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Helping Kids and Teens Take Charge of Their Routines

According to Dr. Jacob Boney, owner and clinical director of Scottsdale Pediatric Behavioral Services, the times when children are expected to do their routine tasks, morning, afternoon and night-time, are major problems for many of his patients. Parents usually begin by asking something like…

“I have difficulty getting my kids on a normal routine. What are some things that I can do as a parent to get my kids to start taking more responsibility for doing their routines? How can I make this routine thing less work for me and more beneficial for my children? I feel like I’m doing it all wrong. What do I do?”

Obviously, the younger the child, the more assistance they will need with their routines, but Dr. Boney highly encourages parents to transfer as much control for completing these tasks to the child as early as possible. The general rule of thumb is that by the time children are in school they should have the skills to be able to complete at least 90 percent of their routines independently.  

What Children Should Be Able to Do Independently by Age 5

  • Get up
  • Get dressed
  • Brush their teeth
  • Brush their hair
  • Be ready to eat breakfast and go to school

Most children, unfortunately, are not able to all, or any, of these routine tasks without constant prompting by parents. From the many home visits that he makes, Dr. Boney observes parents doing all the work in trying to get children through these routines and the level of compliance being extremely low. This results in the majority of interaction between parent and child being negative, even confrontational. By transferring control of the responsibility for these tasks to the child, negative interactions would be reduced by 60 to 70 percent. Some other advantages include:

  • Prompting less makes the parent more efficient
  • Eliminates opportunities for non-compliance
  • Increases confidence level in child which transfers to other areas

Most parents greatly underestimate what their children are capable of doing. Plus, constant prompting by parents is not sustainable and sets up parent and child for failure by providing entirely too many opportunities for non-compliance. Transferring responsibilities from the parent to the child comes with many benefits and should be done as soon as possible.    

Children have been trained to be prompt-dependent. The parent serves as the stimulus for initiating each step of the routine. “Okay, time to get up.” “Make sure you brush your teeth.” “Did you comb your hair?” “Hurry up and get dressed!” Every step. Every day. As long as this is the pattern, the parent remains a necessary part of the routine. It is very important to transfer stimulus control to something else, like a chart or a checklist that the child can use. This has the important benefits of eliminating the excuse for the child not knowing what to do and when to do it, as well as removing the parent as the prompt or stimulus.

Use the chart or checklist as an opportunity for positive reinforcement by rewarding the successful completion of all or a set number of steps with something the child wants. Make sure the child knows what is expected for each step and, in the beginning, put those that are the hardest at the bottom of the list. This allows them to do everything they can on their own and only then have to come to you for help.

Over-prompting makes parenting less effective. Anytime parents do employ prompts, there should be the likelihood that there is going to be compliance. If a child is constantly not responding or ignoring the parent, then it is time to talk less and follow-through more. Never prompt behavior that you cannot make your child do or enforce an immediate consequence for not doing. This is why long distance prompting should always be avoided: if you are not within arm’s length of your child, prompting is worse than a waste of time because it sets up failure and non-compliance.    

When the child shows little motivation to complete routine tasks or is irritable or always tired, it’s time to find a way to manipulate the process. The behavior that you want from your child needs to have value for the child and undesirable behaviors should bring the least amount of value. First, make sure there isn’t a reason for the child being overly tired and address any sleep issues. When there is irritable behavior, do not give that behavior any attention. Focus on good behavior or on other children who are presenting good behavior. Ignore the behavior that you do not want and reinforce the behavior that you do. Provide incentives to motivate the quick completion of routines with something like their favorite breakfast or access to something they really want.

Do not allow free access to distractors, like TV, during the time allotted for routines. In fact, very important to control access to all reinforcers, which are things that you child values. As Dr. Boney has discussed in other episodes, there is no benefit to giving free access to reinforcers. Do not give them away for free: they need to be earned.

Remember, you get the behaviors that you reinforce. Minimize attention to negative behavior, and give more attention and praise to good behavior. Let your child know how valuable and important this is to you. This works with routines just as it does with everything else.

Utilizing evidence based practices and the scientific principles of Applied Behavior Analysis, the Scottsdale Pediatric Behavioral Services team provides assessment, treatment and consultation for a wide range of behavioral issues. We work with a variety of children, families, schools, hospitals, mental health agencies and local community organizations to provide these services.  If you have any questions about how to help your child take charge of their routines or would like more information about any of the services offered by our team, please feel free to contact us by phone at 480.410.4040, email us at [email protected], or click here for our convenient online form.

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