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The Magic of Routines

· Executive Function

During adolescence we have three developmental goals:

  1. autonomy;
  2. social connections with our peers; and 
  3. a sense competence and mastery of skills.

Thwarting these goals has significant consequences. How do you avoid the creation of an imbalance or delayed development of these necessary goal areas when your child reaches adolescence? One answer: routines.

Your daily living routines are so habituated and automatic that you do not even consider them, they are simply the ins and out of your life. This was not always the case - you had to be taught to brush your teeth before bed and that teaching needed to be enforced one step at a time. At one point you did not know how to make coffee - now you do so without the slightest consideration of the steps involved. As you entered a new job, you had not yet developed a routine for your workflow and productivity, but you developed one and now go through a large part of your day on autopilot. You have reached a level of mastery in these skills and routines which has allowed you to make room for new skills, tasks, or puzzles and have allowed you to continue to grow intellectually, professionally, and most significantly, as a parent.

As humans, we avoid things that are effortful and mundane. Most of the steps we take to prepare for our day, prepare our kids for their day, keep a house in order or keep up with record keeping at home or in the workplace, we do not because they fulfill an inner passion, inspire us, or tap into our creative and intellectual minds; we do them because the consequences of not doing them are grave. That’s only part of the deal, however, we also do them because they are no longer effortful.

We developed routines and automatized those routines so that we are able to complete laundry while also planning out tomorrow’s meals and brainstorming what our next project will be at work. Imagine if you were unable to think about anything other than each step that went into packing lunch, making a bed, or getting dressed.

The mental effort needed to complete mundane tasks when they are not yet automatic is excruciating and not at all sustainable.

Why is it so hard to form new habits? We are asking ourselves to lend a great deal of our brain power to simple steps that are not yet automatic. They are boring. They are tedious. This is exhausting.

A child, preteen or teenager asked to engage in a task that is seemingly simple, but not yet automatic is being set up for failure. This failure looks like non compliance, it looks a lot like defiance and an affront to your parental authority. It looks a lot like they are doing it (or in this case, not doing it) on purpose.

This is not the case - you are misinterpreting their intentions.

Change the perspective and put yourself in their shoes: pretend you have just been asked to set the table for dinner.

While you have seen your dad set the table many times, you have never done this on your own. Think about all of the steps: first I’ll need to clear off the table of my homework and the mail… where does that stuff go? I’ll need to ask. Then I’ll need to wipe down the table. What do they use to wipe the table? I have to ask. Then I’ll need to think about how many people are eating dinner, get that number of plates, put the plates on the table, get forks and knives and napkins. How do I put the napkin to make it look how mom does? I don’t know, I’ll just put it here like this. Where do these forks and knives go? I think this is it. What else? This doesn’t really look right, but I’m not sure. I’m tired.

"I’m going to watch Youtube."

Depending on age and executive functioning capacity, your child may not have gone that far in the table setting scenario. They may not have even started if they were unable to conjure up a mental picture of what a set table looks like when it’s finished, therefore not being able to find the first step. Depending on their emotional coping skills they may have reacted to this request by yelling, by having a meltdown, by slyly escaping to a bedroom without a word, by asking for help, by saying they would do it in a minute (and that minute is really never), or perhaps by staring blankly at the table until someone came to their rescue (someone who was annoyed and impatient because they should be able to do this by themselves and now they feel ashamed at their lack of ability).

How could the parent have set up this task for success?

Quick answer: they could have taught the routine.

If your answer as a parent was: “I will just do it for them.” Stop. Go back to the first paragraph- reread: autonomy, social connections with our peers, and a sense of competence and mastery of skills. Thwarted development in any of these areas may give you a set table in time for dinner just the way you like it, but it also gives you an unbalanced child or teen. Instead, provide them the balance they need and develop routines.

Developing Routines

Appropriate places to implement routines:

  • Before school (getting dressed, hygiene, packing a lunch, preparing belongings for the school day and after school activities, reviewing the family schedule to know what to expect after school).
  • After school (Where do I put my backpack? My soccer equipment? How and when do I start my homework and what do I do with it when I’m done?).
  • Dinner (preparing food, setting the table, cleaning the table, dishes).
  • After dinner (screen time, weekly family meeting, preparing belongings for the following day, reviewing the calendar for the following day).
  • Before bed (getting clothes selected, hygiene).
  • Any and all chores.


  1. Pick an area to build a routine. 
  2. Decide what your expectations are for the end result (e.g. what the end result of this task or activity should look like).
  3. Write down all of the steps as you would like to see them performed.
  4. Perform the steps with your child as you have written them down, repeat this 3-4 times, or until you feel they can begin to manage on their own.
  5. Fade your model: 
    1. Perform the first few steps with your child observing and with them telling you what to do next (teaching you), then have your child do the last few on their own with your support only as needed (e.g. if your routine has five steps, complete the first three through modeling and then have your child perform the last two on their own).
    2.  Continue this process until your child is able to do all of the steps on their own. 
For some children this will happen quickly, others will need additional guidance and support. Everyone is different, so please plan according to the needs of your child.


In some instances, in order for a routine to be executed with independence (i.e. you should not have to continually prompt the beginning of the routine once it is learned in its entirety), most routines are best paired with existing habits or previously established routines.

What this means: adding a new habit to an already developed habit increases the likelihood that the new habit will take hold.

  • Routines for homework time after school should begin as your child walks in the house. Since they will always walk in the house when they arrive home, entering the home is their cue to begin the routine.
  • Routines for a new chore should begin at the close of a naturally occurring activity (e.g., the routine for cleaning dishes should begin as soon as dinner ends).

Avoid External Incentives

While mundane tasks do often need an extra incentive, be warned that you are walking a slippery slope as soon as you offer privileges for the completion of daily routines. Save your incentives for when they are really needed and link daily routines to internal motivators, such as belonging to the family, playing an essential role in the functioning of your home, being a part of the family team - where everyone has an essential role to play.

Additionally, internal motivators can be used to drive routines by modeling self talk for your child regarding their development into independence, being grown up, being responsible and mature. Providing your child with a sense of purpose while also ensuring mastery through the correct development of an expected routine will allow for the routine to take hold quicker and continue to be automatized until it is out of your hands and simply a part of their daily life, free from your interference.

The earlier routines can be developed the better. If you are able to begin teaching routines for homework time, chores, bedtime and before school prior to the age of six, you will see profound effects in not only the level of independence, but in the overall self determination that your child is able to employ as they complete elementary school and move into their adolescence. If your child is currently a teen and you have yet to establish routines, there is still time, however, routine development may need to have a stronger link to privileges of independence in order for them to take hold (i.e. homework time is completed using these steps, chores are done in this manner, etc. and when you’re finished you may: have the car, go out with friends, or take your cell phone to your room).

For more on routines visit: Why Kids Needs Need Routines

Questions on developing routines? Shoot us an email, we’re always happy to connect, answer your questions, and support you in your quest for a more balanced child or teen.

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