their busy days.  Establishing routines helps with this.  Routines add comfort and security to families’ lives. Parents are able to feel more prepared in caring for their children, and kids can depend on the familiarity of “how things go.”

Dr. Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Discipline for Preschoolers, says that with routines, children have an opportunity to learn to focus on the needs of the situation: doing what need to be done because it needs to be done. “Children learn to be responsible for their own behavior, to feel capable, and to cooperate in the family. The parent doesn’t continually have to demand help,” according to Dr. Nelsen. 

For everyday routines in which a lot of steps are involved, such as getting ready in the morning, cleaning a child’s room, preparing for mealtimes, or going to bed at night, it can be helpful to have a chart. Routine charts are visual reminders for children to remember the steps of a routine. They reduce the need for nagging and allow a child to take the lead in taking care of himself. Dr. Nelsen offers some tips in creating routine charts for parents who may be struggling with a certain time of day:

  • Create a routine chart with your child — Ask her what needs to be done.  Help her think through the routine and all the tasks that need to be completed.
  • Keep the number of steps to a minimum — A finished routine chart should be simple and straightforward, not an extensive list of tasks that present an overwhelming job for a young child to do to get ready.
  • Include a photo of each step — While you can draw, paint, or cut out photos from magazines to include on the chart, it is probably most effective to take a picture of your child demonstrating each step of the routine. It is very personalized, and he will take pride in showing off his capabilities.
  • Once the chart is complete, post it in an appropriate spot in the house, and let the routine be the boss — Refer to the chart and ask your child, “What comes next in the routine?” “What does the chart say you should be doing now?”
  • Be sure to celebrate your child’s “big kid” capabilities with her! — Thank her for her cooperation and acknowledge her effort in getting things done. Remember that this routine is something she’s expected to do as a cooperative member of the family, and issuing rewards for completing her tasks will take away from her sense of pride and feelings of capability.

Laura Beth, a mom from Atlanta, Georgia, USA, says that creating a routine chart with her three-year-old son, Jake, helped give him a sense of ownership in his routine. To construct it, they worked together, and Laura Beth photographed Jake demonstrating each of his getting-ready-for-bed steps. She says, “Because he did the work, he loves to show off the final product, especially when babysitters or family come into town!”

A routine chart places responsibility on the child for knowing what to do to take care of himself. This creates great feelings of capability, as well as eliminates opportunities for power struggles and manipulation. Children feel competent and accomplished, and they learn they have a cooperative place in the family.

5 thoughts on “Routines for Preschoolers”

  1. Sweet! I love your routine chart! I find that it’s impossible for us to make up a chart, because there are so many variables that change our routine. But if I ever find a routine that’s the same most of the time, I’m making one! It would also be fun to make a daily routine into a book to read before bed. Like: “When I wake up, Mommy and I eat breakfast together. Then, we get dressed for the day and play outside. When we come in, I help Mom with housework. Then, we make lunch and read some books. When I get tired, I take a nap. In the afternoon, we play some more and then make dinner. My favorite is ___. At dinner, we talk and laugh. After dinner, we go for a walk. When we come in, we listen to music, and I take a bath. I love reading books before bed time, especially _____. We kiss Goodnight, and I snuggle up with Mom and fall asleep. Good Night.”

  2. I’m surprised to see this article here, we have fed our children on demand, let them sleep when they were tired as close to us as possible, carrie them in a sling, been responsive to their needs, allowed them to explore the world and learn at their own pace, and then we introduce routines and charts? Sorry, but bedtimes and meals are a normal part of life and they happen spontaneously, I won’t be manipulating my child’s activities to this extent!

  3. I love Senae’s idea of creating a book! I think my daughter might really respond to that. She has commented that she likes Grandma’s house because she always knows what comes next; I think it would do both of us good to develop some more structure in our daily lives.

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