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How raising kids within routines boosts social and emotional health

Published: Monday, March 17 2014 7:30 p.m. MDT

The Bearce family at Prospect Park in Brooklyn, N.Y. From left, Megan, Katherine, Austin and Ian. Megan Bearce says routine is vital to her family.

Dean Carpentier, 2012

Somewhere along the road that took Diane Laney Fitzpatrick's family to nine different homes, in places from New Jersey to San Francisco, she realized simple routines helped her children adjust to the changes.

So she made sure Michael, Jack and Caroline had constants in their lives while she taught them to be flexible and to love exploring the new towns they were lucky enough to land in as their dad, Tim, pursued his career. When they left soccer practices and music lessons behind in one town, they signed up for them again first thing in their new community.

They always had dinner as a family, although it was sometimes quite late when they sat down to eat because of busy schedules.

"I'm not proud of that, but I am proud to say that we did sit down and have dinner together," Fitzpatrick said.

Among other things, Megan Bearce established a routine to conquer a bothersome and common occurrence: Katherine and Austin, 6 and 5, were always searching for socks. She moved them to a basket by the door so they could easily grab a pair when they were going somewhere.

"I don't have to get worked up, they don't have to get worked up," said Bearce, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Minneapolis who authored a book on commuting couples — yet another reason families need routines. While she doesn't worry about sticking to a tight schedule, she values consistency, she said, and tells clients that if they're picking a place to introduce routines, which are important, bedtime is a great choice.

Experts say routines give kids a sense of security and belonging by providing structure and stability. Research also points to ways routines help children feel competent and confident.

Socially, emotionally strong

A study just published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics shows that certain routines also enhance the social and emotional health of young children. Children who sing, play, read, tell stories and have dinner with their families are twice as likely to have good social-emotional health (SEH), and for every routine a parent and child do together, the social-emotional benefit grows.

The measure of SEH used by researchers from The Children's Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University is based on a child's ability to understand emotions, empathize, show self-control and form positive relationships, both with other kids and with adults.

The researchers found that kids with high SEH — clearly boosted by routines — adapt better to school, whereas children who begin school with low SEH "are at greater risk of developing difficulties in reasoning and problem solving, as well as having reduced attention spans and experiencing decreased social acceptance. This can impact their academic achievement and overall health and well-being through adulthood."

"I think one of the key points is that children really like regular and predictable activities where people are interactive with them," said Dr. Ruth E. K. Stein, study co-author and an attending physician at The Children's Hospital at Montefiore in New York City. "The more of that experience they have in their early years, the more they really learn about human interaction and adjusting to the emotional state of the people around them. That's a very important part of their long-term success."

Routines change as children grow, she noted. During storytelling and reading routines, for instance, older children can understand and tell more complicated stories.

The researchers chose not to focus on certain routines, such as helping a child with bathing.

"Children who need more help may get more help," Stein said. "We tried to look at things that were culturally neutral as much as possible and would not be so dependent on whether a child was progressing at a typical rate."

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