Using routine to manage behaviour

By Dominique Groenveld, Oh Beehave

We all know routines are an important part of child development, and can contribute to how children behave.

I’m sure we’ve all heard at least one parent say something along the lines of “Sorry, Susie isn’t really herself today, we’ve been on holidays for the last week and she’s missed her afternoon nap. I can’t wait until we can get home, and get her back into her routine…”

So, when PBC Expo first approached me to write an article on “using routines to manage behaviour” I thought no problems, easy peasy, everyone knows routines are important for managing behaviour… or are they?

My usual style is to check in with the latest research to make sure my content is up to date and then combine that with strategies or examples I’ve tried out in real life, so my readers have a practical solution to take away with them. I figured this topic wouldn’t be any different. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

We’ve all been led to believe, for as long as I can remember, that routines are a vital factor in the functioning and well-being of infants and children. I am not one to disagree with this belief, but I was surprised to find little evidence of a scientific nature on the topic. Interestingly, I found more research on the impact of lack of routine, than anything else.

More specifically, some studies found that children who have no or limited routines are more likely to display behaviour problems (although it is difficult to determine whether the behaviour results in lack of routine, or if the lack of routine results in the behaviour problem, so we’ve potentially got a chicken and egg scenario going on here!)

There is some insight as to why routines impact behaviour. All in all, it is thought that routines help manage expectations, which reduces stress and anxiety, making it easier for children to do what they’re asked. When a person’s life is unpredictable, it can be difficult for them to process information, pay attention and regulate their emotions. 

While this is thought to be true for adults, it would make sense that if children are also in an environment where there is little routine (assuming they are also unable to process information, pay attention or regulate their emotions effectively) it may seem that they do not behave in a manner in which a parent or care giver asks or expects them to.

Another interesting finding is in relation to routines involving the whole family. Studies have found that children from families who practice certain routines (such as eating meals together at the dining room table, playing games together, reading together etc) display improved academic performance, better social skills, positive sense of self-esteem, a clear sense of identity and feelings of belonging, which can influence their behavioural development.

From the parents point of view, when routines are in place, they may feel more confident, in control and find it easier to manage their children’s behaviour when there is a routine to follow (for example, it is easier to keep behaviour in check when there is a routine such as “you need to put your dishes in the sink before you can watch TV” or “you need to be ready for dinner at 6pm” every night).

There is also some suggestion that lack of routine in the family environment contributes to more stress on the part of parents, greater incidence of maternal depression and use of harsher disciplinary practices.

Given all these findings, how can routine be used to manage behaviour?

Behaviour change

Establishing a routine, or creating a new routine can be used to change or manage a behaviour. Bed time is a prime example.

Imagine every night, at bed time, your child has a habit (5 minutes after you’ve said good night) of requesting a drink of water, and 5 minutes after that, requesting to go to the toilet… Of course, you don’t want to risk them wetting the bed, so you let them go to the toilet. Suddenly, they’re wound up and can’t get to sleep!

A change of routine in this scenario can help to manage this behaviour. The new routine might look something like: have a bath, get pj’s on, brush teeth, have a drink, read a book, go to the toilet, sing a lullaby or do a relaxation activity, go to sleep.
Incorporating the drink and toilet into the routine can help reduce the likelihood that the child will use this as an excuse to get out of bed in future (especially if there has also been a conversation about why drink and toilet are part of the new routine!).

Behaviour refusal

Routines can be handy for encouraging children to do complete certain activities or chores that they otherwise refuse to do. For example, if your child will do anything to get out of having a bath, or brushing their teeth, a routine can help manage this behaviour.

In this scenario, the most effective way to encourage the behaviour you are looking for is to sit down with the child, acknowledge what they have difficulty with (e.g. getting in the bath), talk to them about what might help (it might be that if they have a fun activity to look forward to after bath time) and then draw up a chart of what the routine looks like.

The child can then use the visual reminder of the routine to keep track. The enticement of seeing the fun activity on the chart is usually enough of a motivator to encourage the behaviour you are looking for.

Getting things done

Lastly, routines can help get things done. For example, imagine you have a habit of finding mouldy old bananas, last minute homework and urgent messages from the school in your child's backpack a week after you needed to deal with them.

Setting a routine with your child can help make sure these things are dealt with straight away. For example, you might work with your child to set a routine such as “After school I can have a snack, then I need to empty my back pack, give mum any notes from my teacher and do my homework. Once that’s done, I can go out to play.”

Routines can be handy ways to get kids used to any sorts of chores or behaviours you want to see on a regular basis!

• Deater-Deckard, K., Mullineaux, P.Y., Beekman, C., Petrill, S. A., Schatschneider, C. & Thompson, L. A. (2009). Conduct Problems, IQ, and Household Chaos: A Longitudinal Multi-Informant Study. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 50 (10). pp. 1301-1308
• DeCaro, J. A. & Worthman, C.M. (2011). Changing Family Routines at Kindergarten Entry Predict Biomarkers for Parental Stress. International Journal of Behavioral Development. 35 (5). pp.441-448
• Spagnola, M. & Fiese, B. H. (2007). Family Routines and Rituals: A Context for Development in the Lives of Young Children. Infants & Young Children. 20 (4). pp. 284–299
• Wang, Z., Deater-Deckard, K. & Bell, M. A. (2013). Household Chaos Moderates the Link between Maternal Attribution Bias and Parenting. Parenting: Science and Practice. 13. pp. 233-252

Note: The views and advice expressed on this blog post are those of the author and are not representative of the Pregnancy Babies & Children's Expo.

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