When my son had just turned 3 years old (he’s almost 6 years old now), we had to go to Canada while I awaited approval of my spousal visa for the United Kingdom. What we thought would be a quick visit, unexpectedly turned into much longer than anyone had anticipated, with no end in sight.
On top of this, we were separated from my husband and had to live with my parents who enjoyed their own routines and hadn’t had a little person in their house for a very long time. I had no idea about any ADHD at this point, but years of teaching told me that in order for us to get through this in relatively one piece, I needed to establish some sort of routine for my son as soon as possible.
I’ve always been a person that assumed children did better with routines. My son has had some routines in his life since he was born, but in a new place, with new people and without his dad there, it was imperative to give him some security, consistency and certainty in such an uncertain time. So I set a strict routine, where even if times changed, the order of activities rarely altered over the course of our time there. It made a big difference to both of us.
Why Routines Matter
Routines are an essential component of external support systems for neurodivergent children that give a sense of security and stability in a world that is often uncertain for them outside their homes.
“I often think of routines as being something that takes away the guesswork for our kids. They know what to expect and what is expected of them.”
It allows for an environment that is predictable and familiar. I often think of routines as being something that takes away the guesswork for our kids. They know what to expect and what is expected of them.
It provides them with a structure of clear boundaries, and the rules and consequences they can expect.
This gives neurodivergent children the chance to not only take comfort in knowing what their day will be like, but also begin to develop different habits that their routine can help better incorporate into their lives as they get older.
With COVID-19 here, it’s been a big reminder to me of how important routines are for neurodivergent children. Taking time to structure their environment in a way that best supports their needs, allows them to focus on all the other tasks they have to manage.
Since many neurodivergent children struggle with executive function skills, the stress of organising, planning and prioritising can add a lot more exertion to complete tasks, while other tasks may take so much effort to attempt in the first place let alone complete.
When children know what to expect in their day, they’re able to somewhat mentally prepare for a task that is happening. This is particularly true for neurodivergent children that have obsessions, habits, or rituals they must perform everyday. Addressing these needs in a routine can help reduce anxiety and avoid meltdowns. The predictability of routines give a sense of safety, particularly when there are a lot of surprise changes happening in their lives.
With no school right now and nowhere to go, my son has needed me to create a new routine to help him adjust to the changes around him. I’m not only thinking about routines for a day, weekday or weekends but also for specific tasks depending on what he needs (for example: getting ready for bed might need a checklist to remind him of all the tasks it involves).
My son also needs a consistent routine that helps him transition from one activity to the next. This helps him manage finishing an activity he’s focused on (stimulated by!) and mentally prepare for another (which can be tricky if he’s hyper focused on an activity or has to move into an unpopular task).
I also need to think of what is actually feasible for him to do, what he needs and how he feels. It’s not been easy and we are far from perfect, especially when I have to add me being able to work from home as well.
Here are few things I keep in mind when creating routines:
Think of the emotional and tactical needs of your child:
All children are different and so are their routine needs.
Getting clear on the things that they can do and the things they actually need is key. I don’t want to do things for my son that he can do himself, but at the same time I want to give some tasks in his routine that he can slowly learn to do for himself over time. This is especially true as neurodivergent children get older. Just like any child or teen, they want some independence and freedom in how they choose to get things done. Finding the balance between things that your neurodivergent child or teen likes is key.
The routine needs to be able to do what you want it to do for your child and help in the areas that they need, not scaffold it so much that there is no room for dealing with change, error or surprises.
‘Buy-in’ is essential as children get older and especially for teens.
The emotional needs of your child will determine what kinds of things are crucial in the routine to support their wellbeing.
Making sure that it’s set up to avoid overwhelm and anxiety is key so when a child is big enough, it helps to get them involved in parts of the planning of their routine too.
‘Buy-in’ is essential as children get older and especially for teens. They need to be emotionally invested in what you’re doing and understand the why. They may have preferences for what or when something can be done or they may think of something they need that you haven’t thought of yet. Regular weekly check-ins help to assess the routine and make any changes that are necessary. It also helps address any problems right away, ensuring that everyone is on the same page with what is expected and is kept involved.
Stay consistent yet flexible:
Consistency helps develop predictability and certainty in a routine. This is the tricky part for many neurodivergent parents that struggle implementing routines for themselves.
What I’ve found is allowing yourself to be a little bit open with some parts of the routine. At my home, I have some activities that happen around the same time each day and some that happen in the same sequence. I also try to add parts of my own routine with him. For example, we do ‘movement breaks’ at the same time so I can work out too. I also keep reminding myself how much more difficult it is when my son is without a routine. He has far many more meltdowns and is generally more difficult to work with. At times he may not be so pleased with doing some tasks he needs to do, but knowing that I won’t budge because he knows he’s done the same thing every day prior makes it a lot easier for me than dealing with meltdowns.
I think that consistency helps with understanding boundaries for our neurodivergent children too. My son is learning that there is time that is just for mama and he must entertain himself in those moments with activities that are allowed at that time.
“Consistency helps develop predictability and certainty in a routine. This is the tricky part for many neurodivergent parents that struggle implementing routines for themselves.”
I don’t think that consistent routines need to have every minute of the day planned, checklists or rewards for each part of the routine. But I do think it’s so important to have a general idea of what happens each day and make sure your child does too.
Many children benefit from an overview of their day each morning at breakfast so they know what to expect.
A central calendar for them to access is also helpful to remind them of what’s happening throughout the day.
I like to implement a bit of choice activities into the day (between two different activities), some quiet time and after difficult jobs, some time for fun or free choice is always a bonus. These feel like rewards for keeping on task, plus they give us parents a bit of space to do some things that are a part of their routine too.
