Routines and boundaries

Pre-schoolers

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 to get rid of 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. Meal times, 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. Unwanted behaviors can be reduced by making some simple changes.

Routines

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

It gives your child reassurance when they know what to expect and this gives them confidence to carry out tasks independently.

You could create a visual timetable with your child to show what comes next. When they know what is expected they are encouraged to try things out. You can buy “routine cards” but you can also easily make them by printing simple pictures from the internet, cutting out pics from magazines or catalogues or by photographing and printing each activity with your child. Lots of ideas for Routine Boards can be found on Pinterest or Youtube.

Boundary techniques

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.

Two great choices

Using the concept of 'two great choices' works really 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.

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 all over the floor, instead of getting mad at them, try to distract them with something else 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 really help your child to understand different situations. See what your library has available. Some suggestions are:

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

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 right then. 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 girls 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 behavior. 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

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 decisions are made, 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.

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.

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

NSPCC

Nursery World