In Waldorf education, especially in a Waldorf Early Childhood classroom, each day is enriched by ritual and routine. While many parents appreciate how this helps children feel secure, structure is also essential for social and academic development. Why is it so key to the development of children both behaviorally and neurologically?
A recent study of infants, as examined in the book, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School, (edited by John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown and Rodney R. Cocking [National Academy Press]) has determined that children as young as 5 months notice and respond to patterns and routines. We are, it seems, hardwired for structure.
In fact, surveys of human fears find that “the unknown” ranks consistently in the top five. And, as Dr. Laura Markham further notes in her article, Structure: Why Kids Need Routines, everything is unknown and changing in a child’s life — their bodies, brains and skills. If a child’s external day-to-day life is also in constant flux, children will have nowhere to turn for a sense of safety and security. Markham also believes that structure encourages children to have self discipline since they are not distracted by having to manage their environment. But HOW does structure help self discipline? How does that work in the brain itself?
Psychology Today Author, Karen Spangenberg Postal, Ph.d. explains it here: How Structure Improves Your Child’s Brain. Studies indicate that when parents set structure and assist with follow through on structured tasks, they are acting as the child’s adopted executive brain function.
“Think back to your child’s third birthday party. The parents all stayed at the party in order to follow their child through the chaos, squashing their impulse to grab a present, drying tears after they didn’t get the first piece of cake, and keeping an eye out for the first steps in the “bathroom dance.” A neuroscientist would say that the parents are acting as external frontal executive networks, literally lending their child their own brain’s ability to modulate emotions, resist impulses, and plan into the future.
… The executive abilities to resist impulses, plan into the future, and modulate emotion are not only useful for being independent at birthday parties and staying awake during the day, but also for succeeding in the classroom. And yet there is a commonly held notion that as parents we should back off and leave kids on their own when it comes to learning and homework.”
Spangenberg Postal then gives examples of how parents must provide it, at different levels, at different times in life. As an example, she outlines the difference between helicopter parents (I’ll do that for you) and parents that assist executive brain function (let me create structure to help you do that yourself). Examples include – calendar’s and reminded check ins for primary school children, set homework time and place for elementary children and enforced bedtimes for adolescents.
Routine does not just help the brain develop discipline and future executive function, it is also key in academic and cognitive development such as language and social skills. A research paper written by Mary Spagnola, PhD; Barbara H. Fiese, PhD (Published by Infants & Young Children Vol. 20, No. 4, pp. 284–299 2007 Wolters Kluwer Health | Lippincott Williams & Wilkins) takes an even closer look at how routine affects brain function and child development.
The study discusses the value of many common rituals and routines and their affects, as corroborated by other studies, on language development, social skills, and self management. The authors specifically discuss how language development is directly affected by meal time routines, which are rich in what they call, “meta-language” opportunities “exposing children to a broad range of its use including narratives, explanations, clarifications, and cultural rules about speech (Aukrust, 2002; Ely, Gleason, MacGibbon, & Zaretsky, 2001).”
They also note that In addition to meal times, reading routines, before bed or after school, encourage academic skills such as vocabulary and comprehension via “repetition and responsiveness.”
So, as it turns out, ritual and structure for young children and adolescents is not only about providing a sense of security in a changing world. Although that is key, the routines themselves have been shown to affect brain function as seen through social and academic development. That is why routines like daily opening verse, bread making on Wednesday, or keeping the same teacher for 8 years are not just novel or comforting tenets of a Waldorf education. They are essential structures used to successfully educate the whole child.