Premise & Question:
I was speaking with a Somali mother who was expressing concerns about her 4-year old daughter ‘Salma.’ She mentioned that Salma is very rowdy at home; she’s very defiant and quite a handful. She is ornery and has difficulty following directions. At school, however, her teachers say that Salma is very well-mannered, quiet, and follows directions well. Both parents were at a loss for what was going on here. The mom shared that Salma’s father thought this might mean that she is unstable, or even that there may be something wrong with her psychologically. How does a child act one way in one setting and in a completely different way in another setting?
I mentioned to the mother that this situation is not uncommon with children, and the focus should not be on questioning the child and their state, but on exploring the different environments and why the child reacts to the school environment in one way and her home environment in another. If Salma is agreeable and follows directions well in the school setting, then there must be something about the school environment that is encouraging her to behave this way that she is not receiving in the home environment. Particularly, it may be that the school setting offers Salma structure and a defined schedule, so that she knows what to expect throughout the day. It may also be that the school clearly outlines the rules and expectations for the children, so that they know what is acceptable and are expected to behave in kind. I asked the mother if there is a particular routine that they follow in the home setting, and she mentioned that they do not have a daily routine. She also reflected on the fact that her expectations for Salma may also have been unclear. I encouraged her to try to establish a daily routine within the home, so that Salma would know what to expect, and also clearly outline the expectations or rules for the home. Many a time, as parents, we feel that our expectations should be obvious or understood, but clearly communicating them, and repeating them when necessary, will allow the child to internalize them and understand your expectations.
Some months later, I was able to follow up with the mother and visit her at home. I asked her how things were going with Salma and she emphatically said that the advice she was given had changed her life. She mentioned that she established a daily routine, and proceeded to show me the schedule that was tacked onto the fridge. It was wonderfully detailed and had a breakdown of what was done from morning until evening. She mentioned that adhering to that schedule really changed Salma’s temperament at home. Salma was able to follow directions and seamlessly move from activity to activity without having challenging episodes.
This anecdote highlights the importance of establishing a routine for young children. Children work well with structure and knowing what will happen next can allow a child to feel comfortable and safe. With a defined schedule, a child is also able to have some sense of control. Moreover, when children have an understanding of their daily schedule, they may be more likely to follow directions and cooperate; conversely, unexpected changes to their routine may lead to challenging behavioral situations.
The daily schedule can be written out and posted somewhere that is visible to both the parents and the child. It can also be enhanced with the inclusion of visuals and pictures that reiterate what the task is. This can serve to help the child understand the nature of the schedule, and how one task is followed by another. Parents can further serve to reinforce the schedule by reminding the child what will happen next – “let’s tidy up our toys so we can get ready for lunch” – helping the child feel secure and comfortable.
Establishing a schedule is also a wonderful way to help develop a child’s self-discipline. While initially, along with the schedule, parents may have to talk about the routine often to remind the child what happens next, once the child is familiarized with the routine, they may no longer need such frequent reminders. At this stage, the transitions from highly preferred activities (e.g. play) to other more neutral and less preferred activities will become easier and quite seamless as the child knows what to expect and has internalized their schedule. Thus, beyond helping a child to feel safe and secure, schedules can help to make transitions more seamless, increase a child’s cooperation and help to develop a healthy sense of self-regulation.