Back to school means back to routine. Here in Orange County, I’ve heard families both rejoicing and lamenting as kids have headed back to school over the past month. When school is in session, we get back the structure and predictability the school week can provide, but we can also get the power struggle that comes with pushing kids out the door in the morning and nagging kids through homework and after school activities. So often, I see parents and families giving up on routines that held such promise at the start of the school year because the power struggle just isn’t worth it. However, routines are important to help families function more cohesively and should support the needs of each member. How do you create a routine that helps your family accomplish what needs to be done while not turning you into an overwhelmed mess? I have described four essential elements of effective back-to-school routines below to help you create a routine that works for your family.
The benefits of structure
Routines provide structure. Structure is the foundation and framework needed to build anything that will be strong and stable. In a family, structure and routine help each person know what is expected, and helps each person learn to be independent through knowing what to do and when. For kids, structure and routine also provide a sense of containment and stability. The predictability of a routine can help calm fears or anxieties, and can help kids feel taken care of. The key is to embrace structure without becoming a dictator.
Aim to give choices from a limited set of items. To avoid the power battle, provide your kids with some control by giving choices within reason. ‘Within reason’ means figure out ahead of time what options you would be ok with, and present those options as choices. For example, letting your child choose whether to take a shower before or after dinner lets her be involved in the plan.
Make it work for you
When you think about what to include in your daily or weekly family routines, I encourage you to think beyond homework, sports practice, and dinner. This is an opportunity to structure before and after school routines so they benefit the whole family/household. Think about incorporating:
Have your child rotate through short chores through the week, such as emptying the
dishwasher or spending 15 minutes picking up his room
Can you squeeze in a brisk walk at the field while your child has soccer practice? Maybe you
want to start walking the dog as a family after dinner. Or maybe you want to create time for
meditation or a weekly family dance party. Building in ways to de-stress will keep you happier
and more motivated to stick with what is working.
• Family together time
Set aside weekly time for your family to spend together. Family game nights, making a meal
together, or a movie night can all be great ways to relax and enjoy each other’s company. This
also provides something to look forward to.
Your family’s weekday routine should aim to meet the needs of all members, not just the kids’ activities. Sure, it will likely require compromise and making choices, but don’t forget to include self care for you.
Head off tantrums and the struggle for control
Patience is tough! When you see the thunderclouds roll over your child’s face, it’s tempting to get angry right back. As much as you might want to have your own tantrum, it’s far more effective to take a deep breath and help to soothe your child by naming emotions and putting words to what is happening. Leading neuroscience researcher and psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel has authored a number of best-selling books about effective parenting and discipline without drama. When your child has reached the red-faced, foot-stomping, arms-flailing in frustration stage, your child’s brain has become “hijacked,” as Siegel puts it, by the parts of the brain that control emotional reaction and reactivity.
With certain parts of the brain activated, we simply aren’t able to participate in a constructive conversation. Attempting to parent while your child is in this more primal part of the brain often makes the situation worse. Think about yourself in those situations. Have you ever calmed down when upset simply because someone told you to calm down? Likely not. Calming down happens through being heard and being allowed to have and move through feelings. When your child is in this state, the best strategy is to keep the child safe and reflect the emotions you see. Acknowledging your child’s anger, frustration, or resentment allows the child both to feel understood and to start to put words to the emotions being felt.
This said, attending to your child’s emotions does not mean you condone bad behavior or will let the child out of a responsibility just because she got upset. Once everyone has calmed down and can talk about the situation without huge reactive behavior, parenting can take place. This is a perfect time to teach a lesson about responsibilities, follow through, etc. Consistency is key. If you give in to the tantrum and let the routine go, then your child learns that tantrums are a good way to get out of the routine. If you consistently help your child to manage his emotions while sticking to the routine you have put in place, your child will gradually learn how to better regulate himself as well as become a better team player.
Keep it flexible
• Give yourself permission to re-evaluate or make changes if the initial plan isn’t working.
Remember, a routine should help get the family into a flow, making everything run a bit easier
because everyone knows their part and what is happening when.
• Down time is essential.
Even the American Academy of Pediatrics has weighed in on the subject, publishing a 2007
policy aiming to help parents find the right balance between providing enrichment and
structure for kids (i.e. all those extra-curricular activities) and providing non-pressured,
child-led play time (Ginsburg, 2007).
• And some days, despite the best of intentions, you have to be willing to throw the plan out the window.
Sometimes everyone just needs a night off, so order take out and relax. With tomorrow’s
sunrise will come a chance to try again.
Ginsburg, K. R. (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and
maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Pediatrics, 119(1), 182-191.