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The Power of Predictability

Predictable environments can positively affect children’s brain development.

Key points

  • Predictable routines can positively impact children's cognitive, social, and emotional development.
  • Bedtime routines, eating meals together, and weekly fun activities can support positive child development.
  • Talking to children about changes in routines can help make transitions easier.
Jimmy Dean/Unsplash
Source: Jimmy Dean/Unsplash

Imagine two children who have similar families and live in similar neighborhoods. However, one child has a stable routine in which they eat dinner with their family and go to bed around the same time each night. When they interact with their caregiver, that caregiver usually responds in predictable ways. The second child doesn’t really have a routine, and their daily schedule can be unpredictable. When they interact with their caregiver, that caregiver can sometimes respond to them in unpredictable ways.

Would we expect the difference in predictability in the children’s environment to affect their development? A growing body of research suggests that unpredictable environments in childhood can affect the developing brain and even mental health years later.

One of the reasons we think predictability is good is that it is important for setting up secure relationships with caregivers because it serves as the foundation for being able to trust that your caregiver will be there for you when you need them. Predictability also helps parts of the brain that support regulating their emotions and using caregivers to help regulate their emotions, too (Gee & Cohodes, 2021).

One of the reasons we think unpredictability in the first years of life can be particularly harmful is that brain development happens so rapidly in these years. As a result, things like unpredictability may affect the brain more while it’s developing rapidly during childhood than later in life when the brain is more fully developed.

Both children's and adults' brains love predictability. We can still get pleasure from unpredictable things like surprises, but in general, we feel safe and secure when we have predictable routines, and we find unpredictability to be highly stressful.

Here are some ways to harness the power of predictability to support your child’s development:

  1. Regular bedtime routines. Bedtime routines help prepare children’s–and adults'–brains for sleep. Having a predictable order of events that occur around the same time every day sets children up for success with sleep. Routines don’t need to be complicated: Our family bedtime routine for our toddler is dinner, bath, brushing teeth, pajamas, books, then sleep.
  2. Meals together. If possible, having a daily meal together as a family is an important part of children’s routines. Nightly dinner where the family can talk and connect over food sets the stage for building strong relationships. If dinner doesn’t work due to family schedules, any regular meal together will do.
  3. Weekly ritual. Having a fun activity that occurs regularly can help signal transitions in the week. For example, Friday pizza, movie night, or Saturday morning at the park can signal to your child that the weekdays are finished and that it’s time to transition to the weekend routine.
  4. Let your child know what is happening next. Transitions between activities are hard for kids, especially if they really like what they’re currently doing. Because children’s brains thrive on predictability, they love knowing what’s happening next. It’s helpful to verbalize the next things that will happen and make the next thing they’ll be doing exciting to make transitions easier. Having a regular routine makes transitions easier since they will be used to the next step in the routine and be excited about it.
  5. Prepare your child for changes in your routine. It is completely unreasonable to expect to always be able to follow a routine. Travel, appointments, and holidays are just some occasions when routines fall apart. It’s also good for kids to learn about flexibility in their routine and how to deal with new things that come up (with your support). Talking to kids in advance about the change and what to expect is important for helping them to manage their emotions during the change. If you can talk to them about it multiple times and get them excited about it, that's even better!

These tips should help you harness the power of predictability to support your child’s development while still allowing them to practice being flexible when needed. Hopefully, these tips provide some inspiration for developing your own family routines.


Gee, D. G., & Cohodes, E. M. (2021). Influences of caregiving on development: A sensitive period for biological embedding of predictability and safety cues. Current directions in psychological science, 30(5), 376-383.

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