Routines are like a comfort blanket for kids; they give them a sense of security. They let kids know what’s coming up, what’s expected of them and when it’s expected, which helps to place boundaries around their big wide world.

Routines are so important for kids! As an early childhood teacher I could usually tell which students had become accustomed to predictable routines at home, and were used to being assigned regular jobs. These children often transitioned much more smoothly [in]to school!

Routines don’t have to incorporate every waking minute of the day, but it’s helpful if they cover the key activities that take place in daily life. For example, on school days there needs to be a more specific routine to ensure no-one is late, while on weekends and during school holidays routines can act more as a fluid framework around which to organise your day.

The best way to develop a routine for your family is to consider these key factors:

• your children’s natural preferences

• regular family activities.

For example, in our house the kids are early risers, and this can often mean I start my day at 5 am! Instead of viewing this as a cross to bear, I use it to my advantage to kickstart our daily routine. In families with young children, giving yourself plenty of time to prepare the kids and everything else for school makes the mornings less stressful.

Our early morning routine also suits the children’s natural preferences. Two of my school-aged children have a leisurely approach to getting ready. They like to have time to read or play and take things slowly in the morning so they get up early. If they got up half an hour before we leave the house, our mornings would soon become a battleground, with time and leisure competing fiercely. My other school-aged child is very different. His priority is to get himself ready and to be organised. He loves getting to school as early as possible so he has time to play before the bell rings, and he hates being late. This works beautifully in my favour as he’s willing to help me and work cooperatively with the other children to ensure we leave the house on time.

Like most families with school-aged children, during the school term we have a number of after-school activities. There are activities such as dance classes, swimming lessons and footy training sessions to schedule in, and they help determine our weekly routine. As these activities can change each term, our routine needs to be modified regularly.

Unavoidable necessities have also helped shape our family routines. For example, over the past 11 years I’ve spent more time breastfeeding than not; therefore, this has been a big factor in determining our daily routine. As my husband has always worked reasonably long hours, I’ve had to juggle the bulk of the evening routine on my own. This is not something I’ve always found easy. There was often a tired toddler wanting attention or a grizzly baby in need of a calming feed competing for my time.

About six months into life with our second child, I decided I could better manage the baby’s last feed of the day if I allowed our then 2 and a half year old to have his TV time while I breastfed. This system worked beautifully. The 30 minutes during which our toddler watched his pre-recorded show of Playschool allowed me to calmly give the baby his last feed of the day. I could then spend time with our toddler reading stories quietly while the baby was sound asleep.

Morning and evening routines are only two examples of routines you may have for your family. You may have a weekend routine where everyone sleeps in until after 7 am. (Well, to be honest, I added that one in as it sounds like heaven to me at the moment!) Or you may have a weekend routine where you go to the market to buy the fruit and vegetables for the week, or where you spend family time in the garden.

Whatever additional routines you have, make sure you have weekday morning and evening routines for the kids. It is at these busiest times of the day — the peak-hour periods of morning and evening — that you want your children to be able to operate with minimal direction and complete their chores as needed so they can move on to the next stage of their day or night. As with all aspects of parenting, though, common sense and flexibility are required when following routines. For example, if our preschooler has slept in after a late night, expecting him to complete all of his usual morning chores would be unreasonable. These instances, however, are the exception and not the rule, and routines can become a natural part of daily life for kids.

Morning routines

While getting organised and introducing routines may seem like a bit of work, the benefits of taking the time to do so are enormous as routines really do help manage the first rush hour of the day. A calm and happy start to the day is not only beneficial for the kids; it can set the tone for the adults’ day too.

Lay out your work clothes and child’s clothes the night prior and pack a bag for childcare [to] leave at the door ready to go.

Kyrstie Barcak, mum of two

Table 1.1 shows the morning routine my kinder and school-aged kids follow during the school term.

The younger children need a visual routine, which is a simple chart with pictures showing the order in which they should complete tasks when getting ready in the morning.

Table 1.1: school morning routine

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Now, as fabulous as it would be if the kids looked at their routines and worked their way independently through them, this is not how it works in reality. However, with age they’ve become more practised at their routines and are able to complete tasks independently. There are still times when I need to provide guidance to ensure the kids get organised in the morning, but I’m not constantly having to nag at them as they know what they should be doing.

Tip: Getting kids organised in the morning

Preparing clothes

It’s much less stressful to choose clothes for toddlers and preschoolers (in particular those who like to have a say in what they’re wearing) the night before. My current preschooler has a couple of favourite T-shirts that are in constant rotation. Making sure they’re available the night before, when there’s no hurry to be out the door, makes choosing clothes much easier. Once the clothes have been selected they can be laid out and, if they’re able, preschoolers can dress themselves in the morning just like their school-aged siblings.

I encourage the older children to be responsible for organising their own clothes. My husband and I currently do the laundry, but the older children put away their own clothes, so they should know exactly where they are (note the emphasis on should!). It still works best to have lower primary school children lay out their clothes the night before in readiness for the next day. Allowing upper primary school children to make their own choices about organising their clothes works well as it gives them a level of autonomy over their morning routines.

