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Build Routines Early, Build Skills for the Future

Research suggests link between family routines, time management, and attention.

“Mama! We forgot favorite parts of the day!”— In our home, bedtime routine includes a series of steps: brush teeth, bath, pajamas, books, and bed. During a back rub to help our little guy fall asleep, we talk quietly about our favorite parts of the day. As most parents can relate, my four-year-old will notice when I skip a part of our bedtime routine because I’m tired or distracted or (full disclosure) trying to rush through Acts I and II of bedtime to get to the finale—sleep! As a parent and as a psychologist, I know both how important it is (and how hard it can be) to maintain a routine.

Photospin
Source: Photospin

It isn’t breaking news that children seem to thrive on routine. Knowing what to expect day-to-day seems to provide children with a sense of predictability and security. But why are routines so important and what benefit might they have? At the University at Albany, we are exploring the relationship between the stability of the family environment and adjustment in children, adolescents and emerging adults. Our research, which was originated by UAlbany Professor Emeritus Allen Israel, suggests consistency and predictability of family routines, such as meal or bedtime routines, spending time with extended family or friends, or participating in extracurricular activities, are associated with a wide range of outcomes—from fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety and fewer behavioral problems, to better self-control and health behaviors, like sleep quality and habits.

I am particularly interested in how aspects of family stability may be related to the development of self-regulation, or our ability to monitor and control our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors and alter them to meet our individual goals and respond to life’s demands. In a collaborative study recently published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, we explored the relationship between family routines, attention problems, and time management (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0193397316301241). We asked 292 undergraduate students, including 157 women and 135 men, to rate the level of regularity in which a variety of activities and routines occurred during their childhood and adolescence, as well as to report on their current time management skills and attention problems. We found that a more stable family environment is associated with better time management and, in turn, with fewer attention problems in emerging adulthood.

So, what does this mean? While certainly preliminary and correlational in nature, our study contributes to the understanding that regularity in daily routines may promote skills important for self-regulation—in particular, time management—and that these skills may help to reduce attention problems in adulthood. As we continue to build on research highlighting the importance of predictability and consistency in daily routines, it is important to recognize the complexity of child development and the multiple influences that affect a child’s developmental trajectory and impact the family environment.

Importantly, like any parenting behavior, there are individual differences in the ways in which families achieve stability—while one family may create stability by having regular meal- and bedtime routines, another may attend soccer league on Saturdays and have dinner at Grandma’s every Sunday. Maintaining stability also requires flexibility and responsiveness to developmental stage and family demands, and families may create stability differently over time. As my son often reminds me, children like stable routines when they are young, and they very well may benefit from them long after you’re no longer putting them to bed every night.

References

Malatras, J.W., Israel, A.C., Sokolowski, K.L., & Ryan, J. (2016). First things first: Family activities and routines, time management and attention. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 47, 23-29.

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