With the school year now officially underway (try not to cheer too loudly), many families will now settle into the rhythm of a weekly routine. Or, as per my household, a slightly-frazzled cadence of drop-offs, pick-ups, hurried bedtimes and hastily-packed bags.
Dr Kieran Kennedy is a Doctor (with degrees in Psychology, Physiology and Medicine/Surgery, thank you very much), mental health advocate, writer & speaker, as well as being a natural bodybuilder and fitness model – with so many strings to his bow, we wouldn’t be surprised if he told us he was also a violinist. Considering his vast pool of achievements, we figured there was no one better placed to advise us on how to set some healthy, achievable routines for the year ahead.
We spoke to Dr Kieran about how to implement routines effectively for kids, what to do when the unexpected happens, and his top three habits for a healthy 2020.
Get out your weekly planners and stock up on gold star stickers – with Dr Kieran’s advice we’re ready to officially tame the family routine.
Why are routines important for children?
Just like us adults, children are creatures of habit. Routines not only offer super important learning experiences for kids in planning, consistency and persistence, but they also have significant impacts on development, and mental and physical health.
Routines give children an opportunity to approach the day with the sense of safety, mastery and consistency. They offer a way for children to develop key cognitive skills, and this can include everything from planning, organisation, persistence, goal setting and resilience. For busy families juggling multiple demands, routines are a fantastic way to keep life running smoothly – for the kids as much as the parents!
How do routines affect our health?
Important health benefits to regularity and routines have been extensively studied across psychology and medicine. And yet, this is a fact that might often surprise a lot of families. Physical health outcomes for kids are often powerfully impacted by consistency and routine; whether it’s sleep, rest, hydration, a balanced diet or important health practices (like tooth brushing or toileting), a good routine is a clear way to ensure our children are getting the best start when it comes to physical health.
And what about mental health?
With rates of behavioral difficulties, anxiety and mood issues rising in children and teens, routines can also offer a powerful way to protect and bolster mental health and resilience. Many behavioral struggles, anxieties and mental health issues that affect young people (even infants) are influenced by the sense of safety, predictability and consistency within a household. Routines offer a way for parents to create a predictable set of daily events and outcomes for their kids. Studies have found that everything from anxiety, sleep, anger regulation, mood symptoms, academic outcomes and risk of mental illness can be influenced by the sense of routine and safety a child feels within the home.
Some studies have even linked routines to improved cognitive performance, achievement and engagement in education. Establishing routines are thus a relatively simple yet significant springboard for a child’s mental and physical health.
Family connections and relationships can too be fostered and boosted through routines. By offering a sense of collective connection, contribution to the whole and consistency, routines that engage the entire family can be those that create strong family ties and deeper connection.
How important is a sleep routine for children?
Sleep is one of my particular interest areas! Routines around sleep are vital for growing children. Sleep in itself is a biological process, with routine around bedtime, sleep time and wake up time conferring clear improvements not just to how quickly kids can fall asleep but also how restful that sleep is. Establishing simple routines around sleep that include pre-bedtime prep such as an hour off devices and quiet activities in dimmed lighting can make a big difference. One of the most vital factors to consistent quality sleep is a regular sleep and wake time too, so establishing a routine around times for these can make a huge difference.
Are there other important routines that often get overlooked?
Setting up regular and consistent routines (particularly for young children) around personal hygiene can help really lock these health staples in as important. As children get older and move into the teen years, a solid routine around health basics will help set up habits that ensure they continue to take greater control over their own routines and bodies.
Mealtime routines are important too, as many families struggle to get children to sit down to eat or finish their plate. Much like our sleep and other functions, appetite and eating sync to a regular daily rhythm. Capitalising on this and establishing regular routines around meal times can be a great way to ensure young children get into the rhythm of adequate food and fluid intake. Routines that set up meal times as a way for each member of the family to engage in the process (setting the table, getting the waters, popping the salad in the a bowl) can be powerful ways to engage kids in the food and eating process, and make it fun (hopefully) at the same time. Medical evidence shows that many kids aren’t eating regular meals or obtaining the balance of nutrients that are recommended, and there’s potential this might be impacting on the health of our young people. Lax routines around eating are likely to promote difficulties in getting kids to eat consistently, to put down the snacks or ensure they’re getting the vitamins and nutrients a growing brain needs.
