From the expert: How to create a family schedule that will make everyone happy

experts routine Oct 18, 2022

From our 2022 resident scholar and child-behaviour specialist Marlene Spence, founder of Cornerstone Family Services and creator of Reward’um


“Did you brush your teeth?”

“Don’t forget to pack your gym clothes.”

“No YouTube videos right now. Hurry up and eat your cereal.”

“Did you put your trip form in your backpack yet?”

“Hurry up! Your brother needs to use the bathroom.”

If you’re tired of repeatedly saying these phrases every morning, keep reading because I’m ready to reveal a simple tool that will help you turn your chaotic family routine into one that is calm, orderly and peaceful—and make everyone happy.  

What tool should you use to develop more structure and routines at home?

Visual schedules! Visual schedules are visual cues that remind kids what to do and what is coming up next. It helps parents display everything from morning and bedtime routines to to-do lists, daily activities and chores. Years of research back up its efficiency in fostering a collaborative and structured environment that develops independence and responsibility. Many child psychologists, speech and language pathologists, educators and parenting experts utilize visual schedules as tools in their everyday work with children. Visual schedules like Reward’um™  help eliminate morning mayhem, after-school anxiousness and bedtime battles.

Why develop routines?

Routines give us the structure we sorely lack. The pandemic taught us the importance of routines in our lives and how difficult and stressful it is to live in constant uncertainty. Following a routine reinforces familiarity in unpredictable times, especially for our children. According to a study in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, maintaining family routines is crucial for family resilience in times of crisis and when things are chaotic.

In my 23-year career as a behaviour consultant, parent coach, founder of Cornerstone Family Services and mom of two (ages 11 and 14), I've learned that schedules and boundaries help children feel secure and safe. Anxiety, tantrums and power struggles decrease when children feel safe and secure and understand expectations. All children, including those with developmental disabilities, Autism, anxiety and ADHD, benefit greatly from understanding what is expected and when.

Here are a few tips on how you can create your family schedule:

Be realistic

You can see colourful timetables with intricate crafts, science experiments and field trips if you search for family schedules on Pinterest. Many parents feel the pressure to duplicate these unrealistic schedules with their families. Remember, your family needs are unique. If you’ve downloaded someone’s schedule and it’s stressing you and your children out, it’s time to take the pressure off and keep it simple. Focus on what works best for your family's well-being. What is fun, relaxing and joyful for your family? Some families thrive on structured days where activities change every hour, and others do better with fewer activities and scheduled unstructured time throughout the day. Do what is practical and beneficial for your family.

Always involve the kids

This is what I believe is the key to success. When creating a schedule, collaborate with your child. Doing this gives children a sense of ownership and empowerment. In other words, it relays the message that their ideas matter and that we're all part of the same team.

Give your child a variety of opportunities to decide when, where and how to complete activities, and assign them age-appropriate tasks. Give children options for their morning routine, such as whether they should wash their faces first or brush their teeth. Which chore do they wish to complete after dinner, clean the table or sweep? Would they prefer to complete their homework while lounging in their beanbag chair in the family room or sitting at the kitchen table? These collaborative efforts are more likely to cultivate positive experiences for everyone involved.

Plan ahead

Prepare by gathering all necessary supplies the night before—and get the kids involved in the preparation. For instance, they will pack their backpack and decide what they will wear the night before. They can help set up all supplies and materials they will need for crafts on Saturday. If your child constantly interrupts you while trying to get work done, develop work/activity stations the day before that will engage the children and require little-to-no help from you. For example, a sensory station might include Play-Doh or Kinetic Sand. A creative station might have magnetic tiles or Legos. Preparing the activities the night before will get them excited to play with them the next day.

While they're engaged in these fun activities, you can work on replying to emails, starting lunch/dinner, doing the laundry or just taking a much-needed break.

Make schedules visual

Your child needs to see the daily schedule rather than just hearing it from you. Place your children's age-appropriate schedules where it's easily visible for them to reference throughout the day. The goal is that they know what to expect and when. When it is accessible, they can quickly check their visual schedule to understand what is coming up next instead of nagging or continuously asking you whether it is time for a snack or time to play on the tablet. As parents, we often repeat instructions because our children cannot process the information—children process and comprehend words and pictures considerably more quickly than they do spoken instructions. Visual schedules allow you to tell your child what to do without saying a word. They also open the doors to independence, responsibility and consistency. 

Remember that routines and schedules are supposed to make life easier but are not the be-all and end-all. Be adaptable. Don't be afraid to modify anything that has to be changed if you realize things aren't going as planned. Give yourself and your family grace. We're all trying to do our best, which is always enough.

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