All children need consistency, but routine is crucial for young children who are just beginning to make sense of their world and the people surrounding them and learning expectations and behaviors. 

Routine provides consistency, and consistency provides safety and security to young children. When children have a routine, they know what to expect, creating confidence and calm in their day.

Routine and Social-Emotional Development

Uncertainty begets confusion and anxiety and may lead to acting out poor behavior and tantrums. Think of a time something unexpectedly changed your daily routine; it likely affected your mood and energy, even if only briefly.

As adults, we possess the social-emotional skills to handle changes and disappointments, even if we don’t want to! However, children have not developed the skills to handle sudden or unexpected changes, leading to acting out and poor behavior. Therefore, a young child’s day must contain as much routine and consistency as possible. 

Routine and consistency also enable children to develop a secure attachment to significant adults, which is essential for healthy emotional development. Children learn they can rely on these adults, which provides them the confidence they need to try new things and take necessary risks. Children with secure attachments to parents and teachers are more confident, independent, social, and perform better academically and behaviorally in school.

How to Create A Routine

Creating a routine for children is simple; the hard part is sticking to it even when we, as adults, don’t want to! Variations of a few minutes here and there aren’t going to cause a disaster, but you should try to stick to the routine, especially the order of events, as closely as possible.

  1. Think of the typical events of the day and write them in order. 
  2. Next, write down how much time each activity typically takes.
  3. Make sure you include time for transitions. Transitions can even be included as an individual activity—for example, clean-up time, hand-washing, putting their coat on, etc.
  4. Create a schedule with real-times:
    • 9 – 9:20 AM Snack Time
    • 9:20 – 9:30 AM Get dressed for outside
    • 9:30 – 10 AM Outside time
    • Etc.
  5. Add pictures to create a visual schedule so children who can’t read can see their day in order.
  6. Introduce the schedule and go over it with the children
  7. Offer reminders 5 minutes before each event

Over time, children will begin to anticipate the schedule and know what comes next. 

How to Handle Changes in Routine

No routine is fool-proof. Maybe you were about to head outside, and it started to rain. Or, an activity you planned took 30 minutes instead of 15. Whatever the case, it is important to stay flexible. When a change occurs, tell children as soon as you’re aware. Advance notice prevents the element of surprise and allows them time to process the change. When telling children about a change in their routine, be prepared for questions. If you don’t have an answer to their question, that’s ok; tell them you are not sure, but you will try to find the answer for them. 

Occasionally there will be routine changes you can’t predict or prepare for; a fire drill is one example. Sudden changes like that often frighten children. At the moment, take the steps necessary to handle the sudden interruption and keep everyone safe. Afterward, talk to the children about their feelings, answer questions, and discuss why the event occurred.

Creating and sticking to a routine with young children gives them the sense of security needed to branch out and try new things. It creates confidence in their surroundings, trust in the adults they are closest to, and promotes independence.