As the new school year begins, many families are saying goodbye to the lazy days of summer and getting ready for their back-to-school routines. Schedule changes both at home and at school can be a stressful time for parents and children alike. Predictable routines at home can help children complete tasks in a timely manner, making it easier to keep your family on schedule each morning. If your child resists her new routines and responsibilities, she may benefit from a planned reward program to help keep motivation and cooperation high. Increased structure can also help protect time for you and your child to enjoy together and strengthen your relationship. The following tips highlight how regular routines can help support children's good behavior as they transition back to school and include practical ways to implement these strategies in your home.
Does your child require extra help to complete "easy" everyday tasks? Daily routines teach children to self-manage age-appropriate responsibilities without having to rely on numerous reminders from adults to perform everyday tasks. Through repetition and praise from caretakers, children are able to build self-confidence and take pride in their accomplishments, thus making them more likely to repeat good behaviors in the future. Children also learn to complete tasks independently without as much assistance from adults, although adults should continue monitoring on-task behavior and providing positive reinforcement via praise and rewards.
Tips: Use praise to build your child's independence and self-confidence. Notice your child's positive, desirable behaviors and provide verbal recognition. General praise (e.g., "Good job," "You're amazing!") can be reinforcing for some children; however, the most powerful praise is specific to your child's behavior. Behavior-specific praise helps children know exactly what they did that was appropriate (e.g., "Sophia, I like how you brushed your teeth without a reminder," "Ethan, thank you for putting away your lunch box"). Try saying your child's name first to make sure you have his attention. Nonverbal praise (e.g., hugs, pat on the back) can also help.
Is your child reluctant to cooperate? Routines make it more likely for children to complete daily tasks in a timely manner, especially when combined with a reward program. Small rewards such as a designated length of screen time (e.g., 15 minutes of video games) or an age-appropriate choice (e.g., choose which outfit to wear to school) should be provided on a daily basis and should be dependent on your child's behavior each day. Small rewards should involve something you already have (e.g., television) that does not require much planning or preparation to use. Remember, opportunities for your child to earn small rewards should restart each day. In other words, keep expectations consistent each day even if your child is catching on quickly, and don't let one bad day ruin the next. Larger rewards can be used for completing for a set number of desired behaviors during a specific time period (e.g., 20 out of 25 stickers earned in one week). Even big rewards can be low-cost, such as allowing your child to rent a movie and make some popcorn at home. Think about your family's time or financial constraints and only offer rewards you are actually able to provide.
Tips: Track completion of each task on your child's list using a sticker or smiley face and tie your child's behavior to rewards. Phrase behaviors positively (e.g., "Keep your hands to yourself," "Be at school by 8:15 a.m.") rather than negatively (e.g., "Don't hit," "Don't be late for school"). That is, tell children what you want them to do, not what you don't want them to do. Be sure to place your child's list in a convenient location where your child is able to see it and where you will remember to track your child's progress. For example, hang your child's after-school routine on the refrigerator and put his bedtime routine next to his bed. If you don't remember to use your child's behavior chart, neither will your child.
Is your child's behavior straining your relationship with him? Regular routines help reduce the amount of time you spend correcting inappropriate or non-compliant behavior, which leaves more time for positive interactions between you and your child. This is especially important for families with busy schedules who may struggle to find time to engage in fun and enjoyable activities together. Try activities that foster interaction, creativity, and physical movement rather than sedentary (e.g., watching TV) or independent (e.g., "You play your game and I'll read my book") activities.
Tips: Make one-on-one time with your child part of your daily routine. Protect 15-30 minutes each day to spend with your child regardless of how your child behaved that day or how tired you feel. Use this time for child-directed activities by allowing your child to take the lead. Mirror what your child does, for instance, if you child is drawing a house then you draw a house. Verbally describe what your child is doing (e.g., "You are building a tower with the red blocks") without trying to change course or direct your child to a different activity (e.g., "Build daddy a spaceship," or "Let's play monopoly").
If you or your child are having trouble adjusting to your regular routines, or if you see an increase in child behavior problems with the new school year, you are not alone. Remember that these difficulties are very common and help is available to get your family back on track.
Dr. Michelle LeRoy is a licensed clinical psychologist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Red Wing. She provides integrated behavioral health services to patients of all ages in primary care clinics and specialty mental health services.