Setting Routines for Happy Healthy Kids

The tactics parents need!

Check all episodes of The Preschool Podcast

Episode #85: If you haven’t made sense of your environment and found the patterns that apply to your daily activities, you would likely feel unease and anxiety. It’s easy to forget that children need help establishing these familiar routines. Why do routines really matter? Higher levels of aggression, lower vocabulary, challenging behaviour, hyperactivity are all connected to chaotic homes and a lack of routine with young children.

Alyson Schafer explains why every parent and teacher needs training in non-punitive tactics to manage challenging behaviour. A tactical approach like “When and then” statements help parents to control the environment instead of the children. Helping children to be autonomous is directly connected to predictability and the importance of routines. Alyson suggests diligence with parents in following predictable non-punitive responses to behaviour so children can thrive. This is the podcast episode every parent needs – practical, concise and positive. If you are a caregiver or parent of a preschooler, dealing with challenging behaviour or not, this week is FOR YOU!

Resources in this episode:

– Follow Alyson and Her Work on her website

– Buy Alyson’s Book Honey I Wrecked The Kids

HiMama Preschool Podcast, Episode #85 – Alyson Schafer Proofread and revised by Andrew Hall – Feb. 23, 2018 – – –


I really believe that every parent and teacher needs to have some basic training in non-punitive, non-coercive discipline tactics, because this really comes down to, “How do we invite a child to change their behavior?” and doing it without being punitive.


Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early-childhood education”.

Alyson, welcome to the Preschool Podcast.


Thank you for having me on.


So Alyson, you’re empowering families by sharing your principles, rules and tools for raising happy and healthy kids. And today we wanted to talk to you about routine and why routine is important. Maybe we can start with that question: Why is routine important for children?


So routine, if you think about it, allows you to understand what is going to happen next. It gives you a sense of anticipation so that you then know what’s expected of you, how the world is unfolding. And from that you can make choices about meeting those expectations, stepping into your role and doing your responsibilities. And then you feel competent, and you see that the world is orderly and safe and predictable. So psychologically it’s sort of like meeting one of the baselines of Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Need”. Maybe to an adult, think about how weird it would be and how strange and scary it would be if when you dropped a pea off the side of the high chair, instead of it going to the ground went up to the ceiling – but only randomly, only sometimes. I mean it’s so much better to know that we have this thing called gravity, and every time I let go of something it falls to the ground. That actually makes us feel safe.

And I think that’s why we get so disoriented when we have something like an earthquake or something, because the ground is supposed to be solid; it’s not supposed to shake. And that’s the same in a little kid’s world. When we aren’t routine, when our homes are chaotic, it really leaves a child feeling unsettled, frightened, don’t know what to anticipate or expect. This is not a good psychological space to be in for a child. They can’t get that feeling of competency.

Yeah, that’s an interesting way to think about that. I never thought of [it] before, to look at the extreme example of, even as an adult, if you never knew what was going to happen on any given day and it was going to be completely random, that would really obviously throw you for a bit of a loop wouldn’t it?


Think about just going into work and, “Oh, nobody showed up today. Don’t people come to work Monday-to-Friday, nine-to-five? Why aren’t people here? Oh, well, why is my boss screaming at me today? Think of all the things that can be shifted in your environment if you haven’t made sense of it yet.

And so I think we sometimes forget that children are trying to make sense of their world. They’re trying to order their world and find patterns. That’s what the brain is wired to do, to find those patterns, to make rules about those patterns, because that then gets put into a part of the brain that makes it sort of pretty conscious or automatic. And then we can put our attention to other things, more important things. So we’re constantly trying to find those patterns in our lives. It’s just easier if parents would step up and actually have some order and routine for kids, kind of spoon feed them some of that, that their brain is looking for.


So let’s just start by learning a little bit more about what we mean by “routine”, or the opposite of something that’s a little bit more chaotic. What is it that we’re talking about? Is it just schedule? Is it environment? What can that all entail?