Key time markers

In the mornings we have key time markers. Time markers assist children in getting themselves ready and reduce the nagging that can take place at this time of the day. We have two key times on school mornings:

7.30 am: children have to have brushed their teeth and started getting dressed

8.00 am: we aim to leave the house at 8.10 am, so everyone should be almost ready.

School children — who can operate more independently — may just need a reminder about the time, but for the younger children a visual morning routine helps them work through the necessary steps.

School bags

Packing their own bags is an important task for building independence in preschool and school-aged children (and decreasing the workload of parents). Again, visual charts help to ensure that children have everything they need for their school day. For example, on days when they have library, they need to have their library bag and book; on sports days they need to take their runners to school.

Keep calm

This is probably the hardest one of these tips to consider some days! I find if I try to deal calmly with situations as they arise (rather than ranting and raving at the kids), there’s much less chance of an issue escalating or snowballing into a larger tantrum or drama. From practical experience, I can highlight the benefits of staying calm. There will always be the occasional morning where the preschooler finds something else — such as playing with his toys — far more appealing than getting dressed. The way I approach this can determine how big the issue becomes. I can be:

frustrated. I can tell him angrily to get ready, while moving the toys away from him. The preschooler then has a meltdown, and becomes even more uncooperative and unwilling to get himself dressed. This loud protest lasts for a considerable period of time, raising the stress levels of everyone in the house and putting pressure on us leaving the house on time.

calm. This approach takes slightly longer, but it’s worth the effort. I help the preschooler set aside what he’s playing with, so he can come back to it later, and then help him get dressed. We may take turns at putting on his clothing: he does his underpants, I do his singlet, and so on. He may not be happy with having to stop playing, but we’ve avoided a complete tantrum.

Mornings can be a very busy time for families, and if parents have to direct all of their children’s actions, this time of the day can quickly turn into a nagging session. By creating known and age-appropriate routines for the kids, you allow them to take on greater responsibility for getting themselves ready and, best of all, the parents don’t have to nag so much.

Evening routines

When our eldest child was still a preschooler, we had the same evening routine every weekday as there weren’t any after-school activities to worry about. How all that’s changed now we have three children at school! Depending on your family’s commitments, the second rush hour can begin as soon as the kids get home from school: homework to be completed, listening to reading, driving to and from after-school activities and trying to cook dinner while consoling an overtired toddler is a very common scenario at our house.

Our after-school routine varies greatly from one day to the next. However, one thing that doesn’t change is having an early evening meal — dinner now just fits within a larger window than before we had kids at school.

Before children there are certain things you can’t ever imagine yourself doing, and for me one of those was eating dinner at 5.30 pm. I had heard of people doing this and wholeheartedly scoffed at the idea. To me, 5.30 pm was still part of the day! Then, suddenly, I was home all day with two children, and on some days 5.30 pm seemed like midnight.

When walking home from school in the afternoon I cut up beautiful apples for my children, which we eat as we walk. When we arrive home the children don’t go to the pantry raiding the biscuits and bread as they are no longer starving and then they eat their dinner.

Georgina Rechner, mum of three

It didn’t take me long to work out the reasons for and benefits of eating dinner at 5.30 pm with the kids.

Kids are actually hungry at this time.

Kids eat better when they’re not overtired, and tiredness really starts to kick in for babies, toddlers and preschoolers after this time.

With this tiredness comes a significant drop in kids’ attention spans and their ability to sit still at the table, making mealtimes less enjoyable.

Meals are a social time for kids too. Actually sitting down and eating a meal with them is a wonderful chance to connect and talk about their day.

Having an evening routine is also one of the best ways of getting children into bed at a reasonable time with a minimum of fuss, which increases family harmony: if kids sleep well, they’re more likely to eat well; if kids are well rested and eat well, they’re more likely to behave considerately and cooperatively.

At bedtime, the routine is important (dinner, wash, bed, books). What time these happen and how long they take is less important. The concept of time, which is abstract, is not relevant to kids until they are 8+ but the sequence of events is learnt early.

Julie Holden, mum of two

While our evening routine won’t suit all families (because everyone has different after-school and work commitments), table 1.2 (overleaf) is included as an example of the way an evening routine can work. This was our routine when our youngest child was still a baby.

Table 1.2: evening routine

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Tip: Getting kids into bed calmly

Aim for consistent times. Starting the bedtime routine at a similar time each night means the kids get to know when they’re expected to be in bed. This familiarity makes bedtime easier to manage as children don’t have an expectation that they can stay up until they feel like going to bed.

Have winding-down signals. The steps in a bedtime routine act as signals to the kids that it’s time to slow down and prepare for going to bed. Repeating the same steps each night is important so the kids can tune in to the signals. It’s difficult to get children to fall asleep instantly without any time to wind down and relax.

Read a story. I’ve found this to be a very enjoyable part of the bedtime routine for our family. Days can be very busy and it’s easy for them to pass by without making time to read a story. Having this as part of our bedtime routine ensures we do read a story together every day and gives the kids a chance to relax before going to sleep.

Create a calm atmosphere. When the bedtime routine begins, it’s a good idea to turn off distractions such as the TV, computers and loud music. This brings a level of quiet to the house, which is calming for young children.

Prepare the bedrooms. Plan for bedrooms to be tidy before story time. This is not the time to start tidying bedrooms or making beds; this is the final wind-down stage of the day, so don’t create a whirlwind of activity.

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