Modern family life and parenting can be stressful, full on and at times really difficult. Studies show that families who spend regular time together connecting and enjoying each other often benefit children in regard to their social and emotional development, sense of family connection and even cognitive development. I thus love advocating for families to make regular routines around time together that focus less on distractors (i.e. TV) and more on engaging with each other. Scheduling some daily (or at least a few times weekly) time to talk, play and connect with each other can be a great way to foster a child’s development alongside improving family connections. Ideas might include a daily family check-in/discussion about the day and how we’re feeling, a games night or weekly outing.
What makes a great routine?
Getting children to engage in routines might not be easy to start with, but implementing some simple points can help it strengthen over time. Routines that are simple and clear are often the best (particularly for young kids) – so as much as possible avoid too many steps or details. Agreement on routines among the whole family, and having these written up on a daily planner can be great ways to help lock them in.
Unsurprisingly, routines that are consistent are those that do better – and that stand the test of time. It’s important to know that there’s no failure here, and life is life. Rigid routines and expecting that curve balls won’t come up isn’t realistic, and it’s important that parents know that that’s ok. As much as possible however, sticking to plans around timing for routines is one of the biggest keys to their success. Whether it’s sleep, household rules or consequences for behaviour – consistency really is king. Routines or rules that flip-flop, change regularly or lead kids to feel unsure or confused about the outcome have the potential to do the opposite to what we’d hope a good routine would achieve.
Get kids involved in planning and deciding on routines and schedules – particularly as they get older, this can increase motivation around routines and help children develop a greater sense of independence and resilience. For younger children in particular, marking off success at sticking to the routine and rewarding completed tasks (such as a star or family outing if a week’s worth of the routine is followed) can be a great way to help lock them in tighter.
Can you still raise adaptable, resilient kids if you stick to a routine?
100% – children and families who engage in some form of routine and planning around their week are often those who grow to become more resilient in the long run. The important thing here would be to recognise that rigidity isn’t helpful, and that adapting to slight changes or unexpected shifts in the routine can be powerful teaching points for kids. Helping children adapt to these changes now and then is important – pick the routine back up when you’re able, complete what you can, and remind children that slight set backs or changes are ok.
Raising adaptable and resilient kids can be influenced hugely by how our children see us adapting to change and unexpected curve balls. Thus having a routine in place, and modeling adapting well to stress and anxiety when things change ourselves, can be a powerful way to raise children who can cope well with what life throws at them.
At what age do you recommend implementing a routine?
Routines and habits are part of our biological hardwiring, and even from birth the body begins to sync into rhythms around things like sleep, feeding and activity. While clear routine or consistency with newborns might be less clear (depending on your baby!), as infants grow so too does the consistency and clarity of their rhythms. Again, without promoting rigidity, looking to gently establish routines and a timeline for the day/week can start even with young infants and babies.
As children age and begin to expand in their independence and development, establishing routines becomes more powerful. Routines around toileting, hygiene, sleep and eating/drinking can be incredibly helpful for toddlers and young kids. Even if at times it feels like a bit of a daily struggle to contain the fireball of energy that your toddler might become, even a general sense of when and how things happen is more likely to create a home environment that helps reduce stress and anxiety in children, and fosters healthy development.
Is it ever too late to start?
It’s never too late to start implementing routines within the family – but the earlier these are started and the more consistent they are, the smoother things often play out.
Starting routines for older children when there hasn’t been a clear routine before might be met with some sense of struggle or opposition – but this shouldn’t be a reason to avoid starting. Taking a clear and consistent approach, regardless of early success, failures, or push back, can help children adjust to new routines with time. For older children, having them be part of the routine planning can be a great way to get them on board. Studies show that routines can positively impact the development, health and success of children of all age groups (and the same goes for us adults), so even if it’s helping your teen get into a solid routine around sleep there are some big pay offs here regardless of how ‘late’ they’re started.
One of the biggest reasons routines often fail is that they’re not consistently kept, or that we give up too early. It’s never too late to start a routine or set of expectations within the family, but the key (particularly the later we’re putting them in place) is gentle yet clear consistency in carrying them through.
What about children that don’t seem to respond positively to a routine, or fight it? What’s the best approach? Are some kids just not routine-kids?
Every child comes with his or her own temperament, personality and style – as anyone who’s had more than one child will know all too well, kids can be like night and day in how they respond to things. Just like adults, while some kids might naturally seek out routine and consistency, others seem less set on having things mapped out.
