In the years before I had kids, I knew I wasn’t ready to be a parent because I could barely get myself clean, fed, and out the door to work. Then I had a little kid, and “fed” took a backseat and I learned to take my granola bar to go. Now I have two young children and we are gradually building family routines that help my preschooler to be independent and keep me and my husband from tripping over each other as we try to get ready.
So how do you get your preschooler to follow a schedule or routine? It’s not an easy process but I would argue it’s much easier to teach your child to follow a routine independently now than it will be when he’s a teenager and you want him to meet you at the car for a ride to the middle school. Start now and start small so your child’s skills and confidence grow as she grows.
Decide what needs to be done
The first and most important step to getting your child to follow a routine is to be clear in your own mind (and be clear with any other adults who are in the mix) what that routine will be. If Dad has one set of rules for getting ready for bed and Mom has another, your child will end up confused and waiting for cues from the adult on duty.
Write down the routine
Decide on the key steps and write them down in child-friendly words. Use pictures where you can so your pre-reader can understand it on his own. Start with just one part of the day, either getting ready in the morning or getting ready for bed. Once your child learns to follow the list, you can add any other routines you need. My dining room wall currently has lists for morning and evening and, at my son’s request, after school.
Start your list with things your child already knows how to do. Mine was:
- Put your bowl in the sink
- Put your PJ’s in the laundry
- Put on your clothes
- Put on socks and shoes
- Get your backpack and jacket
Don’t try to teach them how to do something at the same time that you make them independently responsible for it. Teach them how to pour their own cereal with as much support as they need and add it to the checklist when they can do it independently every time (without leaving a minefield of Cheerios on your kitchen floor).
If mornings are stressful and crazy, you might want to start with your evening routine. Likewise, if one parent works late and the other can just barely get the kids fed and stuffed into their beds in time, don’t start there. Teaching your child to follow a routine more independently will take work and time and, above all, patience from the adults, so pick a routine you feel like you can give her time to learn.
Introduce the expectations
When you have a grand unveiling of the new routine checklist, make it the most exciting thing you ever hung on the wall. I put ours in plastic page protectors and started with a dry erase marker so my son could check things off as he finished them. We eventually stopped using the marker because it was one more thing to find in the morning, and because he was able to keep track of what step he was on without checking it off.
My introduction went something like this, “Hey, Goose? I have something cool to show you! I was thinking about all the things you do by yourself in the morning and I made a list. Check it out! You are doing each of these things all on your own, but I noticed you need me or Dad to remind you when it’s time to do them. So I want to try something new. Now, instead of me reminding you that it’s time to get dressed, you’re going to check your list every day after breakfast and see what you have to do. You are going to be so independent now that you’re three!”
At first, you may want to use some kind of small reward if your child finishes all the steps without prompting. We started in the fall, so we must have used small bits of Halloween candy when my son finished the list. My husband is the one who did the daycare drop-offs at that point, so I honestly don’t remember. If you do decide to give a reward, make sure you’re clear about what it takes to get it. Will your child get it for finishing all the steps? For finishing all the steps with no reminders? What if you have to say, “Go check your list” 5 times? 10 times? Start with something manageable for your child so the reward isn’t out of reach, but make sure you’re not spending all your time reminding them and having them think they are independent.
At first, getting your child to follow a checklist or routine takes longer than just talking them through the whole thing. Because now, instead of saying, “Put your bowl in the sink” and having them head for the kitchen, you have to say, “What’s next? Go check your list,” and wait while they go from the table to the wall to the table to take that bowl to the sink, then go back to the list to find out what comes next.
For a while, I had to take my super-distracted preschooler by the hand and walk him over to the list every time he got interested in a toy or a shoe or a stray piece of lint. I would turn him to face the list, point to it, and he would say, “OH! Yeah! Pants!”
Try to use as few verbal prompts as possible as your child learns this process. Remember, you are trying to replace the sound of your voice with the beautiful checklist you created. Try modeling what you want them to do (stand in front of the checklist and look pointedly at their cereal bowl), pointing to the checklist, or handing them the list to get them to read from it.
Over a few weeks, if you are consistent, your child will become more and more independent. You might find that your checklist goes through a few different drafts if your child needs extra reminders for a certain step or puts her bowl in the sink, but never her spoon.
Once your child masters this checklist, you can think about adding one for another part of the day. You can also use the same idea for jobs that aren’t daily, like taking the recycling out to the curb or picking up toys in the living room. Break it into steps, create visuals, and make it motivating. Kids are often so proud that they can do it on their own that they don’t need a reward, beyond your high five and their own sense of accomplishment.
So what can your preschooler start doing for herself? What do your children already do on their own?
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