Ages & Stages: Helping Children Adjust to Rules & Routines

Clarifying classroom rules, supporting cooperation, and offering consistent routines help to create a harmonious classroom environment.

  • Grades: Early Childhood, PreK–K

Stage by Stage 0 - 2

  • Infants depend on teachers to follow their lead and adjust routines to their needs.
  • Even very young infants are tuned into language. Be sure to talk about what you're doing during routines.
  • A predictable relationship with a nurturing teacher is the cornerstone for cooperation and competence during toddler routines.

Stage by Stage 3 - 4

  • Threes and fours enjoy participating in creating the rules. If they are involved in making reasonable rules, they will know what is expected of them and others. Their participation will help ensure their willingness to maintain the rules and help develop self-control.
  • At this age, most children respond to simple well-chosen rules. If they are overwhelmed by too many rules they may ignore them or become very frustrated trying to follow them.
  • Support threes and fours in taking responsibility. Children will make mistakes and not always follow the rules, but these can be turned into learning experiences. Be supportive and treat children respectfully as they problem-solve and learn for themselves why it is important to follow certain rules.

Stage by Stage 5 - 6

  • Five- and 6-year-olds are developing reasoning and thinking skills, which allow them to be able to understand and discuss the reasons (purpose) for rules and routines.
  • Kindergartners use increased language skills, which allows them to discuss their feelings and opinions of the rules and routines.
  • At this age, children enjoy discussing and collaborating in routine and rule making.

0 to 2 Me Wash Hands! by Carla Poole

Four-month-old Joey wiggles and whimpers as his teacher gently carries him to the changing table. "Is your diaper wet, Joey? Are you uncomfortable?" The pair make eye contact as the teacher quietly explains, "I'm going to take your wet diaper off." Joey's wiggling subsides, and he stares intently as she talks to him throughout the diaper change. Joey responds by adding an occasional gurgle or coo to the conversation. His world is becoming a predictable place where a loving adult follows his cues and provides responsive one-on-one care during his daily routines.

A baby needs to feel that there is a special adult for him-a teacher who can understand baby's facial expressions and body language, like Joey's teacher, who knew that his whimper meant he was wet. A baby becomes more organized and self-regulated when a consistent teacher offers nurturing and individualized daily care.

Paying Attention

Routines are an opportunity for a teacher and toddler to pay special attention to one another. For example, 18-month-old Shaniqua is getting dressed with the help of her teacher. She grunts as she tries to push her foot into her sneaker. Her teacher comments, "You are pushing so hard! This sneaker is a little tight on your foot." After a few more pushes, Shaniqua's foot finally slides in and they simultaneously give a big sigh of relief. "Wow,  that was hard work! Now we can go outside!"

This teacher is doing so much more that just getting the child through a routine. She is fully present and using language to keep the child involved in the interaction. These focused interactions increase a toddler's attention span, body awareness, and cooperation.

Talk It Over!

It's important to ask questions, describe actions, and interpret the child's nonverbal communication. Responding to the child's signals and discussing what is happening brings real meaning to language. You are teaching the child to listen because your words are connected to important experiences of the child. You are also supplying the language "input" needed for later "output." Toddlers will use the same words you use to organize themselves as they become more independent during routines. Think of the 2-year-old staring at his sticky hands and saying, "Wash hands! Wash hands!" as he walks toward the sink after lunch.

Provide Quality One-on-One Time

Early brain development is significantly influenced by the child's experience. These comparatively brief but plentiful one-on-one interactions during daily routines create strong feelings of attachment between teacher and toddler. Over time, the toddler internalizes your nurturing behaviors and develops feelings of self-control and confidence.

Build Group Routines

Respectful relationships and intimate knowledge of each child helps to build a group schedule that is in tune with the sleeping and feeding patterns of all the children. One group of toddlers may need an early lunch and later nap. Another might need to sleep earlier after a hearty snack. After daily routines that fit the needs of the children are established, it's important to remain flexible and spontaneous. And always keep in mind that a routine can and should be changed if it is not working.

Create Coping Techniques

Routines can help the child to cope with difficult transitions, like saying goodbye to mommy in the morning. Two-year-old Jevon always helps his mom put his lunch in the fridge and reads some books with her on the sofa. He then hugs her goodbye and reads books with his teacher. Jevon is actively involved in the routine, and feels in control and connected to the important people in his life. The routine is clear but flexible. Mommy will leave after some cozy reading time and his teacher will help him say goodbye by staying close to him as she leaves. Daily routines bring feelings of predictability and security.

