A child’s life is mired in change—whether it’s a new daycare, school or babysitter, a friend moving away, or new responsibilities at home, kids of all ages face change on a daily basis.
Yet, a child thrives when he knows what to expect—even if he doesn’t always like it. By creating a structured environment for your child, you can help him feel safe and secure, which is an essential component in preventing behavior problems.
Why Structure Matters
Creating structure in your child's day is about establishing a regular routine. That may mean keeping wake up time, meals, snacks, and naps at the same time every day.
Enacting rules and following a routine might get you labeled the “strict” parent by friends and family. Embrace this title, however, if it stems from adding structure to your child's day.
Children need these rules and routines for a number of reasons: to understand limits and boundaries, to learn self-discipline, to experience frustration and delayed gratification and to appropriately interact with the world around them, to name a few.
Additionally, routines actually teach independence. Once your child understands that the morning begins with brushing his teeth, getting dressed, eating breakfast and then packing his school bag, you likely won’t have to continually remind him—or follow him out the door, shouting for him to come back for his homework.
This independence can boost your child’s self-esteem as he becomes confident in taking care of himself.
You're also less likely to see behavior problems when you've structured your child's day. When your child knows what to expect, he'll be less anxious about what is going on. He'll be free to focus on managing his behavior, rather than worrying about what's expected of him.
Establish a Routine
If your child’s day currently has very little structure, introduce change slowly. Begin implementing a routine by focusing on just one part of the day, such as the hour or two between dinner time and bedtime.
You know best what tasks need to get accomplished during this time, such as packing lunches, finishing up homework, baths and brushing teeth, story time and lights out, so organize activities in a way that makes sense for your family.
If you have a “command center” in your house, create a poster that has the list of tasks to accomplish in order. You could include photos of each child doing this task in the right order so you don’t have to guide them through it once it becomes familiar–leaving you to finish up work tasks and prepare yourself for the following day.
It can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months for children to become familiar with their routines.
Remind your child to "do their after dinner routine" or to "follow their chore routine" and then refer them to a chart.
After a while, they'll grow familiar with your expectations and they won't need any reminders from you.
When creating your routine, don’t forget to add in a little bit of fun time, such as story time or talking about your day together. Sometimes, focusing too much on achieving the end result of a routine means skipping over these opportunities to connect as a family.
Create House Rules
Structure also means implementing family rules. These rules should be clear and specific—like art supplies stay in the dining room or no TV until your homework is done—and age-appropriate. They should be laid out in advance, and new rules shouldn’t be made without discussing them first.
You can also discuss the consequences for breaking these rules, so your child understands what’s in store if he makes a bad decision. Potential consequences could mean no allowance, no game time or no social activities on the weekend.
Deviating From the Rules and Routine Effectively
Some of the most memorable parts of a child’s life are when her parents decide to throw routine out the window for a little fun, like staying up late to watch shooting stars or playing a board game on a school night.
Parents need to have a little flexibility.
When you decide to deviate from rules or routine, explain to your child why you’re doing it and that it’s a special, one-time event.
Additionally, be willing to change the home structure as your child grows. Rules and routines appropriate for a toddler must be altered to work for a teen, naturally. Every few months, take stock of how your household is structure and make any appropriate tweaks.
In the end, a sense of structure will eliminate power struggles, organize the whole family and help your child feel secure and independent—a winning result for a few months of concentrated effort.