Creatures of Habit: The Importance of Routine in Foster and Adoptive Homes

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A Lesson From the Birds

Last summer, my daughter, Jasmine, and I had the privilege of running an exhibitor table at the National Foster Parent Association’s annual conference. Each day for three days, we got up, packed up the car, and left the house around the same time for our drive across the city. Each of those mornings, as we drove by a nearby pond, the same bird stood atop the same bench in the exact same position, with wings extended. At different times of the day, the bird is either absent from the area or is in another area nearby. At certain times of the day, we know to look for the bird to be standing atop the back of a fake, floating goose in the pond. Why? I do not know, but I recognize that members of most species, including humans, are “creatures of habit.”

People Are Creatures of Habit, Too

Doctors encourage parents to put their children to bed at the same time each night, to wake them at the same time, to provide meals at roughly the same time daily, and so on. And we are told we should do the same for ourselves as adults. All kids seem to thrive with established routines, but foster and adopted children even more so.

Over the years, there have been so many times when we opted out of an activity because we knew it would greatly upset the routines of children in our home, and the fallout would not be worth it. Friends would question us or comment that their children would be staying up late or missing nap or [insert other routine break] as well, so what was the big deal?

Envision a lake with a dam which prevents it from overflowing onto the town below. Heavy rainstorms come and fill the lake. Think of the rainstorms as stressors and the height and strength of the dam as your tolerance for stress. The typical person has coping mechanisms as stressors come. Their tolerance to the stress, the height and strength of the dam, is quite high. These coping mechanisms let little bits of the rainwater through the dam, preventing a catastrophic flood. It takes immense storms to bring them to the breaking point. Children who have experienced trauma have a high need for predictability in their daily life. Trauma results in a very low stress tolerance. The height of the dams on their lakes is very low. Typical, daily stressors in these children’s lives cause overflows. A break in routine can cause breaks in the dam from the smallest of storms.

So what can you do to prevent catastrophic breaks?

Make the child’s life as predictable as possible. Simple, visual schedules of routines, menus, chore charts, and so on increase a child’s sense of control and felt safety.” Let foster and adoptive kids know what plans are as much as possible. For a period of time, especially early on in a foster or adoptive placement, you may have to simplify life to help children settle into simple, daily routines.

Inevitably, breaks in routine will come. What can you to prepare yourself and your child for those breaks?

  • Insert “wild cards” into visual schedules to allow for unexpected interruptions in routine.
    Write down coping skills on the wild cards and practice them with children during calm moments (not during a meltdown!).
  • Expect and prepare yourself for negative behaviors.
    Brainstorm potential behaviors, and plan for how you will respond.
  • Give less notice about a preplanned break in routine.
    Many children do better WITHOUT a long period of anticipation of a break in routine, such as a vacation. Knowing weeks or months in advance that a trip is coming can create anxiety and negative behaviors.
  • Talk about the kids’ expectations of what is to come.
    This allows you to hear if the child has any incorrect or unrealistic expectations and discuss them.
  • Practice and discuss beforehand how to appropriately handle changes in plans.
    Help the child learn ways to cope with disappointment, anxiety, and other negative emotions.
  • Create early exit strategies for those moments when you realize you or your child is absolutely done with an activity.
  • Also, prioritize which activities you and your child absolutely want to do most, and do those first to help quell disappointment when you aren’t able to do everything you had planned.
  • Take frequent sensory, hydration and snack (with protein) breaks to physically and mentally refuel your child.
    This should happen ideally every two hours. Water bottles and snack bags are handy and are great at calming melt-downs.
  • Keep coping tools on hand.
    Keep items such as fidgets, calm-down boxes, or noise-reducing headphones to help children cope.

We can help children feel safe and secure by making their lives predictable. With forethought and preparation, we can model for our children how to handle breaks in routine. Remember, the best way to handle negative behavior is to prevent it! You may have to sacrifice certain activities and events in order to help your child. Remember, as your child grows and develops coping skills, you will likely be able to enjoy those events and activities again, and it is important to manage your own disappointment so that you do not feel resentment that eeks out in negative ways toward your child.


Now it’s your Turn:

  1. What types of breaks in routine are most upsetting to your child?
  2. What have you found helps your child to handle changes in their schedules?
  3. What have you found helpful in terms of keeping your family on a predictable schedule?
  4. What types of activities have you had to put on hold in your life in order to give your child predictability? What do you do to keep yourself from feeling disappointed or resentful if you have had to give up things like large family gatherings or late night activities?

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