What follows are some suggestions for developing a daily structure. Many times parents will say their lifestyle is simply too hectic for them to think about schedules. Certainly there may be some amount of uncertainty or variability in every family’s life. Families, after all, are not automated assembly lines. But days usually have some measure of natural structure. There are usually a beginning and an end point. There are usually meals spaced at intervals throughout the day. These create natural time blocks. In addition, parents can develop routines to cope with fixed events such as bedtime as well as with more flexible periods such as free-play times. Not every schedule has to be carved in stone. But if there is some flexibility in your daily schedule, it is wise to think about some way of coping with uncertainty and transitions.
As you work to structure your child’s day, here are some steps you might employ:
1. Divide the day into time blocks. You may use the natural structure of the day, taking meals, school, nap time, time with the sitter, and bedtime as your time markers. For most children, this is usually the most effective route. The day usually has five or more time blocks.
There is a morning routine that lasts until after breakfast. Next may come a large block in which children are away at day-care or school. If you are at home with your very young child, you may have a morning time block, a lunch time block, and one or two blocks of time in the afternoon depending on naps. For most families there is a special late- afternoon block which includes that awful time when everyone comes home and drums their Hngers until dinner is ready. You may want to include dinner as a separate time block, especially if this is a difficult time for the family. Then there is usually some type of after-dinner block and, finally, a bedtime routine. With very difficult children you may want to subdivide time blocks into smaller units. I have known some parents who have gone on an hourly schedule not only to structure their children but also for their own emotional well-being.
2. Consider which units are fixed and which are flexible. Some of these time blocks have a very stable, fixed routine. On most weekday mornings, for example, family members get up in a certain order. Some parents bring the baby to bed with them for a morning bottle. There is usually a pecking order for using the bathroom. There is usually some order for washing, dressing, and eating breakfast.
Other time periods are less structured. These would include free- play periods. Some children need very little structure for these, while other, more difficult children may need considerable supervision. Often these are the time periods in which many of the family chore activities get carried out. Laundry, shopping, and other errands can take place during these flexible time periods.
3. Develop routines to help you get through the fixed units of the day. Routines are fairly stable sequences of activities in any one time block. As you evaluate your day, you may find your life is a lot more routinized than you had thought. That is fine. But in families in which confusion reigns during stressful times, such as the morning, some orderly routine may go a long way toward solving the problem.
4. Develop some control over the flexible units. During free-play periods, you may want to narrow the range of choices. For example, you might tell your child he may play either in the backyard or in his room. The child may watch TV for half an hour before his morning snack and then go outside. As you look over your own chores, you may find certain ones fit better into some time slots than others, and that shopping works out better on some days of the week and laundry better on others.
5. Identify the important transitions between time blocks. Transitions are a major source of behavior problems in every family. Children have difficulty getting up in the morning and then getting off to school. They have trouble coming home in the late afternoon and settling down to do their homework. Often there are difficulties when they come in from play to get ready for dinner. Children are notorious for having difficulty settling down to go to sleep at night. Many are able to make it easily through some transitions but not others. Some children have no difficulty with the morning routine but have trouble in the afternoon settling down to do homework. Other children have difficulty coming in from play or settling down at night. It is very helpful to identify specific problem points so you can begin to work on them.
6. Consider different schedules for different days. In every family there are bound to be variations from day to day. Children go to day-care some days but not others. Some parents have unusual work shifts in which they work mornings on some days and afternoons on others. Older children are involved in extracurricular activities such as sports, clubs, band, etc.
There are also daily variations which create special problems. In divorced families children often have to move from one home to the other. This type of schedule difference is of great importance because children often have difficulty with the transition. It is not uncommon for one parent to complain that their child has temper tantrums every time a visitation with the other parent is scheduled. They also note that when the child returns from a visit, a similar tantrum occurs. These, for the most part, are fairly natural responses and are not usually indicators of psychopathology. The transition from one home to another is extremely difficult for most children, even well-adjusted older children. Identifying these schedule variations allows you to focus on a specific problem and solve it.
7. Work out schedules for “easy days” and “hard days.” Every parent has those mornings like the one described in the earlier example. He is irritable and crabby and wants to be carried everywhere; she is glowering and all of her clothes feel funny. Not every day is going to be an “Ozzie and Harriet day: some days will be straight out of “The Twilight Zone.” Consider scheduling your day differently depending on the tone and the mood. You may want to break hard days down into smaller units. This will afford you greater control and the added structure might help the children settle. On easy days, you can relax the structure, allow for more free time and a greater range of choice in their activities.
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