So a good point, Ron, because it is a bit global in when we’re looking at the research on that. They actually use the word… we know the word “chaotic”, “chaotic home”. But it’s actually an acronym for… the C stands for “confusion”; the H is “hubbub”, and an order scale. So they’re looking at overcrowding, they’re looking at noise, they’re looking at attentiveness. They’re looking at that same thing, that predictability.

So they’ll ask questions on a questionnaire, things like, “Is your house a real zoo?” And then you agree, disagree, “kind of”. “Can you hear yourself think? Do you have a regular bedtime?” These are the types of questions that they’re looking for when they’re trying to analyze how chaotic an environment is for a child. And again, that could be a home environment, that could be a classroom environment. That could be a school bus. It’s that’s surrounding environment, both physical and social elements in it.


Okay, so let’s say there is a really chaotic home. What is going to be the result of that for that child?


So what the research to showing – and they’ve been studying this for quite a while – that there’s quite a few adverse effects. Things that they’ve looked at is higher levels of aggression, poor sleep patterns, higher stress, worse vocabulary and language deficits, more conduct disorders, conduct problems, more issues around attention deficit hyperactivity symptoms. So it’s pretty far-reaching, actually.


So, significant consequences, clearly. Now what about how we deal with this? So what can we do as parents, early-childhood educators, to get those routines in place?


I think the first thing is to just be committed to the idea that they are important. So you’re going to be way more motivated if you realize that you’re going to get better behavior, you’re going to have better outcomes, it’s going to be more peaceful for you as a care provider, if things are calm. And then the second thing is to start really, really slowly and be patient and just bite off one small routine.

So in a classroom environment you might want to just start off with how you get those kids in the door and how they hang up their coats and how shoes go in the cubby and where slippers need to get put on and get themselves ushered to the first activity area of the day. That might take an early-childhood provider from September to, like, November. In a classroom where you’ve got kids 18 months [old] to two-and-a-half years old or whatever, that takes a lot of time to get a group of kids all routinized into, “This is how this is how we do it.”

But again, then you’ll start to see, they just walk in, hang up the coats, grab their slippers, they’re off to do their thing. No instructions, no prompting, and you have less reminding, nagging, fighting, tears, all those things start to come down and people start to feel very competent and capable. And you can say, “Look at you looking after yourself. You really know our routine in the classroom.” They love all that positive feedback. They love knowing that they’re being socially successful this way.


And so this all sounds like a really great situation. But as we know sometimes things can devolve quickly, [and] all of a sudden we’re back into chaos. So do you have any tips or ways to sort of deal with situations where things really aren’t working the way that we had planned them to work?


Well, I think first thing is, we think about, “What are the things that we can control?” So again, just going back to our classroom environment how things are getting chaotic, if you start talking quieter… normally, we want to scream over the kids. But if we actually start talking quieter, and if we turn off the lights, dim the lights, turn off the music so that the ambient sound goes down, that getting calmer in the environment will help take some of the stress load off kids. So those are things, we can turn the lights, now we’re looking at what we can do about their behavior.

And that’s where I really believe that every parent and teacher needs to have some basic training in non-punitive, non-coercive discipline tactics, because this really comes down to, “How do we invite a child to change their behavior?” and doing it without being punitive. And I see in too many environments that we either use punishment or we use sticker charts and rewards. And these prove – again, by research – that you might get a short-term improvement in behavior; you might be able to coerce the child temporarily. But it’s not the same as winning the child’s cooperation, which is what we’re really trying to do. We want them to be helpful in the classroom, helpful in sticking to their routines. Not out of fear, not because they want more gym time or longer iPad time, but just because they know it’s the right thing to do. And under [age] five kids can be trained to do this.

So a small example of a tool that a parent might not have thought of is, we call it a “When Then” statement. So what it does is, rather than controlling the child you’re controlling the environment. So if it’s a requirement that you hang up your coat and put your slippers on before you come over to the puzzle table, you could just when they come over and their coat’s all over the floor, you could just simply say, “Hey Jacob, when your coat’s put away, then I know you’re ready for the puzzle table.” [This] replaces nagging, and it replaces threats. “Hey hey hey, no puzzle until your coat’s hung up.” It’s a very small change in the language but the intention behind it and how it lands on kids is completely different.

