Routines and boundaries


Most of us follow routines in our daily lives. They help us to make sense of the day, to keep anxieties at bay, to create good habits and stop habits that are bad for our health and wellbeing.

The same applies to children of all ages. Routines are much more powerful than just being the daily tasks that help you organize your day. Mealtimes, shopping, getting ready for bed - all create relationships and repetition to help children develop self-confidence, curiosity, social skills, self-control, communication skills, and more.

Your child can learn and respond to positive communication at any age. If you have been successful in the toddler years then you may know all about the benefit of routines and boundaries. But if everything is still a battle, don’t despair. You can reduce unwanted behaviours by making some simple changes.

Routines for children: why they're important

Children thrive on routines. There is so much that is new in your child’s world every day that making things predictable is comforting for them.

Children eating in pre-school

Knowing what to expect reassures your child and this gives them confidence to carry out tasks independently.

You could create a visual timetable with your child to show what comes next. You can buy “routine cards” but you can also make them by:

  • Printing simple pictures from the internet
  • Cutting out pictures from magazines or catalogues
  • Photographing and printing each activity with your child

You can find lots of ideas for routine boards on Pinterest or YouTube.

Boundary techniques

1. Positive language

Try to use positive language – tell your child what to do, rather than what not to do. For example, say “please walk” instead of “don’t run”. Or if your child is being very loud, try telling them to use their “inside voice” and then they can use their “outside” voice when they are in the garden or on a walk.

Communicate what you want them to do clearly. “It’s time to put on your coat now” is much clearer than “should we get our coats on now?”

The first is clear about what you want, the second is a question which could be mistaken as a choice.

2. Two great choices

The concept of 'two great choices' works well for many children. Rather than allowing your child to choose not to do the next activity, if you give them choices it can still lead to them the desired effect, whilst giving your child control over the situation.

For example, if you need to go out, you may need to get your child into their car seat. You can’t give the choice of not being strapped in, but you can still give them choices. Ask if they want to take a book or listen to an audio story in the car. This gives choices so they have a sense of control.

3. Distraction

Distracting your child when they are doing something you would rather they didn’t can be very effective.

If your child is throwing their porridge on the floor, try to distract them instead of getting annoyed with them. Try saying something like, “Ooh I can see a smiley face in your porridge, what do you think he is saying?” or “Wow, what is that bird doing outside the window?”.

Remember, your words take longer to sink in for young children. They can’t always react instantly. Counting to a given number or gently singing a known rhyme gives them time to think about and act on your request or directions.

Your child may have a hard time moving from one task to another, especially during morning and bedtime routines. Bedtime involves separation from you so the longer they can postpone it the better. This can be emotionally challenging for both you and your child.

Try to understand how your child is feeling. Using books and stories can help your child understand different situations. See what your library has available. Some suggestions are: 

  • How are you feeling today? by Molly Potter
  • The Everybody Feels collection 4 book set (Angry, Happy, Sad, Scared) by Moira Butterfield

4. Sympathise

Keep your guidance simple and consistent. If your child is behaving in a way you don’t want them to, clearly explain what you want them to do instead.

Sympathise with how your child may be feeling – for example, saying “I know you are cross”, when your child can’t have what they want. Showing you understand your child’s feelings can really help, and then you can move on to suggest some coping strategies.

You can share your own feelings if you find it helps to relieve your stress – for example, “I know you’re tired, but I’m tired too”. 

Young girl cutting up paper

Try to avoid using ultimatums. It’s no good saying, “If you don’t put your toys away, we won’t go to granny’s house” if you have made plans and will be going there anyway. It is important that your child trusts what you say so they can begin to understand consequences.

It is ok to try lots of different ways before you find a method that works well for your family. You know your child best. Some helpful ideas are:

  • Praise children, even for the little things they do
  • Talk to your child about the rewards and consequences of their behaviour, and do it before rather than after the event
  • Encourage positive behaviour. Rather than a reward (e.g. stickers) try to offer an extra activity, one more story at bedtime
  • Avoid making rash decisions when you’re angry
  • Be a role model and don’t do things that you wouldn’t want your child to do
  • Encourage consistency within the family. It’s no good saying only water with lunch if your partner then gives your child juice

5. Visual cues

Children respond to visual cues as much as verbal ones. Try not to shout, but do have a serious face when asking your child not to throw their bricks across the kitchen. If you say it too nicely, you will send out mixed messages.

If possible, get down to your child’s level and use a firm voice: “Please don’t throw your bricks. You might break the window/hurt your little sister.”

Or you can try an alternative: “If you can wait until I have finished washing up, we can go outside and throw a ball”. Sometimes you will need to remove the offending articles. Explain your actions and give options for returning them.

Ask yourself questions

Pick your battles! Before saying “stop!” or “no!”, ask yourself why. Is it unsafe? Will it really involve a lot more work for you? Does it matter if the playdough colours all get mixed up?

Boundaries work far better if they are made and agreed by everyone. When children understand why you make decisions, or if they know you've taken their opinions into account, they are more likely to co-operate. This is, however, easier said than done!

Attention and smacking

Children want attention. Any attention, even negative attention is still better than no attention. Set aside time each day for proper face-to-face attention and play so they don’t feel they’re coming second to your other priorities.

Smacking is never a good idea. Ideas on bringing up children have changed, and we now know a lot more about the negative effects of smacking. The NSPCC has lots of good information about this and other topics.

Further resources

Is your child’s frustration spilling out as aggressive behaviour? Family Lives has some good advice to help.

MindEd for Families have produced a helpful, easy read guide to everyday parenting.

Family Lives


Nursery World 

Five to Thrive - The building blocks of brain development.

Last updated on 30 August 2023