Reassuring Routines and Rituals

From infancy on, children count on rituals and routines to offer comfort and security.

By Carla Poole, Susan Miller, Ed.D, and Ellen Booth Church

Ages 0 to 2: Cries and Cuddles

In almost no time at all babies discover — and embrace — their first routine. When an infant cries with persistent, rhythmic wails, her caregiver gently picks her up, saying "Oh, you're so hungry!" The baby quiets as she latches onto the bottle's nipple and eagerly sucks. In just a few weeks she's learned her first routine — she feels hungry, she cries, and wonderful, warm food is offered while she's cradled in gentle arms.

Babies feel secure and confident within the loving framework of caregiving rituals. The world is a responsive, predictable place, and life is good!

Follow the Leader

Each newborn develops her own special daily rhythms and patterns for eating, sleeping, and alert wakefulness. Some babies leisurely suck and take short catnaps during an extended feeding. Others quickly digest a generous feeding and then fall into a deep sleep. Routines develop naturally when we follow the baby's lead.

By 6 months, most babies begin to develop a more predictable schedule for sleeping, feeding, and playing. Caregivers can help a baby solidify his patterns by offering some simple routines. Some babies, for example, love bath time. After the excitement of laughing and splashing in the water, they're ready for food and a nap. With a bath at the same time each day, they'll begin to learn to regulate themselves.

Dealing With Delays

Daily rituals are very important as toddlers become more independent and struggle to manage their strong impulses. Tommy, an energetic 20-month-old toddler, wants to go outside and play as soon as he wakes up from a nap. "Side! Side!" he yells, pointing to the outdoor play space. Since the caregiver always offers a quiet indoor playtime right after nap, Tommy gradually learns to wait a short while before he can play outdoors. The routine helps him tolerate some frustration — an important learning task for toddlers.

Routine Reassurance

Rituals help toddlers adjust to new situations — and are especially helpful during the transition into a new child-care setting. Daily routines also help toddlers say good-bye to parents, and to feel safe and secure within a nurturing network of family members and caregivers.

Always reading the same book together in the same cozy corner of the toddler room, for example, helps Julia prepare for the painful separation from her mom. This predictable, intimate time with Mommy gives Julia the courage to let her mom leave.

Of course, no one schedule is right for every child or group of children. It takes time for toddlers to adjust to any routine. After months of gentle reminders, a 2-year-old may suddenly remember to throw away her paper juice cup after snack. She feels so proud, and her caregivers do too!

What You Can Do

Caregiving routines help young children adapt to your program and can strengthen the bond between caregiver and infant. Here are some ways to incorporate routines into your day:

Create routines for difficult transitions or activities. Sharing a soothing storybook or quiet song before nap time helps babies ease into sleep. Playing peekaboo and singing nursery rhymes makes diaper changes more fun — and helps a busy toddler learn to cooperate.

Encourage family members to develop their own rituals for drop-off and pickup time. Children might bring a toy from home, such as a beloved teddy bear, to give a kiss good-bye to. Other children enjoy putting their parent's picture in their cubbies or developing a special way to wave good-bye.

Build transitions around children's natural habits. If children like to run around when they arrive in the morning, rearrange your routine to start off with outdoor play.

Quick Take/Principal Points

  • A baby's first routine involves what to do when she's hungry.
  • As babies begin to develop more predictable schedules at around 6 months, offering simple routines can help them solidify their patterns.
  • Dependable routines help toddlers control their impulses and tolerate frustration.
  • Rituals help toddlers adjust to new situations and are especially helpful during the transition into a new early childhood setting.

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Ages 3 to 4: "I know what's next!"

Routines become very important to 3-year-olds. Little rituals help them focus on the various parts of the day, providing closure for one activity and preparing them to move on to the next. During their special morning routine, for example, a child might put a puzzle together with her mom and then give her two hugs, and their special handshake to say good-bye. These beloved rituals help to reassure children that not only will their parents return but that their caregiver is close at hand with loving support.

Gentle Guidance

Routines are not only comforting for threes, they also serve as cues to what is expected of them. Hearing the familiar words of the "Hello Song" each morning tells the children that they should join their friends for group time. Soon they learn to predict that when storytelling time is over they'll be able to choose a favorite area of the room to play in.

Routine transitions and rituals help 3-year-olds feel a sense of control over their environment. Knowing what will happen next and what is expected of them, they're better able to participate and to act independently.

Planning Ahead

Fours also respond to a sense of continuity and the ability to count on what's going to happen next. Participating in regular rituals helps them gain a sense of order — and 4-year-olds easily fall into routines. They welcome putting their name cards under the "in" column on the attendance chart when they arrive because they like seeing their names in print and because it's a meaningful way of marking the transition from home to school.

Routines also help fours to plan ahead and think about what they'll do next in the art area, or what to play with when they go outdoors. If the regular schedule is unexpectedly changed, they can become quite indignant, emphatically informing the teacher that outdoor play always comes after snack!

