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Sunday, March 4, 2012

Quick Parenting (Practicing) Tip: The Power of Routine

A wise parent shared a discovery she made this week. She told me that she had missed one day of practice with her child this week. She also had some trouble sticking to a practice schedule that occurred at the same time every day due to a varied work schedule. Her discovery was that both of these things adversely affected the progress she and her daughter made this past week.

Hard to believe that missing one day would have much of an adverse effect on overall progress, I know. However, it is true, and I frequently tell parents this. I have also told parents that I can easily tell when the parents and students skip one day of the listening assignment. So I was not surprised to hear that this parent made a similar discovery regarding a practice schedule and routine.

The Internet offers many articles about the need for daily routines for young children. There are even articles that provide suggested daily routines. Routines offer many positive benefits for young children and families.
  • Routines help the child feel safe. Routines lead to predictability, which in turn leads to stability. Stability leads to security; the child feels reassured that his or her needs will be met.
  • Routines help the child learn healthy habits. Most households set hygiene routines, which are reinforced daily and perhaps several times a day. These routines become habits that can last well throughout an adult’s life.
  • Routines help the child learn how to be responsible. Routines teach the child skills that will lead to the child taking ownership and responsibility of various aspects of his or her life.
  • Routines provide opportunities for children to be successful at an activity; successful accomplishment builds self-esteem and confidence.
 Here is a list of benefits for using routines from Dr. Laura Markham’s website "Aha! Parenting":
  • Power struggles are eliminated.
  • Stress and anxiety are reduced.
  • Rebellion and opposition are lessened.
  • The concept of “looking forward” to an activity is learned.
  • Schedules are developed.
  • Consistent parental expectations are maintained.
My parent complained that by skipping one day, a crack appeared in the smooth practice operation that she and her daughter had built. For the next few days after, the parent had to contend with “drama,” as she calls it, meaning that her young one was balking about doing practice or was insisting that practice be curtailed.

Granted, young children are forever changing in their development, both physically and mentally. What works today may not work tomorrow. Even taking that factor into account, this parent could point to several undesirable behaviors that her child newly showed after they missed that one practice. My parent found that after missing one day in the usual practice routine, she had to spend several days thereafter reestablishing the routine and the positive results that normally flowed from the practice.

Despite my frequent advice to parents about the importance of establishing a daily practice routine, many parents do not take my advice. As a result, as a teacher I am frequently confronted with the aftermath of such a sad decision. More often than I care to see, a student and his or her parent come to the lesson with inadequate preparation or practice since the previous lesson. I have to wonder in this situation what it is that the parent expects me to do. I liken this situation to that of a master sculptor. I am well trained to create a beautiful and lasting sculpture, a real thing of beauty that will touch and remain in the child’s heart forever, but the parent brings me no clay to work with or the parent brings me clay that has not been taken care of in between my work sessions and is dried up and crumbling. I can well wonder what miracle the student’s parent expects from me.

Five or ten minutes a day is not a long time, and a parent and child can accomplish a great deal of learning in that short period of time. Five or ten minutes will not produce a master artist in a short period of time, but it will help a parent and student establish an effective working routine that will carry over into other daily activities.

I assume that parents want what is best for their children. Therefore, I am puzzled about why some parents find so many excuses for not spending quality time of five to 10 minutes per day in a powerful learning situation. Not to do so must mean that the parent has found something much more important to focus on, except that I expect that this is not the case.
 “As adults, we have the advantage of controlling many aspects of our lives. Often we arrange things (work schedules, child care, friendships, appointments, etc.) to enhance convenience and reduce hassle, making life just a little bit easier and probably a bit more enjoyable. How would you feel if you had no idea what to expect in your day? What if you didn’t know why you were leaving the house, where someone was driving you, when you were going to eat next, where you could go to use the bathroom, or when you were going to get back home again? Children don’t have the privilege of arranging their days the way adults do; they have very little control over their environments. Consequently, children try to find ways to control their surroundings, often resulting in undesirable outcomes, such as tantrums, defiance, and other inappropriate behaviors. Routines and schedules help kids make sense of their day—morning, noon, and night—and know what to expect. This reduces anxiety and apprehension, and allows for more time for kids to enjoy and learn from their surroundings instead of stressing out about them.” ("Ready, Set, Routine!! The Importance of Routines in Children's Lives" by Maci Elkins, MSW, Program Manager of the Lower Shore Early Intervention Program; click to read more).
I recall reading an interesting tip from a children's author. When asked how she set up her writing routine, she explained that she maintained a table in her writing notebook. This table provided three columns: date, word count, and explanation. Every single day, this author wrote an entry in her table. She listed the date, the number of words she had written, and if she had not done any writing, she wrote a description of her excuse. Because she had to write an excuse or explanation for why she did not meet her writing goal, she found motivation instead for completing her assignment. Perhaps this would be a good solution for some of the parents in the Suzuki family.

I suggest that you make it a goal to practice every day and to note how long you practiced. Find a way to record this, whether it is on your daily calendar or on a special computer-designed form. If you have to skip a day's practice, record your excuse or explanation on your calendar or form. Hopefully, this action will provide the necessary motivation and incentive to go ahead and complete the practice anyway.

