Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs a skill set to filter distractions, prioritise tasks, remember rules and goals, and control impulses. We call these capabilities executive functioning and self-regulation skills (1). And these skills are crucial for learning and development.
Do you know those learners who set goals for their learning and then attempt to monitor, regulate, and control their cognition, motivation, and behaviour, and it seems like learning is super easy for them? Those children have strong self-regulation skills. Wouldn't we all love to help our children develop these skills?
In this article:
Did you know that in one day, teachers make more decisions affecting the lives of others than chief executives make in a month or a year? (2)
The only way they can do that is to manage by routine.
Consistent and predictable routines help with activities in the family and school run smoothly. Even though life, teaching and learning can't be automatised, establishing routines can make your life a bit easier and save valuable time. Some of those could include brushing teeth after breakfast, preparing clothes and school bags before going to bed, and taking lunch boxes out of school bags after coming home from school.
Routines let children know what we expect of them; they feel secure and are more likely to do what they are supposed to do. We can only assume that children understand what we want them to do and how we want them to behave once we've taught them the desired behaviour (2).
Executive Functions and Self-Regulation
Now, you might wonder what routines have to do with these executive functions and self-regulation. Well, without routines, life can be pretty hectic. You know the scenario - parents going crazy because the child forgot to do the homework (again), the kid refusing to go to bed because, the night before, they could stay up late, siblings fighting about cleaning the room because they don't know whose turn is it and nobody wants to do it... All that chaos, unpredictable situations, and environments active so-called "fight or flight" responses. And if those responses are repeatedly or excessively activated, it becomes difficult to engage executive function skills.
- Fewer routines - more stress - fewer options for developing executive function skills
As we all know, life is never perfectly organised, and children have to learn how to deal with stress. But they need to experience manageable amounts of stress in the presence of supportive adults to develop a healthy stress response system. For example, not being able to climb on a swing or to put two pieces of Legos together is the kind of stress appropriate for our little humans.
So, how can parents introduce and practise routines with kids?
Tip for Parents - Daily Planners
Here are a few steps to a daily routine for your family:
1) Brainstorm and write down (or print out pictures) what a typical day looks like for your family - the time the children wake up and go to bed, activities they (should) do in the morning, before bedtime.
2) Choose the routines you'd like to work on. But keep it simple. A list that includes too many everyday activities might be overwhelming even for grown-ups, let alone children.
3) Display the routine plan where the child can see it. Bedtime routine (putting away toys, putting on pyjamas, reading a book) can be on a wall in the kid's room. Daily routines for afternoon activities (going for a walk, preparing a snack, playing with building blocks) can be displayed in the living room. Learning and doing homework after school can find their place on a desk in the kid's room.
Keep in mind that making posters or writing routine lists and displaying them around is not enough for kids to get the idea of planning or develop self-regulation skills. You have to practise with them, go through the lists regularly, and allow your child to demonstrate that they know and understand the routine. For example, suppose there is a poster or a list of school-related activities.
It could be organised as follows:
- short revision
- 15-minute break
- maths homework
- 15-minute break
- chemistry homework
- pencil case
In this case, it is less likely that the child will forget to sharpen their pencils or do homework. And, if they follow their routine list, they need less and less guidance from their parents.
The results are even better when kids make their own lists. This is how they get a step closer to self-regulation.
Finally, if you think your self-regulation and planning skills need improvement, there is some good news - it's never too late to improve these skills. Even after our mid-20s, we can still learn new skills and strengthen others (1). These efforts are, however, greater if the foundation is weak. So, get your calendar, set plans and start working on a more organised version of yourself.
Establishing routines is one possible way to facilitate the development of a child's executive function and self-regulation skills. However, it's not the whole recipe, just one of the ingredients. There are also choices, active participation, personalisation, questioning, setting goals and many others.
Suggested reading on the topic:
(1) Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2017). Three Principles to Improve Outcomes for Children and Families.
(2) Shalaway, L. (1998). Learning to Teach – Not Just for Beginners: The Essential Guide for all. Scholastic Inc.