Routine, Rhythm and Regulation

Many of us crave routine and structure. This is because routines are predictable, and predictability is calming. When something is predictable, we don’t need to use up our cognitive energy planning and wondering what to expect next. This allows us to focus on the task at hand and feel regulated. As an adult, you probably include predictability in your routine as well. For example, do you have coffee or tea every day? Do you have activities you do to unwind after work? Do you shower at a certain time every day? We all have routines and rituals that increase predictability in our day-to-day lives which help us feel regulated.

For some children, their routine may need to be highly predictable for them to feel regulated, for example, they may need to wear the same type of clothes each day, eat the same breakfast and read the same book before bed. Other kids might be bored by this level of routine and might need more variety. You can work with a therapist and experiment with different levels of structure with your child to see what suits their unique neurology and personality. There are many ways and many different degrees to which we need a predictable routine, and they are all valid.

Our daily routines also create another important factor in regulation: rhythm. Rhythm is essential to human development. Before we are born, a big part of our sensory world is the rhythm of our mother’s heartbeat. When a baby is born, we continue to simulate this rhythm to soothe through rhythmic rocking and singing. Research confirms our natural knowledge that this helps to calm a baby and can be used to reduce stress. A “daily rhythm” includes the sleep-wake cycle and patterns of activity throughout the day (e.g., do you have certain times of day when you feel more alert and regulated, and others when you just need a break?).

We all need different levels of routine and rhythm in our daily lives to help us feel regulated. With time and patience, you can help your child find their state of regulation. Here are some tips to help you get started…

Some ways to support routine and predictability for your child include:

  1. Use of a visual schedule
  2. Use of timers
  3. Involving your child in scheduling
  4. Providing advanced warning when there’s a change of plan
  5. Expect, acknowledge and validate emotions when there is an unexpected change in the plan

Some ways to increase rhythm for your child include:

  1. Talking to your therapist about creating a “rhythm” to your daily schedule that suits your child’s biological needs
  2. Joining music, rhythm or dance classes
  3. Listening to rhythmic music
  4. Singing or saying rhymes with your child
  5. Rhythmic rocking (in a rocking chair or in your arms)
  6. Gentle swinging
  7. Doing “figure 8” or “square breathing” exercises
  8. Playing movement games that are repetitive (e.g., jumping, bouncing, swinging, tapping, running, clapping)

Elena Heighton, OT Reg. (Ont.)
ACT Learning Centre Occupational Therapist
Kingston Location