During the first three years of life, a child moves from being very dependent on the teacher to shape the world around his needs to gradually adapting to the many demands that growing autonomy requires.

3 to 4 I'm Doing My Job! by Susan A. Miller Ed.D.

Three-year-old Antonio eagerly throws away his paper cup and napkin after finishing his snack. Yesterday, during his second day of school, Mrs. Dolgos, his teacher, showed him how to clean up. Today, without being reminded, Antonio cleans up after himself as soon as he finishes drinking his juice and eating his crackers. However, Antonio's attention to rules and routines isn't really so surprising when you consider that just a short while ago he was a very ritualistic 2-year-old child who insisted on carrying out routines exactly the same way each day.

At this age, children delight in pleasing adults and going along with daily routines and directions suggested by them. While 3-year-olds strive for independence, they still look to their teachers for approval or assistance if needed.

Anticipate Smooth Adjustments

Adjusting to the rules and routines quite nicely during the first few weeks of school, most 3-year-olds can learn to do such things as sitting without bothering others and listening to a story for 10 minutes. During lunch, they quickly get into the routine of serving themselves family style and pouring their own milk from a pitcher. Most threes fall into their own routine about toileting at certain times, although they may want to let an adult know when they are going to the bathroom.

Clarify Classroom Rules

When it comes to rules, most preschoolers see them as black and white-you are either supposed to do something or not. They see rules as unchangeable. Often, they become confused or annoyed if they sense a rule is not being consistently enforced or broken. They may even decide to ignore the rule. For instance, Mr. Parsons explains to the children that, for safety reasons, they must always hold hands and walk two-by-two whenever they go outside. So, when the alarm rings for a fire drill, and he urges the preschoolers to make a single line to go out of the building, Tiffany refuses to leave the room because she know it's a rule that her buddy must hold her hand.

In order to help preschoolers clarify the rules and adjust to their surroundings, they may need help in understanding what objects are used for. For example, when Jonah climbs on the table to reach a ball on the shelf, Mrs. Troy explains, "Tables are to eat on. You may climb on the wooden steps." Because preschoolers can make certain connections between their actions and potential consequences, as long as limits for them are kept simple and enforced fairly, children will not be as apt to test their teachers and will adjust more quickly. Mrs. Troy might also suggest to Jonah, "If you climb on the furniture again, you may fall off and hurt yourself."

Set Consistent Boundaries

Young children need to feel comfortable that their teachers won't allow them or others to get hurt. Four-year-olds have high levels of physical energy as they run, kick, and move very quickly. They can be loud and noisy. They may sometimes appear to be emotionally out of control. Because of all of this natural commotion, 4-year-olds seem almost happy if adults provide some structure and boundaries for them-as long as they are perceived as fair. If an adult deviates from the rules or a routine, the child may exhibit temper tantrums or unplacated anger.

Sometimes 4-year-olds will try to negotiate their way around a rule if they think it's not working in their favor. For instance, when reminded that the clay must remain on the art table, China argued that if she put it in her pocket, no one could see it go to the dramatic-play center.

Fours enjoy following self-care routines. With their improved fine motor skills, they manipulate buttons, and pull on socks and shoes. Although they may want some privacy in the bathroom, fours are well able to handle their own toileting needs.

What You Can Do:

  • Share stories about others. Read and discuss books about how other children manage rules or routines. Talk about how Max in Where The Wild Things Are broke the rules.
  • Make sure routines are predictable. When there is a rhythm to the day, it's comforting for children when they know what to expect next. It also helps to give them a sense of timing so they can pace themselves to accomplish their activities. This helps to build independence.
  • Balance the routine. Allow children time for indoor and outdoor experiences, as well as child-initiated and adult-initiated activities. Give them time to successfully complete routines such as toileting, and feeding themselves.
  • Ensure that routines provide for individual differences. If children have too much time on their hands, they can become bored. However, if they feel rushed, they often feel frustrated. Children with special needs may need extra time. Schedules for naptime and storytime, for example, will probably need to change at different times of the year as children's developmental levels and needs change.
  • Plan transitions. Build purposeful time into routines to clean up and wash hands before the next activity.
  • Guide children in positive ways. Instead of demanding that children follow the rules, or reading their rules to them from a posted chart, make personal contact (a touch, eye contact) to reassure and redirect them. Help them to identify and understand the consequences of breaking the rules. This will help build their self-confidence.

