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The Importance of Routines

Over the last week, my family and I were on spring break. For most people breaks like this are a time of fun and relaxation. For families who have very young children or children with exceptionalities these kinds of breaks may be a source of stress and anxiety. As a working mom of three littles age 7 (daughter) and 5 (twin boys) I have been lucky that the university I work for coincides with my children’s schedule, so we get the time off together. However, as anyone in higher education knows, these breaks are not about time off, but catching up. Catching up on emails that you never get to, reports that need to be written, articles you have started but can’t seem to finish, and grading that never ends.

Over the last week, I spent some time thinking about balance and the importance of routines in my family. For my kiddos, who were all sleep trained by their Behavior Analyst mom (yes that is me!), structure is part of daily life. Yes, I am a flexible person (at times) and of course I give my kiddos the opportunity to “break some of the rules” during time off. My daughter stays up a little later to watch a show with her dad, my boys get to eat sugar closer to bedtime (smores are so worth it)! I have found that we all need times to shift our daily routines as it teaches flexibility.

I have also found that there are things I consider to be “non-negotiable” in our family’s routine during breaks. These are things that cause enough disruption resulting in anxiety and stress, making this time together less fun overall. For example, my boys are just getting to the age when I can let them stay up for about 30 minutes past bedtime and it will not result in night wakes or being overtired. My boys are also getting to the point where their nighttime routine before bed can change and include new activities that don’t overstimulate them (e.g., bonfire). There are limits to my flexibility as I know what my kids can and cannot handle at this age.

I say all of this with the caveat that we have worked hard for many years to lay the foundation of good sleep. We have worked around my children’s bedtime routines, shifted our dinner time up to allow for an early bedtime, and painstakingly turned down plans with friends to keep the routines consistent. Routines are essential in so many ways….they help young children understand the expectations for environments, they provide structure during unstructured activities, and they allow for predictability that brings comfort and a sense of calm. Routines also give parents something they can count on and time with their spouse to relax and reconnect after a long day.

For children with exceptionalities, these same benefits of routines apply and are even more important regarding predictability. For our visual learners, I also suggest adding in a visual schedule for bedtime routines to provide a concrete representation of what the individual can expect and in what order. If you have behavioral expectations (rules), for a specific routine, create a visual to hang on your child’s wall to remind them of those guidelines. Social Stories are another great tool for helping children learn the expectations and to prepare for aspects that are less favored (e.g. brushing your teeth).

At the end of the day, it all comes down to structure and predictability. As children grow and gain skills that structure is still important, even as the guardrails shift. Wishing you all a good night sleep!

Dr. Hampshire

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