Routines for Your 4-Year-Old

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Now Is the Right Time!

As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in your 4-year old child’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship, and daily routines provide a perfect opportunity.

Routines not only help your family move through the day smoothly and on time, they can have a significant impact on your child’s success. Three-to-four-year-olds are eager to explore and test boundaries as they make sense of how things work. Routines can provide structure and repetition that makes their world easier to understand. Routines can be especially helpful to support transitions from one activity or place to another. Transitions can be some of the most difficult times for three-to-four-year-olds to manage their behavior, and routines can make these times less challenging.1

The steps below include specific and practical strategies to help you develop routines and use them to build a relationship with your child that includes reliable and unconditional support and love, especially when they need you the most.

Why Routines?

Establishing regular routines can help your family get through the day cooperatively while building vital skills in your child. Routines can help to develop your child’s sense of security and their confidence.2 Routines can help them feel safe because they know what to expect and are more able to learn from the rich experiences you have together every day. When there are changes to the routine – expected and unexpected – this will also help your child learn to be flexible and practice adjusting to new situations.

Today, in the short term, routines can create

  • structure to ease stress and increase cooperation and motivation as you go about your daily tasks;
  • feelings that your child can make sense of their world;
  • a sense of mastery when your child repeats routines and knows what to expect; and
  • added daily peace of mind!

Tomorrow, in the long term, your child

  • develops a sense of safety, security, and confidence;
  • builds skills to handle unexpected challenges in life;
  • builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making; and
  • deepens family trust and intimacy.

Five Steps for Establishing Routines Download a summary of the 5 steps

This five-step process helps you and your child in developing routines together. It also builds important critical life skills in your child. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).


These steps are best done when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.


Intentional communication and actively building a healthy parent relationship will support these steps.

Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input

Three-to-four-year olds’ communication will be limited to five to six word sentences, and they will still cry as a central form of communicating with you. Paying close attention to your child’s facial expressions, body movements, and sounds helps you better understand what they are trying to communicate. Your efforts to learn from your child build trust and create empathetic interactions that let them know that you are interested in what they are thinking. This will make a big difference as you develop routines together. In becoming sensitive to the nuances of your child’s verbal and nonverbal expressions, you

  • are responding to their needs;
  • are growing their trust in you, sense of safety, and sense of healthy relationships;
  • are growing motivation for you and your child to work together;
  • are deepening your ability to communicate with one another;
  • are growing their ability to advocate for themselves if they need to return to a routine or get more support to manage changes throughout the day; and
  • are modeling empathy and problem-solving skills.


  • Consider your routines throughout the day – morning, mid-day, and bedtime. Creating routines around wakeup time, mealtime, naptime, bedtime, trips back and forth to child care, checking the mailbox, and going to the grocery store can make these times predictable, comforting, and fun for your child. Involve your child in creating routines around these common times by asking questions.
    • If your nighttime routine includes giving your child a bath, brushing their teeth, reading a bedtime story, and singing a lullaby every night before going to bed, you could ask your child: “Would you like to brush your teeth before or after your bath?” “What song would you like me to sing before you fall asleep?”
    • When coming into your home, for example, you might always take off your shoes near the front door. Your child will watch you and may start doing the same thing. In fact, they might firmly object if you decide to leave your shoes on one day. Involve your child in this routine by offering choices like “Would you like to put your shoes on the mat next to the door or in the basket?”
  • Each time there is an opportunity, ask your child, “What do you notice? How do you feel?” If your child is feeling unsure about how to describe their emotions when a routine changes, consider asking questions, naming what you notice, and leaving plenty of quiet space after your questions so they have an opportunity to share their ideas.
    • “How did you feel when I told you we were going to do something different today?”
    • I noticed you brought your book with you to grandma’s house so we could still do that part of our bedtime routine.”
    • “I noticed you felt better when you saw that grandma has the same kind of night light that we do.”
    • “How do you feel right now?”
  • When reading books, point out routines that seem comforting and moments when those routines changed. Ask, “How do you think that character is feeling? What happened when his day changed?”

