Improving Routines and Behaviors for Toddlers Through Elementary

Morning routines, evening routines, and even weekend routines… this is an ongoing challenge for parents of young children. We know the importance of keeping kids on a consistent schedule, but it can be quite stressful making the process smooth. As a mom of two young kids and a child therapist, including one toddler, making this process easier was important to me. As a therapist, I also saw this to be a struggle for many parents of the children I was seeing.

The Challenges with Routine

  • Distractions. The temptation for the kids to want to play instead of eat dinner, and for me to watch the news instead of prepare dinner, is one example of how distractions affect us at my house.
  • Stress. Getting yourself and the kids ready in the morning is no easy task and often very stressful. You do “what you have to do” just to get out the door on time.
  • Change. There’s no getting around the fact that changes in your family/life happen and adjustments have to be made. New babies are born, job schedules change, kids start new extra curricular activities… all requiring a modification to your routine.
  • Lack of Energy. I don’t know any parent who feels they get enough sleep and with all the activities of life today, disregarding a routine is very tempting, especially when you kids are resistant (bath, bed, etc.).

How a Routine Chart Is Helpful

  • Visual. Kids respond well to a visual picture of the routine. I use pictures of each stage of the morning, evening, or day.
  • Active Participation. On the chart I created, kids move the picture of the completed task from start to finish. It’s similar to the satisfaction we get when when we check off or mark off an item on our “to do” list!
  • Variation. As mentioned above, routines change, and sometimes daily. This chart allows for variation and flexibility to meet one’s needs.
  • Control. Since the pictures can be arranged in any way, the child may choose the order of certain areas, within the limits set by the parent. For example, the child may put “brush teeth,” “brush hair,” and “get dressed” in the order they desire. This gives the child a sense of control to part of their routine and encourages participation.
  • Reinforcement. The child can choose from the rewards allowed by parents. For example, after the morning routine, the child may choose to play the ipad or play with toys for their remaining time, or when they get home that day.

Creating a Routine Chart

I remembered from working with Occupational Therapists for many years, they used activity charts to get kids to participate in all the activities in therapy. I adapted this concept to my own parenting needs, and shared it with some of my clients’ parents. So far, the parents I made a chart for have reported they are finding it useful and the kids are happy to follow the chart and earn their reward. With my own toddler, it was a huge improvement from the battles we were facing every night.

Step 1. I first downloaded Boardmaker Studio by Dynavox Mayer-Johnson. You will want to register for their free 30 day trial if you are not familiar with the program, or have no other use for it. This program offers a lot that I am still discovering and playing with. It will take you a little time to become familiar with the program, but it’s pretty simple to learn.

Step 2. You will want to search for pictures that describe the activities and rewards you will use. Here is a sample of the pictures I downloaded:

Activity Squares
chart 3

Examples of Activities:

  • Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner
  • Bath time
  • Bed
  • Brush teeth and brush hair
  • Get dressed
  • Gather things (I used a picture of a back pack)
  • School
  • Clean Up
  • Use Potty

Examples of Rewards:

  • Park
  • Ipad (This search doesn’t come up, but I found a picture of a laptop and named it Ipad)
  • Computer
  • TV
  • Swimming pool
  • Read books
  • Play with toys

Step 3. Choose a routine template from Boardmaker Studio. You can modify to your needs, or print out as is. I do not put activity symbols on the routine template because I am going to cut them out separately later.


Step 4. Print your routine template and picture squares.

Step 5. Laminate all the print outs.

Step 6. Cut out each picture square after laminating is complete.

Step 7. Add velcro to the back of each picture square. Add the corresponding side to each square on the routine templete, as well as on the square next to “Reward.”

Step 8. Ready for use! Describe the chart to your child. Be sure to show them the rewards they can choose from, as well as practice moving the squares from top to bottom after they are complete.

