Building Blocks of Structure

Dad and daughter playing with blocks

It’s natural for toddlers and preschoolers to test the limits so they can learn what is right and wrong. This period of childhood can be frustrating for parents and test our patience! One way for parents to keep control and help their children learn the right way to act is by creating structure with consistent routines and rules. Routines and rules teach children what behaviors are okay and not okay and what to expect throughout the day. They also help children learn responsibility and self-control.

Key Ingredients to Building Structure in the Home

Consistency – doing the same thing every time.

Predictability – expecting or knowing what is going to happen.

Follow-through – enforcing the consequence.

What are these things and how can we use them in our family interactions?

Consistency – doing the same thing every time

Consistency means that you respond to your child’s behavior the same way every time. Responses should be the same regardless of what happens, where it happens, the caregiver who responds, or your mood. If you respond the same way each time a challenging behavior occurs, the challenging behavior will be less likely to occur again. Likewise, when you pay attention to your child’s praiseworthy behaviors, he will be more likely to repeat the good behavior. It is unrealistic to expect that you will give consistent attention to ALL of your child’s behaviors. But if there is something you want your child to work on, like sharing, cleaning up, or following directions, consistently praising those behaviors can help them happen more often.

  1. Example 1: You use time-out at home and at the grocery store every time your daughter hits her sister. You do this even when you are tired from a stressful day at work when it may seem easier to let it go.
  2. Example 2: You praise your child each time he shares with a new friend while playing. You do this even if you are busy with something else and need to make a special effort to praise him.
Predictability – expecting or knowing what is going to happen

Predictability means your child knows what will happen and how you will respond. Predictability happens when you have set activities throughout the day and ways for handling your child’s behavior. When your daily routines are predictable, your child knows what to expect for the day. When you are predictable in response to your child’s behavior, she knows what to expect when she behaves in different ways.

  1. Example 1: Your child knows that if she hits a friend while playing, she will go to time-out every time.
  2. Example 2: Certain steps are followed each night at bedtime, such as taking a bath, brushing teeth, reading a story, getting into bed, and turning off the lights.
  3. Example 3: Your child knows that if he follows directions while running errands with you, he will get a special reward, such as an activity with mom or a trip to the park.
  4. Example 4: Your child knows that if she plays quietly each time you are on the phone, you will let her know how happy you are with her behavior once you finish talking.
Follow through – enforcing the consequence → “say what you mean and mean what you say”

Following through refers to doing what you say you will do in response to your child’s behaviors. If you tell your child he will be punished for a behavior, you punish the behavior every time it happens. If you tell your child he will be rewarded for a good behavior, you give the child the reward when the praiseworthy behavior happens. In order to be consistent and create predictability, it is important that we follow through. Follow through is important for ALL behaviors, both challenging and praiseworthy.

  1. Example 1: You have a house rule that if your child hits her sibling, she will go to time-out. When you see your child hitting her sibling, the hitting is stopped and your child is taken immediately to time-out.
  2. Example 2: If you tell a misbehaving child that he must go to time-out, you follow through immediately with time-out even if your child stops the misbehavior.
  3. Example 3: If you promise your child a treat for staying in the shopping cart in the grocery store, your child knows that he will get a treat from one of the candy or toy machines on the way out of the store.

How does consistency, predictability, and follow through help create good routines and rules?

Routines and rules help children learn to behave. Routines and rules that are consistent, predictable, and have follow through are more likely to help families be successful. When routines and rules are in place in families, there is predictability in the home and in our responses as parents. In other words, there is a basic routine you follow and rules you live by on most days of the week. You set appropriate expectations and limits for your child’s behaviors, and your child learns how you are going to respond to behaviors that are okay or not okay. Predictability in your routines and responses is especially helpful and important on tough days when you may be low on patience and energy. You do not have to think about what you need to do or how you will respond each time. You just do what you always do in those situations. You also follow through with any consequences you promise for following or not following the routines and rules.

When can parents start using routines and rules?

Children can begin learning routines and rules at a very young age. It is often helpful for parents to establish routines for important activities of the day, such as at meals, at bedtime, and in the morning. Sometimes parents use routines to help their children learn important behaviors, like getting dressed. When your child begins preschool or elementary school, you will notice that most teachers have posted daily schedules and class rules. This is because decades of research shows that schedules help young children understand what is happening next and improves behavior in the classroom. You can use the same ideas teachers use to create your own schedules at home. Click here for tips on making routines and rules for your family. A nighttime song that spells out the routine may also be helpful.

Examples of Family Routines

Listed below are examples of routines and daily schedules of parents with toddlers and preschoolers. More information about rules is here. Some parents find it helpful to have extremely detailed schedules and others find it helpful to have a general idea of the activities of the day. You can decide what will work best for you and your family. You may choose to use these as guides in creating your own routines and schedules.

Family with a 3 and a half-year-old

Daily schedule

  • Wake up around 6:20 a.m.
  • Get out of bed by 6:30 a.m.
  • Potty, get dressed, brush teeth, and leave by 6:50 a.m.
  • Eat breakfast or a snack in the car
  • Pick up from daycare around 4:00 p.m.
  • Play time from 4:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.
  • Prepare dinner around 5:00 p.m., eat around 5:45 p.m.
  • Bath time around 6:30 p.m.
  • Read or do something together, like a game or art project, around 7:00 p.m.
  • Watch television from 7:30 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. to relax
  • Potty and then to bed by 8:00 p.m.
  • Quiet/asleep by 8:30 p.m..
Family with 3 kids, twins age 4 and 2-year-old

Daily schedule

  • Wake up at 7:00 a.m. and have milk
  • Cartoons until breakfast at 8:00 a.m.
  • Get dressed for the day
  • Snack at 10:00 a.m.
  • Lunch at noon followed by nap at 12:30 p.m.
  • Dinner at 5:30 p.m.
  • Bath at 6:00 p.m., followed by books and a few songs in bedroom
  • Lights off by 6:45 or 7:00 p.m.
Mother of 17-month and 3-year-old sons

Preschool days

7:30 – 8:00: get kids out of bed (they are usually already awake)

8:00: eat breakfast – no television

8:15: get kids dressed for preschool, brush teeth and hair, and play until 8:35

8:40: leave house for preschool

12:00: pick up kids from preschool

12:20: lunch and a book before nap

1:00: naptime (plan the afternoon during this time including starting dinner)

3:30 – 4:00: get up from nap and have a snack

4:00 – 5:15: play

5:30: watch a television show while mom cooks/finishes dinner

6:00 – 6:15: dinner

6:30: bathtime, brush teeth, and get pajamas on

7:00: watch a 10 minute show before bed

7:15: book and cuddle time

7:30 – 7:45: lights out

Non-preschool days:

8:00: get kids out of bed

8:30: eat breakfast

9:00 – 10:00: kids play inside or watch television while mom cleans up and gets ready for the day

10:15: get kids dressed and ready for any activities for the day

10:30: snack on the way to activity

10:30 – 12:15: activity

12:30: lunch

1:00 naptime

3:30 – 4:00: get up from nap and have a snack

4:00 – 5:15: play

5:30: watch a television show while mom cooks/finishes dinner

6:00 – 6:15: dinner

6:30: bath time, brush teeth, and get pajamas on

7:00: watch a 10 minute show before bed

7:15: book and cuddle time

7:30-7:45: lights out

Page last reviewed: October 2, 2017