5 to 6 I Know The Rules! by Ellen Booth Church

"I can do it, Mrs. Marsh! I'm really good at that!" As Madison returns the books to the shelves after group time, she reminds Jared that he forgot to pick up his floor mat and store it in its proper place.

The span of time between 5 and 6 years of age is an interesting time of social and emotional development.

You may have noticed that many of the young kindergartners entering your program are eager to cooperate and help. They want your approval and like the security of the routines and structure of the classroom and even your authority there. A shift often happens between 5 1/2 and 6, when children start to question and test your authority and the rules. They are not so sure they want to be "good" all the time! Since most kindergartners come to school at five or younger, you have plenty of time to enjoy this "honeymoon" phase while you work together to build the self-regulation and community skills needed for a harmonious classroom.

Involve Children in Rule Setting

Of course, this is the perfect time to introduce your classroom rules and routines. Children are looking to you for guidance and structure in this new world of kindergarten. As they learn the rules, they develop a sense of autonomy within the safe structure of the classroom. During this phase of their development, 5- and 6-year-olds' increased language skills support their ability to discuss and collaborate in routine and rule making. The more children participate in the process, the better they understand and follow the rules. This sense of ownership in the process is key to children this age who are transitioning from accepting outside authority to challenging it. In fact, the "class-made" rules can be so important to them that they will single out others who are not following them!

Support Positive Behaviors

Five- and 6-year-olds are also developing strong reasoning and thinking skills. These allow them to be able to understand and discuss the reasons (and purpose) for rules and routines. It also allows them to comprehend the cause and effect relationship of rules and behavior. This helps them move from acting appropriately because it is what YOU want to them behaving correctly because THEY want to. During this process, children need a great deal of positive reinforcement and support for their demonstration of appropriate behaviors. Since they actually don't take criticism well, 5- and 6-year-olds tend to react better to positive guidance instead of negative judgement and reprimand.

Welcome Ideas and Insights

We have all heard them comment "I know!" even before you finish explaining something. This is a precious part of the heart and mind of children this age. Not only do they want to be "right," but they also love to demonstrate how they know something-and everything! The "know-it-all" behavior comes partly from an emerging competitive nature that can start now and come into full bloom in the 6-year-old year. But it is largely a demonstration of how children in kindergarten want and need to be "seen" and "heard" in the group. This phase can be delightful or exhausting, depending on how you choose to view and use it. It is helpful to allow time and space in your routine for children to demonstrate their "knowing." Moving from one activity to another? Invite children to tell you what is happening next! Discussing a problem with classroom noise? Ask them to tell you what the problem is and how to solve it! Children will feel a sense of autonomy and ownership.

Set Clear Expectations

Five- and 6-year-olds respond well to clear expectations-both yours and theirs! Since most children at this stage want to do what it is "right," they feel most comfortable if they know what your expectations are right from the start. If you launch the year by clearly verbalizing and depicting (with picture signs) what you want and need from children, you will probably get it! From the first day of school, express clear expectations for turn taking, sharing, walking, talking, listening, and sitting. Once you have set these expectations in place, you will only need to remind children of the rules and routines throughout the year.

It is also important to be collaborative with children when setting classroom expectations. As you well know, fives and sixes like to think they are in charge. Ask them what their expectations are for kindergarten. Discuss these and add them to a "great expectations" chart.

Keep in mind that this delicate time of the year is different for each child. While the information here is based on developmental milestones, not all children will behave similarly in the same situation. Keep in mind these developmental characteristics while responding to the individual needs of children.

What You Can Do

  • Set clear expectations and invite children to express theirs.
  • Provide a strong but flexible routine that is responsive to the ever-changing needs of the group.
  • Encourage collaboration in rule setting.
  • Use positive reinforcement and guidance.

  • Subjects:
    Early Learning, Cooperation and Teamwork, Child Development and Behavior, School Life
top

Early Childhood Today

We are your early childhood teaching partner! Find ideas for activities and lessons, expert advice, teaching tips, and much more!