When it comes to health, development and general family life, establishing some form of routine will positively benefit the vast majority of children. But putting this in place might be harder with some, and even actively fought against by others. For these children, simplifying things and making routines even clearer is important. Dial down the number of steps, and make expectations and outcomes (for example, if things don’t got to plan) crystal clear. Implementing new routines will always be hardest at the very start, but it’s particularly important for kids who might not sync so naturally with routines (or even oppose them) that consistency again reigns as king. Take opposition and set backs as bumps in the road, and even if things don’t go to plan today then continue with routine and plan tomorrow. With clear expectations, consistency and gentle yet firm boundaries even the most free of spirits can see benefits from a regular routine.
As parents, is there anything we can do to lead by example?
A large part of a child’s learning, development and behaviour comes through observation and modeling of the world around them – with infants and younger children in particular, the parent is the primary model here.
When it comes to routines, it’s important that children come to learn that their parent is clear and consistent. It’s a bit of a no brainer to say that a good routine requires it to become a routine, and so as parents we can definitely lead by example with regard to kids coming to know that the schedule or set of expectations are followed regularly. Some routines will involve us adults ourselves. Whether it’s meal times, wind down times before bed or times away from screens – parents leading by example and becoming part of the routine itself is a powerful way for children to model persistence and follow-through. Following our own routines, and putting importance toward health and well-being basics like sleep, balanced meals, exercise and personal hygiene make it more likely that our kids will too.
Acknowledgement and encouragement are biggies here as well; with positive reinforcement being something parents can truly champion to help routines fall into sync within the home. Acknowledge success, thank kids for sticking to the plan and gently stick to agreed upon boundaries as ways to really lead by example here.
Can routines still work if you travel a lot or have unusual circumstances?
Definitely, and I think this is a really important lesson that can come from routines. Life is messy and definitely won’t always go to plan. A powerful part to the learning and development that can come from routines and expectations for children is when things don’t go to plan, or adjustments need to be made. Whilst it’s important there’s as much clarity and consistency around routines as realistic, it’s equally important to be flexible. For busy households juggling multiple things or unusual circumstances, adjusting calmly to the need for slight tweaks or temporary changes in routines (for example when you’re travelling) is more than ok. Lessons in resilience, coping with change, managing anxiety/distress and adaptability are all things we can model for our children and help them learn when routines need to shift.
Even ‘unusual’ family routines or structures are still ones that can work. Stick to the basics and remember that the same principles apply – agree upon routines and expectations as a family, and keep the schedule (however different it might be to another family’s) as clear and consistent as realistically possible. For families where parents might have time apart or children might spend time with separated parents individually (i.e. work related travel, co-parenting), then joint agreement about routines and consistency following these through between parents, and even between households, can really pay off.
Changing circumstances and unusual routines can mean commitment levels to keep the ones that are important going (i.e. bedtime) are key. Communicate openly with kids, stay flexible and be as consistent as you can. As with so much of health and psychology, striving for the “good enough” often wins out over rigidly holding on to “the perfect”.
What are your top three healthy habits you suggest implementing for 2020?
1. Sleep: It’s an obvious one, but one many families still place as a lower down priority. Recent years have seen an explosion of research and knowledge on the true importance of a regular sleep cycle, and when it comes to mental and physical development this can’t be overstated when it comes to our kids. Neurologically, children will get the best out of a night’s rest when there’s a consistent sleep time and wake time – so keeping regular routines around sleep is definitely one of my top healthy habit tips for 2020. Some simple but powerful habits around this can really help when it comes to getting kids to sleep faster and more soundly too – encourage quiet activities and dim the lights in the hour or two before bed, limit time on blue light emitting devices (phones, tablets, laptops) in the hour before shut eye, and ensure bedrooms are keep quiet, cool and dark.
2. Activity: Regular physical activity and exercise (even light) has powerful benefits when it comes to both the physical but also the mental health of our children and teens. Studies convincingly show that regular exercise can be protective for anxiety and mood, and can even help treat mild forms of depression. Starting up some healthy habits around regular physical activity is important for children – particularly as society’s pull toward phones, the online world and gaming grows ever stronger. Make it a part of your regular family routine to promote physical activity where you can – walking to the store instead of driving, a family park trip 2 times a week, or sticking to routines around sports practice.
3. Screen Time: Statistics point to kids spending a significant proportion of time plugged into technology and onto screens. While the research and recommendations here are complex and ongoing, we know there are some potential benefits to technology use (i.e. tablet games/educational inputs) but also some potential down sides. Particularly when it comes to impacts on socio-emotional development, family connection and physical activity it’s important that a set of healthy habits for kids involves some time away from screens and TV. Encouraging this with a phone free period, a family games nights or time outside with tablets down can set up healthy habits for families in 2020.