We often hear about the ‘importance of routines’ for children, and their positive impact on child mental health, but why do we say this?
Our brains are a complex set of highways, created through millions of neural pathways. The vast array of pathways throughout our brains are connected by neurons which pass signals from one part to another, by which messages pass from our brains to our bodies. We have three core types of neurons:
- Motor neurons – controlling our muscles
- Sensory neurons – stimulated by our senses
- Inter-neurons – which transmit information between neurons
Our neurons process all the information that we receive, and therefore allow us to interact with the world as well as experience emotions and sensations. We are creating new pathways all the time, through learning, interactions, experiences and modelling (learning from others).
The more we use a pathway, the more it becomes embedded.
This is why, when you do something for the FIRST time it feels so hard.
Whilst, when you have done something many times it is EASY.
Every time you repeat a behaviour or action, the pathway becomes more and more embedded.
The more we use a pathway, the more things become a habit. When you repeatedly use a set of pathways, things become automatic.
Which is the reason why, when we develop new routines or habits we have to do it again and again, consistently, to develop pathways. Often, we see people do something once or twice, and when it does not immediately work they give up – but in reality they have not developed and secured the pathway yet. If they kept going, they would have hit a sweet spot where it became automatic.
This is why, when children (or adults) avoid new experiences they can feel harder and harder – as there is no pathway there. Whilst, when we try lots of things it becomes easier as we have related pathways which support us. It is for this reason, that in therapy and coaching action is promoted so highly. To build a pathway – we need to DO things. Simply, just watching will not be enough to create a secure pathway. So, observers can find that their anxiety keeps increasing, whilst those who take action and try things out find it getting easier faster – and have less anxiety.
So, why do routines help?
- Predictability – when we have predictability our brains feel safer. When we know what comes next, we are automatically more regulated and feel calmer. Therefore, predictability allows children to feel secure and safe. Predictability also allows us to create patterns which are secure in our minds, and this makes it easier to perform the habit.
- Space to learn – If our core routine is secure, then children have more space to navigate the new concepts. Often, I meet children with no core routines, who find everything overwhelming. When the core routines (bed, sleep, wake up, meals and key activities) are secure, children have more space to cope with new concepts. If their routines are mismatched and unpredictable, they spend so much time guessing what ‘comes next’ that there is less space for new ideas and skills.
- Trust – When our routines are secure, and offer predictability we can trust ourselves more. When we know what is coming next, we are moving more safely through our days, with trust of where things fit. When adults offer children trusting routines, then children are more able to trust adults when they offer novel ideas or opportunities, as they have a secure base to work from.
- Identify – When children have secure and predictable routines, it is easier to identify where problems arise from. When we know children’s core routines are consistent, it is easier to see where they are dysregulated and identify reasons why. When a child’s routine is chaotic and challenging, it is difficult to work out where things interlink. It is for this reason, that adults with strong routines very often find it easier to identify what part of their day made them feel stressed/anxious/worried as they can see their own patterns and responses.
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