Back to School: Home Edition

As the school year begins parents and caregivers face yet another challenging period of transition as we again attempt to navigate a familiar yet completely new change to our daily routine, Back To School: The Home Edition. In any typical year this would be a time filled with excitement, anxiety, and expectation as we fostered our children through the rituals of back to school shopping and meet the teacher events.

This year we may be missing the chance to help them pack their backpacks with freshly sharpened pencils, unused erasers, and crisp, colorful, unbent folders and binders. In fact, almost all of our familiar rituals have been altered or abandoned for something much less familiar. For the majority of students participating in remote learning the transition back to school will be facilitated without the security of daily rituals and routines that help them prepare their minds and bodies for learning. Research teaches us that having predictable and consistent family routines can benefit your children’s language development, academic performance, and social skills development, as well as enhance your family’s emotional bond with one another (Spagnola and Fiese, 2007). In Occupational Therapy, we help children and caregivers by considering the different areas of life they participate in, also known as their occupations. In this article we’ll focus on how you can use your family’s occupations to create a daily routine that provides consistency, sustainability, and flexibility.



Depending on the age and interests of your children, you may have seen an animated movie about a variety of animals participating in a singing competition. In this movie, one of the animal characters is an overworked, do-everything mother to two dozen piglets. In order to find the time to pursue her passion for singing, she sets up some elaborate DIY machines that automate her daily household chores including cooking, cleaning, and packing the piglets’ backpacks for school. Using this metaphor, we’ll think of our daily routine as a machine that makes certain parts of our day automatic so we can focus on our families and address the challenges in our day that we can’t plan for. A well- oiled Daily Routine Machine needs to be 3 things: Consistent, Sustainable, and Flexible. A consistent daily routine provides emotional security for your kids and reduces their anxiety about what comes next. A sustainable routine means you can recreate it from day to day without too much difficulty. A flexible routine allows you to manage all the unexpected parts of a day (like when you realize they’ve completely changed how to do math since you were in grade school) without your Daily Routine Machine breaking down.


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The foundation of your routine will be the basic components of life that need to happen every single day. Likely, your kids have consistent meals, are expected to get dressed and cleaned up, and go to sleep. Meal times, snack times, hygiene, and sleep are excellent places to start building your routine because they are consistent. In Occupational Therapy we call them Activities of Daily Living, or ADLs. Also, in OT we view the occupation of Sleep as its own separate activity. Because ADLs and Sleep happen in some form everyday, they serve as an excellent frame for your Daily Routine Machine:

» Wake Up

» Hygiene/Bathroom

» Breakfast
» Get Dressed
» Snack
» Lunch
» Snack
» Dinner
» Pre-Bedtime Hygiene
» Bedtime



After we plan for our ADLs, we can start adding additional parts to our Daily Routine Machine. These additional parts need to be sustainable. Another word we can put in place of sustainable is realistic. One great way to do this is by observing what your family already does now. A sustainable and realistic daily routine takes advantage of the other occupations your family naturally performs and places a structure around it.               

This is different for everyone, but chances are members of your family spend some portion of their day playing, resting, running errands and doing chores, entertaining themselves, and playing or socializing with others. In OT, we consider these activities as their own separate occupations. Play is the primary occupation of children, Rest (and Sleep) gives us

short breaks throughout the day to collect ourselves. Running errands and doing chores fit into what we OTs call Instrumental Activities of Daily Living or IADLs. These are important things we need to do to set up our ADLs. For example, eating is an ADL because you have to do it to live, and grocery shopping is an IADL because it supports eating, but it’s not something you have to do everyday. Entertaining yourself with an activity that has no purpose other than enjoyment falls under the occupational category of Leisure. The next occupation we’ll consider are Social Participation, which is fairly self explanatory, but is sometimes hard to be intentional about in a family context. And, as we return to school activities we must find realistic ways to integrate the last occupational category: Education.



As you think about the components of your daily routine during the school year, it’s important to recognize that your children will no longer have built in rituals to help them prepare their minds to learn outside of the home. In the past, your children have woken up early, gone through all the rituals of the morning, and then used some form of transportation to travel miles away from your home before they walked into a building that is only used for one activity: learning. During that process they have subconsciously started to prepare themselves to sit for long periods, pay attention to a teacher, move about the halls in quiet lines and interact with peers and teachers in highly structured ways, with very specific time frames.

Without recognizing how important those rituals are to prepare your child to learn, we could potentially become very confused and frustrated when our child seems distracted or disengaged during remote learning at home in their pajamas with a bowl of cereal at the coffee table. When creating your consistent morning routine, try to find as many ways to mirror their old, familiar routine as you can.

» If your child wears a uniform or has “school clothes” make sure they are wearing them before logging into remote learning.

» Your child would likely be packing and carrying a backpack to school. Continue to do this, even if it seems a little redundant or silly. They will go back into a physical school building at some point, so keeping this skill will be worthwhile.

» Remember that your child would normally be leaving your house and have a car ride or a bus ride to quiet their mind and signify the transition from home to school. Consider taking your child for a short walk or drive (with their backpack) some time between getting ready for the day and logging on.