So a “When Then” statement will help keep routine in order. “Hey, boys and girls, we can’t go on to snacktime until all the toys are put away. We need to do our cleanup time.” So when they’re cleaned up, then we have a snack. And again it takes a little while. You have to be patient. You’ve got to allow more time for cleanup in the beginning. But with repetition and holding kids regularly accountable – again, predictability of your response to them not cleaning up – if it’s consistent, they will learn. They will realize that the benefit of cleaning up quickly is they’ll get to the snack table sooner.


It’s interesting because it’s almost to me sounds like you’re learning some things that are very important for you in the adult world as well, right? You don’t get rewarded until you put in hard work, and you’re persistent and diligent in whatever it is you’re doing. And you have some accountability with this “When Then” philosophy. You can get something a reward or something that will benefit you, but you do have some responsibility or accountability in order to receive that.


Exactly. And that’s the whole part about teaching kids to be self-directed, autonomous, good problem solvers, good decision makers. All of that happens when you, to your point, just hold them accountable for what needs to happen without getting into manipulation tactics.

So the same, here’s another example of keeping routines in place and order in the classroom without using punishment: You can bring the problem to the kids. Again, I had very young kids when I was a preschool teacher. And we would say things like, “Boys and girls, it doesn’t look like anybody’s interested in cleaning up the blocks whenever we are trying to get cleaned up for snacktime. Nobody seems to like that job. So in order for us to have the blocks out we need to have someone who’s willing to clean them up. Otherwise if no one’s willing then we’ll just leave the blocks here today will just keep them covered up and we won’t play with them at playtime today.” And so somebody will say, “No, I actually really want to play with the blocks. I’d be willing to be the cleanup person.” And then we can say, “Well, thank you very much for helping our classroom. That’s really great. Jenna has agreed to clean the blocks clean up time, thank you.”

So we’ve come about it as making it kind of like a consequence, or tying those freedoms and responsibilities together: “If you’d like to have the blocks, you have to be willing to clean them up. “If you’re not willing to clean them up, then we don’t use them.” It’s the same with the sand table: “The sand needs to stay in the sand table. If the sand goes down the floor, that tells me we’re not able to be at the sand station. We’ll need to move to a different activity station. [If] people are splashing the water then we take the water out of the water table and we close that for today and try again tomorrow.”

So those are all great examples of using consequences. They’re not punitive. You don’t have to raise your voice. We don’t have to get angry. It doesn’t have to get into this interpersonal turf or power struggle. Just very simple, showing kids what needs to happen.


Now what if I’m being very diligent from my end as a parent, and I’m dropping my child off at a childcare early-learning program and I don’t really know how they’re managing their routines there? Or vice versa: maybe I’m an early-childhood educator and I’m doing a really great job with managing routines with my children during the day, but I really have no clue what the family’s doing in the evening? Do you have any thoughts or recommendations about how early-childhood educators and families can work together to establish a cohesive routine for children?


Well, I love the idea of home and school working collaboratively and together. You want the child to feel like you’re allies, rather than [in] an antagonistic relationship between your teacher and your friends at school and your parents. But you do want that feeling like everyone’s on the same page. But having said, that my experience has much more been that early-childhood educators get more training in child development, get more training on how to establish routines in their classrooms than a parent does running a home.

So my experience is that kids to do very well in the classroom and they like those routines, and it’s often home where there’s more problems. Now, having said that, it’s often that kids… it’s not so much the absence of routine, although it contributes. But there’s often… you give a greater importance to your relationship with your parent than you do to your teacher. So if there is an interpersonal issue happening, you’ll see a kid is not thriving at home because something’s going on in that relationship, or parents are less likely to be consistent than a teacher needs to be. If you’ve got 22 kids, you don’t have time to be consistent. You have to kind of move through the day.

So I think we respect that in order to understand kids’ behaviors, it really depends on the social field in which the behavior occurs. And they know that school is different than home, it’s different than Grandma’s. At school we have to line up like this and at home we don’t. And at Grandma’s we have to act like this.

