Scheduling Stress: Finding Your Family’s Rhythm in an Unpredictable World 

Life is hectic. Between little league games and business dinners, birthday parties and household chores, it’s hard to imagine finding a schedule that actually works all the time. Parents with young children or children with special needs, especially those on the spectrum or with sensory sensitivity, hear time and time again that kids need structure. But how does anyone do that if they aren’t even confident in what’s for dinner tonight.

The solution: Micro-Schedules. Micro-schedules are just what they sound like, mini schedules for specific events in your day or week. Instead of trying to find the perfect master schedule, create a series of micro-schedules to streamline hectic parts of your day. You will see the stress of those moments decrease and find that you actually have more time breathe. It’s in the space you create between moments that you’ll connect with your children and each other, strengthening bonds and increasing your child’s sense of security.

So how does it work? Picture your typical day. Now identify a routine part of it that feels hectic or is challenging. Is it getting everyone in the car in the morning? Maybe you need a moment after you first walk in the door? Next decide how it would go in a perfect world. Remember in a perfect world you have help, help from other care givers, help from your children even. Can you picture it? Now name it. A favorite at my house was the “Power Pickup”. Giving something a name, making it a known quantity, gives children a sense of control and makes them much more likely to help instead of hindering the situation.

For a “Power Pickup” I would first warn my children that was coming. We often did them after dinner. Then when it was time, I would set a timer for 10/15 minutes. Everyone knew the rules: until the alarm went off, everyone picked up and put things in the common areas away. Start with your own items, then move to helping others. If we finished the common spaces we moved to our own rooms. Instead of spending an hour picking up after they went to bed or fussing at them repeatedly to do it on their own, we all worked together and did it in a fraction of the time. It reduced my stress. But more importantly, it taught my children about working as a team and developed their sense of intrinsic motivation.

We did “Power Pickups” the same way every time. I gave a warning. I started the timer. We all worked together. When the timer went off, the “Power Pickup” was over. That was my micro-schedule. My children got better and faster at picking up over time. And the best part is it worked anywhere. We used it when visiting grandparents or at friend’s houses. It would even work in a hotel room on vacation. Keep the language simple and consistent and the order in which you do things the same and you will empower your children.

Here are a few examples of micro-schedules I use.

At Home:

  • “After School”: Bring your belongings in from the car. Unpack backpack and put lunch boxes on the counter. Change clothes and then get a snack. (We added homework to the routine in kindergarten. I know it’s a long day, but by building in the work ethic early it pays off in high school).
  • “Pockets”: It sounds silly, but I had twins and I couldn’t always lug out the stroller or carry them. I often had one or both hands full and needed a way to get from point A to point B with them safely. I love pockets, who doesn’t, so almost everything I wear has them. I started having them grab onto my pockets instead of holding my hands on the way into school or the grocery store, any time my hands were full but I needed them connected and safe. After a few weeks of working with them (with available hands) they caught on. Of course, I don’t recommend this during high traffic times or unfamiliar places, but it was a life saver on many occasions when my lack of octopus arms would have left me in tears otherwise.

At School:

  • “Bathroom Break”: Our bathrooms are down the hall so there are a few times during the day when we all go to the bathroom as a group. Every time I start by saying, “boys to the boys and girls to the girls”. This is the equivalent to on your mark, get set, GO. They know the drill. At these times there is no choice, everyone at least tries. While washing hands I remind them, bubbles in the middle, on the backs, and in between each finger. The kids know where to stand and the games they can play while waiting. After a few weeks, we are a well oiled machine getting everyone in and out of the bathroom in record time.
  • “Team Meetings”: I try to give my class a voice whenever possible. I want to be heard, but my students need to feel like I listen to them as well. When I call a “Team Meeting” everyone stops what they are doing, and we huddle up. I use these when I need to break from routine, and offer them choices that work either way. I explain the situation and ask them for their input. And then I follow through with what they decide. These are short but powerful. By giving kids a chance to be heard and make decisions, they are much more likely to listen to you when its your turn to make the decision.

When you intentionally build routine with words and actions, you create habits and predictability . For a child still in the concrete stage of thinking this equals love and security. When we live intentionally we are present for our lives. A child thrives with a parent who is present and projecting love and security. That’s the best any parent can do. So even if you don’t know what’s for dinner, have a “Team Meeting” about it and see where it takes you.

P.S. I love visual timers for kids. Here’s a link to a favorite of mine.


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