Prepare for any changes:
Things come up and our neurodivergent children need to be able to cope with changes to their routine. My child needs to know changes that are happening in advance. This way he can ask any questions and mentally prepare for what he needs to do.
During transitions between tasks, it’s important to give warnings and countdowns too if change is happening. This helps to reduce the difficulty neurodivergent children experience in breaking the stimulating experience, making many children upset or even aggressive. This really makes a lot of difference in reducing the amount of stress later.
For some children, it may be helpful to even state how long the activity will be, add a timer, plus give frequent reminders throughout the activity and countdowns at the end. For others, a big change in their routine may need a lot more practice and preparation beforehand, especially if you have to go somewhere they’ve not been before. If it involves something that may have additional sensory needs, you will have to prepare them for that.
Acknowledge the process and progress:
Just like for adults, new routines and habits take time for neurodivergent children to adapt to and develop. There will be plenty of times where you’re reminding your child what’s next, forgetting or refusing to complete a task. There will be times where you may watch your teen not stick to the routines you just agreed to only a few days before.
This is where the check-ins are important. It’s OK to make adjustments. What looks good on paper, may not work in practice. Even as neurodivergent parents, we know we need a routine, yet we fight them at every chance we get too. Nothing is set in stone, and things will need to be adjusted at times. This may be adjusting the amount of time needed for a task, what work is completed, or choosing a different task rather than the one planned. It may mean letting them hyperfocus on an activity at the expense of completing another one.
“Regular specific praise and positive feedback on the effort your child is putting into their routine is necessary.”
It’s OK. You can make those changes as needed. These aren’t failures on anyone’s part, but adapting to the needs of your child’s brain.
Regular specific praise and positive feedback on the effort your child is putting into their routine is necessary. In fact, the more you point out that you notice their effort, the better. They need to hear way more positive than negative feedback, and hear positive feedback at about three positive things to one negative thing.
When you remember that poor executive functioning skills make following routines a struggle, any efforts made in the right direction need to be recognised.
Additional Thoughts on ‘Homeschooling’ While Working from Home
I know that we’re using the term ‘homeschooling’ now when we talk about the fact that COVID-19 has made us all school teachers all of a sudden. Additionally, many of us are working from home or dealing with multiple children who may also have different learning needs. This is also a very stressful time and something that we’ve never been through before. We’re trying to manage doing our jobs differently and parenting differently in some ways too.
It’s important to note that this isn’t truly ‘homeschooling.’
Homeschooling includes having a plan in place based on what you think your child needs to learn that day.
It includes things like going on field trips, and joining other communities of children who homeschool.
There are afternoon clubs or sports teams that you would have your child attending daily.
You would already have a system in place for what your child needs and they would not have to adjust to being taken from a familiar learning environment and having to adjust to a whole level of different expectations while being away from their teacher and friends.
This is not homeschooling right now. This is you trying to teach your child in an unusual, emergency situation. You’re doing what you can and that’s more than enough.
If you were wondering though, there are some things you can consider while you’re doing your best to set up a school routine in this time:
● You may see that your child is getting a lot of work and most of it they may not be able to do without your help
● Some problems may just be difficult getting started as the amount of work may feel overwhelming (break up the task or only do a few questions and be done with it for the day)
● Any effort on the tasks should be praised (they probably aren’t praised as much at school so some subjects may bring up a lot of resistance for them)
● Some children will benefit from being able to work next to you, like a body double, helping them stay focused on the task at hand, and giving them security that they can ask questions if they need
● Some older children or teens may benefit from Pomodoro timers, to keep their focus on longer tasks (a timer of 25 min on and a 5 min break)
● Depending on the age of your child and the level of difficulty with focus, the length of focus will vary (and just like a neurodivergent adult, some days are better than others, which will impact their effort and outcomes)
● Just because they were taught something once, doesn’t mean they’ll remember it (and don’t be surprised if you have to remind them in different ways until you find a way that works for the)
● Check in with your older children and teens. They may benefit with an overview of their tasks before they get started or to talk out a plan of what they want to accomplish.
● It’s not easy to get any child to do work they aren’t interested in. It’s not your job to have them do all their work either. Sometimes the natural consequences are needed for them to decide what to do next. Offer your help if they need, and check in with them regularly, without judgement or blame. Resistance is more often about feeling insecure about a task than trying to be difficult on purpose.
‘Homeschooling’ around working from home
● Adjust your work times as much as possible around their school times
● Give extra screen time as you need it: during meetings, during stretches of time where you need to give undivided attention
● Give certain times of day for movement or outside play, quiet time (reading to themselves, quiet play (Lego or drawing)
● Offer breaks after each subject
● Remember, you don’t have to do all the tasks given on that day – remember, there’s always the next day
● Try to book out a longer lunch so you have time to concentrate on any school task that needs your attention
● Just do what you can with schooling, some days will be great, some won’t and that’s OK, you’ll find your rhythm
● Be kind to yourself, you’re doing your best and this is not easy
A Final Note on Routines
On any given day, neurodivergent children are dealing with trying to manage their symptoms which may include dealing with visible symptoms like hyperactivity and tics, or managing sensory sensitivities like spaces that are too bright or too loud. They may also be dealing with invisible symptoms from co-occurring conditions like anxiety, or trying to manage inattentiveness, impulsivity and other weak executive function skills. This is where routines come in to help.
“By providing the structure and supporting strategies that navigate their days, neurodivergent children can focus on managing symptoms so they can show up as their best. Although they may appear to rebel against the consistency of a routine, it is even more important that it’s followed.”
This security provides a calm, safe space where there are no surprises in what to expect, allowing neurodivergent children the ability to focus on figuring out what systems work for them in order to thrive in their daily lives.
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