» Find a way to transform your child’s learning space. One of the most effective ways to manage behaviors and encourage engagement in learning activities is to provide environmental and behavioral cues. In a classroom those are present in the room layout, where the students sit, and the decorations on the walls. You do not need to go out and buy bulletin board materials and tape the alphabet to your dining room walls, but it would be helpful to find a way to transform your child’s area to provide visual cues for learning. This could be as simple as removing a tablecloth, hanging a

sheet over the TV, or shoving all of your child’s toys in the closet. Doing something to the room that visually signifies “Now it’s school time” will provide subconscious cues for your child similar to those they would receive in the classroom, which can help reduce distractions, increase their focus and attention to their educational activities.

» Consider adding a ritual activity to signify the end of the school day. This could include closing or turning off the computer and putting it away, repacking their backpack, changing clothes, or taking down the divider/removing the blanket from the TV.

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Making your routine sustainable - customizing your machine to your family's specifications

As you attempt to orient your child to their educational daily routine, it’s also important to consider when they will have the opportunity to engage in the other areas of occupation mentioned previously: Rest/Sleep, Play, IADLS, Leisure, and Social Participation. Observing and understanding your child’s response to their new daily routine and their rhythms within it will help you figure out the best time to present each occupation. For example, if you child is antsy and tired after several hours of sitting at a computer, that may not be the best time to ask them to complete household chores (IADLs). But it may be a perfect time to suggest Rest or Play activities. You may notice that after a 15 minute Rest with a small snack (ADL), your child may be more inclined to put away the dishes before they go Play.

It’s helpful to remember that you don’t have to do everything every single day. A sustainable and realistic daily routine uses broader categories to let everyone know a general idea of how they’re expected to spend their time in that moment. Once everyone gets used to the different categories, you’ll need less time to plan them out and your family will have their own ideas for what to do during those times. Using our foundation of ADLs and Sleep from earlier, a daily routine with Education, Play, IADLs, Rest, Leisure, and Social Participation might start to look like this:

» Wake Up

» Hygiene/Bathroom

» Breakfast

» Get Dressed

» Beginning of School Ritual

» Remote Learning

» Snack

» More Remote Learning

» Lunch

» More Remote Learning

» End of School Ritual

» Play time inside/outside (call it Recess!)

» Snack

» Rest

» Light Chores

» Play

» Leisure and Independent time

» Dinner

» Cleanup

» Family Social Time (watching a movie together counts!)

» Pre-bedtime hygiene

» Bedtime


In the movie mentioned earlier, the elaborate DIY machine set up by the piglets’ mother ultimately breaks down because it’s not flexible enough to handle a minor change in her family’s needs. If we don’t want our Daily Routine Machine to break down, flexibility is it’s most important component. Your daily routine can always start with your basic frame of ADLs and Sleep. Your school’s remote learning schedule may require specific times to engage, but you can plug the other categories in whatever order you wish, including leaving some of them out altogether. Another part of being flexible is incorporating the rest of your family into building their day. If everyone feels they have a say in what they are doing, they’re more likely to buy into the rest of the day’s happenings.

It’s important to note that in being flexible we want to keep the boundaries of the school day consistent within that flexibility. If your school’s schedule provides breaks in the middle of the day or multiple times for your child to log in, you may have to manage back and forth transitions from home expectations to school expectations. The more of these mental switches your child has to make, the harder it will be to keep them engaged in remote learning throughout the day.

You may have noticed that none of the examples had times next to the categories. Putting a specific time of day on an activity that doesn’t need it can often make it very difficult to be flexible. Education activities may have rigid time frames, which may present challenges to the rest of your routine. If you need to put a time on a category, try using a time frame around the activity, as in Rest time lasts for 30 minutes, or Leisure time lasts for 45 minutes. Focusing on the order in which you do the activities, rather than paying attention to numbers on the clock, gives you more flexibility if things take longer than you planned or if your family is having too much fun to stop an activity just because the schedule says you have to. 



And finally, don’t get discouraged if your Daily Routine Machine breaks down every once in a while. Breakdowns happen from time to time and when they do, it’s an opportunity to find the parts that don’t fit and replace them. If you find that your Daily Routine Machine just can’t stay consistent, sustainable, or flexible enough, or you’re just not sure how to help your family engage in their daily occupations, Carolina Pediatric Therapy has a team of caring Occupational Therapists ready to help support you.

PHILIP PEARCE, COTA/L is a Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant and the Lead Clinician On Site at Carolina Pediatric Therapy in Waynesville. He is a part of an interprofessional collaborative team including behavioral health, occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech- language pathologists, and psychologists dedicated to supporting and promoting children’s development and well-being.

APA Spagnola, Mary PhD; Fiese, Barbara H. PhD Family Routines and Rituals: A Context for Development in the Lives of Young Children, Infants & Young Children: October-December 2007 - Volume 20 - Issue 4 - p 284-299

doi: 10.1097/01.IYC.0000290352.32170.5a

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