And kids can manage to understand three separate sets of rules or understand three different patterns of operating. That does not confuse them. What’s more important is that that parents and grandmothers and teachers are consistent themselves every day, so that whatever routine is established in each of those environments, that day-to-day-to-day it’s the same. So you might find, for example, a child knows to hang up their coat and do their slippers in the classroom, and at home Mom hangs up their coat. They’re completely capable, but because moms never help the child accountable the kid drops it on the front foyer. So Mom says, “Pick it up, pick it up, pick it up.” The kid doesn’t pick it up, so Mom says, “Oh forget it, I don’t want the fight. I’ll just hang it up myself.”

So you think you’re teaching your child the routine of “When we come in, we hang up our coat.” But you’re not teaching it, because in essence you’re really teaching them that that’s not really a rule, that you’ll pick it up. That’s what the real lesson is. Although parents don’t like to believe it, kids learn from what you do, not from what you say.

So I think having that conversation where you can say, “Actually, you know what? Jessica is very capable of hanging up her coat and putting on her own shoes now. She can tie her shoes – we’ve seen her. So that would be really great if we could let her also be responsible for that at home.” That would be a great suggestion. And hopefully you’ll get some buy-in from the parents.


Yeah, I think you’re right. Obviously, early-childhood educators are educated and trained on their work. So to the extent that they can provide suggestions about how to create more routine at home, that’s going to benefit the child. I think [that] makes a lot of sense. And they’re certainly in a position to do that.


Yeah. And they’ll know what a child is capable of. And one of the – and your listeners will attest to this – that one of the things we talk about in terms of a milestone is a child being able to execute three consecutives instead of instructions, which I just said. I say, “Hang up your coat, put on your slippers and go to the puzzle table.” That’s three distinct tasks, back-to-back, that you’re asking them to do. And so that takes a certain amount of cognitive development. A certain executive functioning has to be developed for kids to be able to follow three instructions.

So some kids may not be there yet. Some kids may need just the single prompts: “Just coats now. Then now let’s do slippers.” So an early-childhood educator could see over the course of the day, or in the time that they’re at school, how that grows from one to two to three as they move along that continuum of being able to execute three tasks.


100 percent. This has been very helpful and practical advice for me personally as a parent, and I think for our listeners as early-childhood educators. If I want to find you online to learn more about some of your tips for parenting and for routines of children at a young age, where can I go to get in touch with you or get more of your content?


Well thank you for asking, and I would love to share more, which is why my website is so content-rich. I’ve got all kinds of posts, and actually quite a few just on this very specific topic alone. But lots and lots of topics for this age group on my website, which is And I also have a robust Facebook professional page. And there’s lots of information that I’m posting on a daily basis there, too. And once a month I even have a Facebook Live where if people want to ask me questions we can engage them through that medium as well, which is really fantastic. People like to be able to have access to an expert. So I would also encourage anyone who wants regular information about upcoming events and webinars and whatnot to sign up for my e-newsletter so that you can get pinged in your mailbox [on] what’s coming up.


Awesome. That’s some great stuff, and I love the Facebook Live opportunity. I’m sure lots of parents would jump on that opportunity to ask questions. I know my wife and I, we always have questions that we’re really researching all the time.


Well, what I think the other thing is that’s really powerful for parents is, they really need to hear that they’re not alone. When you’re listening to other people pose questions and you’re like, “Oh, I’m not the only one who’s got the kid who’s still up at 10:30 at night even though they’re only six years old because they’re jumping up on their bed?” It’s the very normalizing to find out that other people are having the same challenges as you. So I find you get good information, but you also feel that sense of community and support.


Yeah, totally that makes a lot of sense. Well, Alyson, it’s been a pleasure having you on the show. I’ve learned a lot, as I said, and I really like your approach to more of a partnership with the child and giving them accountability and responsibility in order to create those routines that are really going to help them at the end of the day. It’s been very insightful. Thanks so much for coming on the show.


My pleasure. Thanks for inviting me.

Ron Spreeuwenberg

Ron is the Co-Founder & CEO of HiMama, where he leads all aspects of a social purpose business that helps early childhood educators improve learning outcomes for children.

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