Your child will give you lots of cues about whether the routines you develop feel too complicated or too simple and if they are being followed consistently enough for your child to feel a sense of security. Every child is different, and your own child may change from day-to-day in how willing they are to follow a routine or how much help they need to manage planned and unplanned changes in routines.

Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling

As a parent or someone in a parenting role, there is a lot to learn about understanding your child’s rhythms, temperaments, and needs. Because of all this learning, you will make mistakes and even poor choices. How you handle those moments can determine how you help build your child’s ability to stick with routines and to handle change. Offering yourself the grace and permission to not be perfect can ease your anxiety in responding to your child’s needs. Learning about developmental milestones can help you better understand what your child is going through.3

  • 3-4-year-olds are copying or mimicking adult words and actions.
  • 3-4-year-olds are growing in their sense of empathy for others and will attempt to comfort another crying child and will show affection for others without prompting.
  • 3-4-year-olds can carry a conversation offering two to three sentences but do not yet have an emotional vocabulary and are not able to describe their body sensations when they are upset or dealing with any big feeling. A feelings vocabulary takes longer to develop.
  • 3-4-year-olds are eager to engage in pretend play by themselves and cooperatively with other children. Children gain vital practice with all of their developmental milestones through play.
  • 3-4-year-olds can show defiant behavior and test boundaries as they learn about the rules and attempt to understand your values.
  • 3-4-year-olds are able to show a wider range of emotions.
  • 3-4-year-olds may begin to experience separation anxiety when you leave them.
  • 3-4-year-olds can imagine what response might be appropriate or comforting in a particular situation.

Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.


  • Teach your child how to perform the routine. Particularly if there are new responsibilities or challenges, be sure that you’ve tried those steps out together first.
    • There is a simple process called interactive modeling that teachers use, which can also be a powerful teaching tool for parents.4
      • Say what you will model or demonstrate and why.
      • Model or demonstrate the behavior.
      • Ask your child what they noticed.
      • Invite your child to try it.
      • Ask what they noticed with their own modeling.
      • Practice together.
      • Provide specific feedback starting with strengths using “I notice…” statements
  • Make your thinking and emotions explicit. Talk about what you notice, how you are feeling, and why you are feeling it. “I love that we always read stories before going to bed. It is one of my favorite times of the day because I get to spend time with you.”
  • Talk aloud about the ways in which you respond to your own big feelings: “It made me feel so much better to tell you how I was feeling and to ask for help.”
  • Grow confidence. In addition to having consistent daily routines with your child, point out when they are following the routine on their own and when they are able to manage changes in the routine. “I noticed that you knew to get the bedtime story while I was getting out the toothbrush and toothpaste. You knew what to expect next and you were ready for it.” When something is different you might say, “I noticed that you knew that we left our usual bedtime story at the neighbor’s house and you just picked up a different one. You did not look worried at all about trying something new. You knew how to handle that change, and it was not a big deal at all.
  • If your child is worried about a change in routine and uses definitive language like, “We always read the other book,” you may respond with:
    • “This is something different from our usual routine, and I know we can do it.”
    • “Do you remember last time when we didn’t have your favorite pajamas, and you had to wear something different to bed? You seemed disappointed at first, but then you took a deep breath and were able to do it.”
    • “I wonder if we can do something that will help us get through this challenge?”

Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills and Develop Habits

Your daily routines are opportunities for your child to practice new vital skills if you seize those chances. With practice, your child will improve over time as you give them the chance with support. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your child works hard toward a goal or demonstrates belief in themselves.

Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy – a child’s sense that they can do a task successfully. This leads to confidence. It helps them understand that mistakes and failures are part of learning.

When experiencing daily routines, it is important to practice noticing how comfortable it feels to know what to expect and follow the routine. It is also important to plan ahead for expected changes in the routine and to talk about how hard it can be when unexpected changes occur. Help your child develop strategies for handling change and remind them that their trusted adults are always there to help.


