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Back to School, Back to Routines

For many families, summertime means a relaxation of routines. Working parents may maintain the same rhythm as the rest of the year, but for many families, the holiday from school translates into different wakeup times and different morning activity as well as time off from homework and evening schedules.

But here comes the school year! It’s time to get back into the swing of routines for the whole family. Although it may seem like an imposition, it’s actually an opportunity. There’s a lot more to routines than simply getting everyone out the door in the morning and into bed on time at night. Establishing routines provides kids with important skills for life.

  • Routines provide the external structure children need while their internal structure is still developing.
    Our ability to manage multiple demands is determined by the part of the brain that performs what is called “executive functioning.” Like a good boss at work, the “executive” in the brain is able to pinpoint a problem, come up with a plan for solving it, carry out the plan and then evaluate the plan and perhaps make changes for the next time the problem comes up. It helps us prioritize tasks and organize our day.

    Unfortunately, human beings aren’t born with a highly developed boss in the brain. It takes years for it to mature. In fact, research now shows that it isn’t until we reach our early 20s that we have a fully functioning “executive.”

    Part of our parental responsibility is to be a helpful boss until that boss in the brain is developed. Regular routines provide a kid’s developing brain with a template for how to organize and manage daily life. By gradually turning over the responsibility for self-management, we support the brain’s development and ensure that our kids learn how to manage themselves.

  • Routines put some things on “automatic.”
    Think about it: From the time we are born to the day we die, every day brings new experiences and new problems to solve. If we had to make decisions about every aspect of every day, it would be overwhelming. Having set morning and evening routines eliminates the need to make some of those decisions. No one in the family has to ponder what needs to be done. They just do it. Expectations are clear so there is no need for parental reminding, nagging, begging or scolding. When routines are on autopilot, everyone can have a happier time.
  • Routines help children become more independent.
    Once they learn the routines, kids become more independent and adults can gradually let go.When our kids were young, we posted a “morning list” and “night list” on the wall outside their bedroom. We kept it simple, with both words and simple illustrations to give visual cues for what needed to be done.

    Morning List

    • Wash face
    • Brush teeth
    • Get dressed
    • Brush hair
    • Make bed
    • Eat breakfast
    • All done? There’s time for a relaxed breakfast.


    Night List

    • Put toys away
    • Lay out clothes and stuff for morning
    • Bath or shower
    • Put on pajamas
    • Brush teeth
    • One last drink of water
    • All done? There’s time for snuggles and a story!


    Teaching them to get through the lists on their own took some time but it was time well spent. Eventually, the lists did go on automatic. That set a better tone for everyone’s mornings and evenings. The kids learned habits for self-care and organization. A bonus in the mornings was that we had more time to get through our own getting-ready-for-work routines.

  • Routines provide the basis for coping.
    We can’t, and shouldn’t, protect our children from ever having to deal with change. Life is full of surprises, disappointments and sometimes even traumatic experiences. When kids have grown up with a set of predictable routines, they have an inner sense of safety that gives them the resiliency they need to manage life’s challenges.

    As a therapist for over 40 years, I’ve seen hundreds of kids who have had to adapt to enormous and often unpredictable and painful changes. Divorce of parents, deaths, remarriages, the addition of other children, the loss of friends, a house fire or other disaster, suddenly having to move across town or across the country can upset a child and disrupt a family’s “normal.” Adults and kids who return to well-established family routines stabilize much more quickly. Returning to those routines (or at least a few of them) is the road to returning to normal.

  • Routines are the basis for success.
    Adults who are successful know how to structure their time, set priorities, and meet deadlines. They accept that there are some tasks that need to be accomplished regardless of whether they like to do them. They have the patience to do something repeatedly until they get it right.

    Such skills don’t come from nowhere. Children who are taught basic routines grow into adults who are efficient and organized. A child who develops habits for self-care becomes an adult who knows how to dress for success. A child who routinely sits down to do homework every night, like it or not, becomes an adult who does paperwork well and on time. The kid who practices an instrument, a sport, or a subject regularly and often learns that routinely doing something is what is required to master it.

When asked to define freedom, poet and farmer Robert Frost once said, “I guess one way of putting it would be that you have freedom when you’re easy in your harness.” A horse could bolt at any time. But when a horse is at ease and is handled with sensitivity, the harness provides security as well as guidance for how to proceed. Routines are like that. They aren’t intended to be rigid and controlling. Rather, they provide the harness most people need to be at their best.

Don’t wait until school starts to get back into school year routines. Help your kids transition out of vacation mode by pushing the “restart” button now. Stick with it. Make those routines part of your family culture. Someday, maybe when they are 40, your kids will thank you for it.

Schoolboy photo available from Shutterstock

Back to School, Back to Routines

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Back to School, Back to Routines. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.