Routines are very important for all children, but particularly important for children with delays and/or disabilities. Why? With a familiar routine, your child will know what to expect which will result in less anxiety and frustration as well as fewer tantrums or meltdowns AND more familiar activities to use their communication skills.
Routines are an excellent way to model vocabulary for children with expressive language delays- words and phrases can be used repetitively so kids will get a lot of exposure for everyday, functional words! Some kids do well with a loose schedule and some prefer rigid schedules that they may prefer to or insist on adhering to down to the minute. While I do not recommend purposely setting super rigid schedules for children (because they can be difficult to follow daily and very upsetting when it's not possible), I do think having a predictable home routine is very beneficial for the whole family.
A great place to start a routine is having a set bedtime. All too often parents report their child does not want to go to sleep so they stay up super late watching cartoons or playing on their iPad. I know this can be hard, and I respect household and cultural differences in bedtimes, but staying up very late needs to not be an option for children who have to go to school in the morning. Sleep is SO important for children (and adults!!) and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children ages 3-5 should get 10-13 hours of sleep a day (including naps), and children ages 6-12 should get 9-12 hours of sleep each night. So if your school aged child needs to wake up at 6 in the morning, they need to be asleep by 9 pm to get the MINIMUM amount of sleep recommended- and 6 pm to get the full 12 hours (I totally get that 6pm isn't realistic but for most kids there can be a happy medium). The benefits of getting enough sleep are numerous and include mental/physical health, attention, memory, learning, behavior and more. The AAP also recommends no screen time 30 minutes prior to bed, no electronics in children’s bedrooms, and having a bedtime routine. I encourage you to read about the AAP’s Brush, Book, Bed program which talks about setting a routine and has tons of links to research here.
Setting up a bedtime routine: Bedtime routines can be anything you want them to be, as long as they are familiar and predictable. For my son Kam (who was two when I wrote this), he takes a bath every other day after dinner. After his bath (or playtime on non-bath days), he gets to watch an episode of his favorite show (Paw Patrol at the time!). As soon as the music plays at the end, he knows it’s time for night night, and this is great because we rarely have crying/refusal to go to bed, he just knows it’s time because it's our routine. We brush his teeth (first Kam, then mommy!) then we head upstairs to his room where we read a book or two. He turns on his three lights (not kidding, he has three!). We sing a few of his favorite songs, and then have a special mommy and Kam song that we sing. We have a little music maker that we play after we tuck him in, and then we leave his room. This routine has worked really great for us, but your child might need a longer or shorter routine and that’s ok too! It doesn't really matter what your routine is, and it doesn't have to look anything like ours- but the important thing is that it's the same each night. The key here is not to offer unsupervised electronics- or anything super fun- during this time. We can’t make our kids go to sleep, but we can keep devices, TV’s, and favorite toys out of reach.
We also face changes regularly because we have a blended family. Kam has brothers that are with us half of the time, and with their mom the other half of the time. So obviously things are different when brothers are home. They are much older and have a completely different schedule to add to our mix. Kam’s main schedule remains the same regardless of if brothers are home or not, but we do try to get upstairs a little earlier when brothers are home because they love to go to his room, get in his bed, throw his stuffed animals around, and just be totally wild which of course makes him wild too. So starting his routine earlier helps keep him closer to his schedule and it works for us! All that to say, it’s okay to change your schedule a bit, but if possible, make minor adjustments to keep it as usual as you can.
Another routine that might be helpful for your child and family is a morning routine. Some families have different weekday and weekend morning routines (we do!), but other children may need to have one routine that stays the same regardless of the day. Our weekday morning routine goes like this: My husband wakes Kam up, changes his diaper and gets him dressed each morning before he leaves for work. Kam then gets to play with toys while I finish getting ready. We usually have all meals at the table, but since I value sleep and Kam does well with a loosely structured routine, he also gets to eat cheerios in the bathroom while I’m getting ready. Once I’m ready, we brush his teeth, put his shoes on, feed the cat (it’s Kam’s job and he LOVES it!), get mommy’s coffee (one of the most important parts!), and then we get in the car to head to daycare. There is nothing special about our morning routine- it’s just that we keep it the same and that makes it work. Kam knows what to expect and as a result, it goes pretty smoothly the majority of the time. That’s not to say we don’t have tantrums in the morning, because of course we do- (he didn’t want to feed the cat and then got mad when I did it for him; he saw his bike in the garage and wanted to ride it instead of get in the car; he doesn’t want mommy to go to work, and on and on)… He’s still two, so we (just like everyone else!) will still have issues with literally everything- so don’t expect this to be a “fix everything” solution because as sad as it makes me to say, there’s no such thing.
Other routines such as bathtime, naptime, snack time, play routines, and monitoring/limiting screen time would be great to implement at your house. If you do not have routines in your house, I would start with the one you think would be the easiest to change for you and your child and then slowly add more. If your current routine is driven by your child (eats/sleeps/plays when they want), I would expect these changes to be difficult and would recommend you prepare for tantrums and/or complaining. Do your best to support your child while continuing to implement your routine. Kids are pretty resilient and will get used to it and accept it and even thrive once they know what to expect, it just might be bumpy until they understand the changes. A social story may also be beneficial to make and review for your child before implementing these changes- this would particularly be helpful for a child who struggles with transition and/or are or are possibly Autistic.
Once you have a predictable routine in place, it’s time to add some repetitive and predictable language routines into your day!