During the last few weeks of school, we lost some mojo at our house.
In the mornings, my husband and I would walk past our daughter’s bedroom and find her lying on the floor doing absolutely nothing to get ready for school. We fell into the habit of sighing deeply, nagging, threatening and cajoling.
The worst part is we have a simple tool in place to avoid all of this. It’s called a routine chart, and it’s the perfect thing for managing a child’s daily routines.
For some reason, as we entered what I think of as the “death march” period of the school year, we stopped using the morning routine chart.
But this article isn’t about our needless suffering. Quite the opposite. I’m going to explain how visual charts can support constructive behaviors in children (and parents)—if we just use them!
What’s Are Routine Charts for Kids?
Charts like this are great for morning routines, bedtime routines, and after-school routines. They support independence for kids who are learning, while helping keeping them on track and moving forwards.
Routine charts also can be used to break down steps in specific tasks like handwashing, toothbrushing, or toileting.
How do Routine Charts for Children Work?
Routine charts for kids, or “visual checklists” as they’re called in behavior lingo, are my first line of defense against all variety of annoying behaviors—foot-dragging, defiance, avoidance, ignoring directions, etc.
Behaviors like these usually occur (and are most intense) during the toughest transitions of the day: morning and bedtime. Also right when everyone comes home from school and work together. (So yes, that pretty much covers all the time we’re home with our kids!)
In these instances, my first intervention with consulting clients is a visual routine chart. Always.
Parents are often incredulous when I tell them how much routine charts will change child behavior. They say, “But he already KNOWS what he needs to DO.”
Of course he does. And my kid wasn’t being an evasive turd because she didn’t know she had to be dressed (including shoes) before we leave the house in the morning.
A morning or bedtime routine chart does a lot more than just teach what needs to be done:
- It provides a focal point for a challenging chunk of the day
- It reduces anxiety for some children by allowing them to see and organize expectations
- It increases their sense of control when they can choose the order for completing tasks
- It increases motivation for complete tasks
- It increases independence
- It decreases nagging, which breeds learned helplessness (relying on verbal reminders)
But Why Visual? He Can Read!
Why can’t you just make a to-do list? Why does it need to have the little pictures?
Any time we can pair a visual reminder with any aspect of a behavior plan, we decrease the cognitive effort required by a child’s brain to process the expectation.
In other words, pictures are easier to understand and act on.
Visual checklists break down big tasks like “get ready for school” into simpler components. When we make it easier for children to manage their own routines, we establish neural pathways and muscle memory that increase independence.
If we just nag the shit out of them, it makes us all a little crazier by the day.
Plus, we don’t build appropriate, independent behavior. They become “prompt dependent.” They don’t engage in the process, because we keep barking out the next step as we storm around the house getting ourselves ready for the day.
How Do You Use a Routine Chart with a Child?
First, consider creating an incentive that’s attached to successful completion of the tasks on the bedtime routine chart, for example. It could be points, stickers, jelly beans, extra screen minutes, or an extra bedtime book. (Here’s more info on choosing incentives/reinforcers.)
Then, instead of repeating: “Have you brushed your teeth? Go brush your teeth! Did you brush your teeth yet? FOR CRYING OUT LOUD, BRUSH YOUR TEETH!”
Say this: “Check your chart.”
If they need more motivation, say: “Remind me what you’re earning for doing your chart?”
Some kids don’t even need an incentive attached to the routine chart. They just enjoy checking off the boxes. The checklist provides enough focus, organization, and autonomy that their behavior will improve without external reinforcement.
A Few More Details for Implementing
I recommend starting with the most basic tasks and adding more as your child integrates the patterns and skills.
For examples, at the beginning of the school year, when my daughter was four, her tasks were:
- Put clothes on
- Eat breakfast
- Brush hair
- Put shoes on
Then after her birthday in the spring, I added:
- Put PJs away
- Feed fish
- Make bed
Come to think of it, that partly explains why things went off the rails in May. The extra tasks were probably too much for her at the emotionally tricky end of the school year.
I should have eased her back to the basic checklist and just given her verbals for those extras tasks. But I don’t want to “should all over myself” about it, because we survived and are no worse for the wear!
Quick tips on construction: I recommend laminating routine charts and letting kids use a dry- or wet-erase marker to check off tasks. Or, you can laminate and use velcro for them to tear off completed tasks. The important this is to find a way for them to easily mark task completion. (Also, I use an app from LessonPix.com to assemble charts for printing, but you may be able to find one that fits your needs by doing a Google image search.)
Routine Charts Can Help During Summer, Too
Summer is an especially good time to introduce routine charts.
The major shift of routines can be really tough for some kiddos. Not knowing exactly what a day will bring can cause stress and anxiety. One or more general daily routine charts will add some predictability for your children.
When my kid was younger and we were home together more, we knew that we’d do breakfast (a total ordeal), playtime, nap, outing, lunch (another ordeal), nap, outside time, inside play… You get the idea.
You could have a couple different charts for stay-home days and outing days.
But if you lucked into having a kid who just rolls with the unpredictability, then by all means. Skip this entirely. I’m not trying to make more work for you, Boss.
So Why Did We Stop Using Our Routine Charts?
Now that school is out around these parts, mornings have gotten easier.
We’re just late for things now, and it’s summer-style OK. We’re all sleeping a little later and have a little more slack in our routine leashes.
Summer will wear on, though, and these easy mornings will lose their sparkle. When that happens, with you as my witnesses, I will bust a move on a new morning routine chart before we revert to the dark days of May.
So what was our deal? Why did my husband and I stop referring to the checklists and ride straight into crazy town?
I guess for the same reason my daughter spent all those mornings lying in the floor with her panties on her head. Sometimes we’re wound so tightly into our routines and systems that we just want a break from them at any cost.
So we broke. But hopefully a fun summer will prepare us to put it all back together in August!
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About the Author
Lisa King is the co-founder of Boss Parent. She also provides parents with in-person and remote child behavior consulting.