Importance of Predictability

In the last few posts, I have invited readers to consider what can stress children and how it may possibly impact them. I have encouraged readers to consider ways to help children when they are physically and emotionally safe. This strong sense of being safe with key adult figures, primarily parents, is a cornerstone for all future discussions around reducing toxic stress in the lives of children. But there is another aspect to keeping safe from stress.

Stress and the importance of predictability

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Master Trainer, Curricula Writer, Researcher, Mother and Grandmother

Another principle for parents to incorporate into their children’s lives involves an appreciation for the importance of predictability for children. Predictability reduces stress because familiar patterns are calming to a child. Patterns do not require the child to wonder what is going to happen next or then to feel some level of anxiety in preparation for something unexpected to occur to or around him or her.

Predictability involves repeating patterns of behaviors. Examples include bedtime rituals, or ways children get ready for the day, whether it is to prepare for breakfast and saying goodbye to one or both parents as they go off to work or the specific steps parent follows when dropping a child off at daycare or school.  Predictability can involve serving familiar foods, playing familiar music, doing certain chores together, or reading familiar books at bedtime.

How temperament categories may affect a child’s behavior and patterns

For some children who fit a temperamental category called “slow-to-warm,” which researchers have determined is about 15% of the population, adjusting to new situations or behaviors is particularly difficult. (For more information, check out any websites that appear when you Google Chess, Thomas and Birch, the three researchers to first explore temperament in the middle of the last century, as their research continues to be applied today. An example is:

There are also some ages and stages that can be more anxious than others, such as when children are two-and-one-half-years, seven years, and 13 years old. (For information about ages and stages, Google the work of the Gesell Institute or read any of the books by them, including Child Behavior: The Classic Child Care Manual from the Gesell Institute of Human Development.)

Predictability and temperament stages

When children are particularly sensitive to their environments because of the stage they are in, predictability becomes essential for reducing stress in their lives.

For children who have been impacted by high levels of unhealthy or toxic stress, or who have experienced emotional traumas, parents are encouraged to appreciate what trauma expert Dr. Bruce Perry shares to help address some of the issues these children face [ Dr. Perry describes principles of working with traumatized children.

He states that parents and caregivers should do the following:

Provide a consistent, predictable pattern for the day. Make sure the child knows the pattern. When the day includes new or different activities, tell the child beforehand and explain why this day’s pattern is different. Don’t underestimate how important it is for children to know that their caretakers are “in control.” It is frightening for traumatized children (who are sensitive to control) to sense that the people caring for them are, themselves, disorganized, confused and anxious. There is no expectation of perfection, however, when caretakers are overwhelmed, irritable or anxious; simply help the child understand why, and that these reactions are normal and will pass. 

By providing an environment where the routines around daily living are predictable for children, children can be much less stressed and much more relaxed. When children are relaxed, they can be easier to parent, more open to learning and growing, and less likely to demonstrate high levels of stress through behavior such as temper tantrums, crying, aggressiveness or withdrawing.

Taking the time to keep routines predictable benefits parent and child alike. Providing predictability can be especially helpful when holidays come around and things get a little crazy for everyone, or when traveling. Bringing familiar clothing, books and toys, providing familiar food, and sticking with normal bedtime routines can reduce stress and promote greater cooperation by children.

Invitation to reflect:

  1. What are some of the rituals and routines you have in your home that promote a sense of safety and predictability for your children?
  2. How can you ensure that you protect and preserve these predictable rituals and patterns when other things in your family’s world are more chaotic—such as what happens around the holidays with all the decorating, shopping and traveling?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network