  • Learn about your child’s development. Each new age presents different challenges. Being informed about your child’s developmental milestones promotes your empathy and patience.
  • Engage in routines together like picking up toys before snacktime or putting away your shoes when you come inside. Offer active support to engage in routines so your child can be successful.
  • Initially, practice may require more teaching, but avoid taking over and doing it for your child.
  • Once your routines feel comfortable and consistent, provide opportunities for your child to change the routine. “I’ve noticed that you really enjoy going to story time at the library on Tuesdays. We have enough time to check out some books after story time this week. Do you think we should find two books we would like to check out and take home?” The goal is to feel a sense of security from being able to predict what happens each day and to feel comfortable with change.
  • Use your child’s dolls or stuffed animals to act out your routine, especially if it is new or if it is changing. This is a good way to practice mastering the steps of the routine. If you know a change is coming up you can act out that change with dolls and stuffed animals so that your child can begin to experience what that change will feel like. For example, if a cousin is coming to visit and will be doing the routines with you, you can act out that change with dolls and stuffed animals. What will happen when your cousin comes to visit? I wonder if his routine is different? Maybe we could ask him what his routine is like.
  • If there is part of a routine that is not working, talk with your child about ways that you might change your plan for it to work better. “It seems to take a really long time for you to decide which books to read for bedtime. I am usually feeling tired then, and it is hard for me to be patient while you choose. Is there something we can do to help you choose the books more quickly? Could we choose them in the morning? What do you think we should try tonight?”

Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success

At this point, you are developing routines and allowing your child to practice so they can learn how to stick to the plan of their usual routine and be flexible enough to manage changes. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, and coaching. Parents and those in a parenting role naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.


  • Use “Show me…” statements and ask them to demonstrate how they can work through a routine with you. “Show me what the next step is when we are getting ready for lunchtime.” Offer support so your child can be successful.
  • Don’t move on quickly if your child shows interest in trying something new. Children often need more time to stick with a challenge or pursue a goal. Be sure to wait long enough for your child to show you they are competent. Your waiting could make all the difference in whether they are able to gain skills over time.
  • Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like: “I noticed how you got your toothbrush out of the drawer as part of our morning routine. I love seeing that.”
  • On days with extra challenges, routines can feel especially comforting. When the house is full of visitors, and there are a lot of changes in your normal routine, offer to let your child teach everyone your good morning song or to take a walk around the neighborhood using the same path you normally use. This will help your child feel confident in their ability to teach others their routine, and they will feel less stressed because they will know what to expect.
  • Actively reflect on how your child is feeling when they have mastered a routine or when they are facing a change. You can offer reflections like:
    • “I see you have the breakfast spoons ready. You know exactly what to expect next.” Naming their success will help to build confidence.
    • “Taking this bus to the store feels different than the one we usually take. There are different signs on the walls and new things to notice. Let’s look at them together.” Noticing your child’s concerns and coming up with strategies for facing them will help your child know that you are there to help them get through this change.

Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation

No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.

If your child is working to grow their skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting positive behaviors and expanding your child’s self-esteem and confidence. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.

You can recognize your child’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior you want to see more of. For example, “You started picking up your toys before dinnertime — love seeing that!

Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you are good in the store, you get to pick out a toy at the checkout” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You were a big helper in the store today. I really appreciate that!”


  • Recognize and call out when it is going well. “I see you noticed that it is time to check the mailbox and you got out your shoes and the mail bag. You know exactly how to get ready for this routine.”
  • Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments – like completing a routine perfectly – in order to recognize effort. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them. “You got out your pajamas for bed. I like seeking that!”
  • Build celebrations into your everyday routine. Promote joy and happiness by laughing, singing, dancing, hugging, and snuggling to appreciate one another.


Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.


[1] Butler, A.M. & Ostrosky, M.M. (September, 2018). Reducing challenging behaviors during transitions: Strategies for early childhood educators to share with parents. National Association for the Education of Young Children. Young Children. Retrieved on March 25, 2020 at
[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Essentials for parenting toddlers and preschoolers: Building structure. Retrieved on April 20, 2020 at
[3] Developmental Milestones. Retrieved on November 25, 2019 at
[4] Wilson, M.B. (2012). Interactive modeling; A powerful technique for teaching children. Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.
Recommended Citation: Center for Health and Safety Culture. (2020). Routines. Ages 3-4. Retrieved from
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