Another suggestion I have is to develop a good understanding of what a ten minute period really consists of. Carry a small kitchen timer with you or use a watch or Smart Phone feature, and record some basic activities that you perform this week. See how long many routine activities actually demand of your time. My theory is that you will discover that ten minutes is a relatively short amount of time to spend on any activity, and yet if you were to sit still and do nothing for 10 minutes, you would most likely discover that ten minutes feels like a very long time.

If you have difficulty with a ten minute routine, then start smaller. Strive for a three or five minute routine and do it more than once in a day. Experiment with different times of the day. My parent discovered that they have no problems when practice is initiated in the mornings, but that afternoons are more complicated. So this parent strives to fit practice times into morning times and routines in order that the rest of the day flows smoother.

If anyone has any other suggestions, please comment and share them. As a professional musician, I must practice on a consistent basis. I made a commitment to practice every single day this year, and so far I am on track. I gave myself permission to practice a short amount of time if necessary rather than try to strive for a longer period of time. I found that for me, giving myself permission to do a short amount of time actually encouraged me to engage in longer periods of practice time. If I insisted that I practice for an hour or more, then I would be tempted to give up and skip the practice.

Ten minutes is a good round number. I seldom practice this short amount of time, but the ten minute minimum really gets me going. I accomplish much. A young child can accomplish a great deal in this amount of time.


  1. Hi Paula. My daughter practices violin daily. She is 3.5 years old now. She will be taking up piano as second instrument , how long do you reckon she should practice daily? She will be practicing piano daily too but when she goes to primary school, I think she may need to practice on alternate days for piano, Is it okay to practice on alternate days for 2nd instrument?

    1. Practice times should vary depending on the tasks to be accomplished and the energy of the child that day. Remember that whatever length of time you spend, your child will develop and strengthen concentration and focus for that amount of time. Short practices may impact on a lesson that is longer.

      I recall a six year old boy at Suzuki Institute who played violin at book 7 level, as well as viola and piano. He may have had some limiting health issues that prevented him from doing the typical childhood activities, so he may have had plenty of time to spend on practicing. I remember expressing concerns about his ability to handle a seven-class institute day, but his teacher reassured me that he would have the stamina and concentration to do it, and she was correct. Since his mother spent a great deal of time practicing with him daily, he had the ability to handle long periods of classroom time at institute.

      I had one student whose mother was consistently late to lessons by 15 minutes due to unexpected work emergencies, leaving us with a 15 minute lesson time. One week the mother came on time. I was excited because I would have a full 30 minutes to work with the child. To my disappointment, I found that the child had an attention span (concentration and focus) of 15 minutes, because that is what we had been "practicing" every week.

      Ideally a student should be able to practice as long as their lesson time, but this will take building up to. As a teacher I am pretty good at getting a student's attention back on me if it should wane during a lesson. I am not sure that parents would do this as well unless they copied what I do. I believe that few parents actually copy what I do, judging by the small amount of note taking I see at lessons.

      I'm excited that your daughter will be adding a second instrument. There has been a lively discussion on the SAA forum about this topic. Some folks have recommended that the child wait a year or two to add a second instrument. There may be some value to that advice. When a child learns one instrument, they will then go quicker on a second instrument later because they have already learned so much from the first instrument that then translates to the second instrument.

      Whatever you decide, please let me know how it goes.

  2. Thanks Paula, decided to wait till she starts Minuet3 before she starts learning piano. Meantime, I will be the one learning piano and she will sit aside to watch.
    I hope this can help her with a more solid foundation in violin, before starting on the second, and also, develop more interest in piano so as not to quit easily. :)

    1. I saw your comment about this in the SAA forums. I think this is a great plan! She learns a lot by watching you learn and practice, and you build up her motivation day by day. I can almost hear her say, "Hurry up, mom!" And by telling her that Minuet 3 is your goal, then she is learning how to set a goal and work towards accomplishing it. Great solution!

  3. I am researching the Suzuki method for my daughters (2 and 4.5), and true to my style I am reading everything I can get my hands on before diving in. I just wanted to let you know that I really appreciate everything you share on the SAA forums and here on your blog - I am beginning to feel prepared, and am formulating a solid routine that will get us started with good habits from day 1. I want to take advantage of my 4 year old's enthusiasm (she has been begging for violin lessons ever since two of her classmates gave a recital at school this winter!) but I also want this to be sustainable, something my daughters will enjoy for life. Thanks for your guidance, and the generosity of your time spent answering questions :)

    1. Thank you so much, Alyssa, for your kind words. This blog is definitely a labor of love. I have several parents in my studio who help provide me with weekly topic ideas (related to their struggles as a parent). I have taught for a very long time, and I have come to the conclusion that the Suzuki Method is the best approach for learning anything and especially for learning how to be a better parent. I use the approach in my university studio as well. I hope you will continue to pursue this approach, and please, please feel free to write me anytime with ideas or questions. I have visited with folks via Skype as well and personal email. I hope to hear from you again! I can't wait to hear how much your children love music lessons!

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