Tips on Using Chart

  • Play with the chart before showing your child. Decide which activities you want, and for what part of the day. Also, choose the rewards you want to offer, and at what times (you don’t want to offer the park if it’s at the end of the day). Also, I limit choices for my toddler to two at a time.
  • Describe how to use the chart, the purpose of the chart, and rewards to your child.
  • Show excitement about the chart with your child. They will likely share in your excitement, especially if it means they earn rewards!
  • Be consistent! It’s important to use this regularly to reinforce habit, as well as show your commitment to the established routines.
  • Let the child move the squares from the “To Do” section to “Finished.” Consider how you would feel if someone else crossed of an item on your list… no way! 🙂
  • Print one general chart, or get more specific (morning, evening, etc.)
  • And finally, modify the chart to meet your needs. If the sample I have provided doesn’t work, then make a change. I continue to modify the chart for my home, as well as for my clients… no shame! 🙂

chart 2

Alternate Use: Chores

I have also used this same concept for chores. Place the chores for the week at the top and as the child completes the chore, they move to the bottom. The reward can be at the end of the week.

I would love to know how this works for you, or if you have another great idea for getting kids on a routine!

If you would like information on my services, please visit my website at!

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Kim is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Clinical Supervisor, and Registered Play Therapist in Dallas, Texas.

13 thoughts on “Improving Routines and Behaviors for Toddlers Through Elementary”

    1. Thank you for the comment! I welcome participation and discussion (even disagreement) as long as it is positive and aimed at helping other readers grow and learn.
      Like I mentioned above, please modify these charts to fit your needs and values. One suggestion may be to drop the term “reward” and, instead, make the very last activity something your child can look forward to, such as “snuggle with mommy,” “read a book,” or “pick out my own clothes.” This way the child is not being offered a reward, and still has incentive to work towards the last activity.
      Hope this works well for you! 🙂

      1. That’s a good change Kim, because I like your chart system but try to limit rewards. Having an incentive at the end seems equivalent to when we exercise knowing that we have a nice cleansing shower awaiting us at the end 🙂

      2. I agree Nina! Kids need something to work towards, but I understand not wanting them to depend on rewards when it comes to every day activities/routines. I’m glad this alternative works for you. Before using this chart with my own son, he was playing toys at random times. I didn’t want him to miss out on this because it can be good self-regulation or, if playing with another family member, good bonding time. So… I decided to figure out how to get him to complete the other necessary activities first and this worked great!

  1. I don’t understand the concern with rewards. While I haven’t read the above poster’s book suggestion, I can’t see why people get so alarmed by the concept of rewards. As adults, we get rewarded for work that we do. Whether it be in the form of praise, bonuses, a raise, etc. or we reward ourselves for jobs well done in the form of a dinner out, a splurge, etc., rewards are in the adult world, not just a child’s world. As long as there is an understanding by the child that they are loved, appreciated, and supported for what they do and how they contribute to their family, then what is wrong with it? (I’m not suggesting rewarding for everything, however to recognize contributions, good behaviour, etc. occasionally is okay in my books). Great post, I enjoyed it!

  2. Thank you Kim! This is great advice! Could you tell me which of the many versions of broadmaker you used? I see there is the classic, the plus and the studio and I would like to try the one you used. A million thanks in advance!

      1. Thank you Kim, I started doing the charts and I got the kids involved in the process and they loved it! They picked their own pictures and they were the ones telling me what they needed to do for each routine (morning, afterschool, before bed etc) and its been working great! One last question, that Evening routine template you are showing here, did you create it from scratch or found it ready there? I’m having a hard time making something similar to it (actually I love it just like yours, I just need more buttons on it). Thanks for all your advice, I love your blog!

      2. Veronica, I’m so happy to hear these are working out!!! I created the evening labeled chart on my own. I wanted to scan mine for everyone but I’m having trouble with my scanner. It was easy to add the titles though. After playing with it a bit, I found it was simple to move and crop the sections and add titles and boxes as I needed. Thanks for the comment!

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