What You Can Do

Rituals and smooth transitions help preschoolers focus on what they're doing. Provide a comforting and reassuring environment for children by setting up dependable routines.

Create a morning greeting ritual. Developing a unique way to welcome each child helps them feel special — and also sends a reassuring sign that each day will follow the same routine as the day before.

Involve parents in separation rituals. Provide simple activities for parents and children to do together before they say their good-byes. For example, they can look at what the child will do that day, read a favorite book together, or select a book to take home overnight.

Plan the day together. Talk with children about what is going to happen each morning so that everyone has clear expectations about the routines and transitions.

Simplify difficult transitions with fun rituals. A choo-choo train of children can quickly transport the group outside to the playground. A special song can signal that cleanup time is fast approaching. A fun fingerplay, such as "I Have 10 Little Fingers," can let everyone know that it's time to get ready for snack.

Create rituals that reflect the children's individual learning styles. Give auditory signals (singing a song), visual cues (blinking lights), and tactile warnings (a touch on the shoulder) when it's time to clean up.

Quick Take/Principal Points

  • Routines help 3-year-olds focus on what they're doing, finish the activity, and then prepare for the next.
  • Threes know what's expected of them as they experience familiar rituals and remember what happens next.
  • Routine transitions and rituals help preschoolers feel in control of the environment. Knowing what's expected enables them to act independently.
  • Participating in regular rituals helps fours gain a sense of order and learn to plan ahead.

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Ages 5 to 6: "I can do that!"

It's the beginning of kindergarten and Brianna is lingering outside the classroom door. She peers inside, interested in the goings-on of the class but hesitatant to take the first step. The teacher gives her a warm welcome and invites her to "sign in." Brianna bravely steps over the threshold and into the comfort of the daily routine.

The unfamiliar look of a new classroom can make even the most mature and experienced 5-year-old feel a bit insecure. Children who've conquered separation issues in preschool may experience similar feelings this year. Larger class size, new children, even riding the bus can cause an increased need for comfort and security.

Routines and rituals give 5- and 6-year-olds the safety they need to feel secure. A predictable schedule mixed with fun and repetitive activities helps children enter and embrace this new land called kindergarten.

A Strong Foundation

Five- and 6-year-olds can learn new routines and move through separation issues quickly. A familiarity with some type of school program is helpful but not essential. Their keenly developed cognitive skills — coupled with a stronger sense of self — help kindergartners not only master routines but also understand their purpose.

Routines offer children support and reinforcement but should be flexible enough to allow for plenty of freedom. From the solid base of familiar activities that take place at predictable times, 5- and 6-year-olds can begin to adapt to changes in schedules and activities.

Great Expectations

At this developmental stage, children have a strong need to know what is expected of them. Although they may demonstrate a great need and desire for independence, they first want to know what they're supposed to do. Emotional outbursts during transitions are greatly reduced when children know what you expect of them.

What You Can Do

Kindergartners feel more comfortable about the day if they know what's ahead. Develop rituals that help children know what's expected of them — and involve them in these routines as much as possible.

Create a morning sign-in or attendance chart activity. This gives children a means to declare themselves a part of the group.

Make a daily schedule chart with picture cards that can be arranged or rearranged. Children can help you take photos or draw pictures of the main events of the day: group meeting, learning centers, outdoor play, and so on. Create cards for these parts of the day, as well as ones depicting special events such as library, gym, and so on. Hang them in a prominent place and invite children to review the upcoming activities each day.

Develop routines that encourage creativity. You can engage children's creative minds while stating clear behavioral objectives. When directing children to transition from group time to learning centers, for example, invite them to pretend that the floor is covered with fresh eggs and that they have to get from one place to the other without cracking any!

Invite children to create their own routines. As you begin seeing a more cohesive group, you can work together to develop new rituals.

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Quick Take/Principal Points

  • Routines and rituals give 5- and 6-year-olds the safety they need to make the transition to kindergarten.
  • Their cognitive skills and sense of self enable kindergartners to understand the purpose of routines as well as master them.
  •  Routines offer 5- and 6-year-olds the support and reinforcement they need to adapt to changes.
  • Kindergartners have a strong need for independence — but first they want to know what they're supposed to do.

What to Expect Next

  • Seven- and 8-year-olds have much less need for routines and rituals. They can quickly adapt to changes with little confusion or stress.
  • Whereas some children do well with a daily schedule, others often need the flexibility to work at their own pace and in their own style.
  •  Sevens and eights are accustomed to the school's social milieu and are becoming more comfortable with their individuality within a large group.
  •  Seven- and 8-year-olds create their own rituals with friends rather than relying on the program's routines for support.

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Carla Poole is an advisor in the infant-parent development program at Bank Street College of Education in New York, and a child development specialist at Bellevue Hospital.

Susan A. Miller, Ed.D., a veteran teacher and director, is a professor of early childhood education at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, and author of the Problem Solving Safari series of teaching guides.

Ellen Booth Church
is an early childhood consultant for the New York State Department of Education and for programs across the country.

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