First, a disclaimer: I am not a child psychologist or therapist. I’m just a mom and foster caregiver who has become somewhat obsessed with the lay scholarship of child development in order to understand the children who come and go from our home. I read books and articles in order to discover what our kids need from us in order to thrive. I listen to conference talks and podcasts, culling ideas for helping our kids flourish in our care and beyond. And I study children—in our home, of course, but also at my children’s school, at church, in the grocery store, and pretty much everywhere else I have a chance to interact with children.
All of my “studying” of late has brought me to this one idea, and it pretty much guides my every (good) parenting move:
What kids need more than anything is love, and what feels most like love to a child is structure.
The reason for this is rooted in science. People who study these things have concluded that there are four stages of cognitive development in children:
- Sensorimotor Stage: Birth through about 2 years. During this stage, children learn about the world through their senses and the manipulation of objects.
- Preoperational Stage: Ages 2 through 7. During this stage, children develop memory and imagination. They are also able to understand things symbolically, and to understand the ideas of past and future.
- Concrete Operational Stage: Ages 7 through 11. During this stage, children become more aware of external events, as well as feelings other than their own. They become less egocentric, and begin to understand that not everyone shares their thoughts, beliefs, or feelings.
- Formal Operational Stage: Ages 11 and older. During this stage, children are able to use logic to solve problems, view the world around them, and plan for the future.
Unfortunately, when a child is born into the circumstances that often lead to being placed in foster care—neglect and/or physical abuse—it is not at all uncommon for them to have missed out on the nurturing and input that form the stages. For this reason, they are often what we call “delayed.” A child begins learning emotional regulation as an infant gazing into her mother’s eyes, reading her expressions and imitating them. Without that input and interaction, her little brain misses out on some vital brain development. This prevents her from moving into the next stage. This is evident in a six- or seven- or ten-year-old who still puts everything in his mouth like a one-year-old exploring his world, or who demonstrates a total lack of ability to play imaginatively. This is evident in a twelve-year-old who is not able to see past himself, or a fourteen-year-old who still responds to frustration with toddler-like whining and even full-blown tantrums.
I’ve seen this so very much, in my own kids and in the stories I hear from others, and before I understood the stages of brain development and the role neglect and abuse play in stunting that development, I spent a lot of time feeling frustrated by children who didn’t “act their age.”
My solution to the hard challenge of being a caregiver for children who have suffered early childhood neglect/abuse/trauma? Structure.
A structured life provides a child with a sense of safety and predictability. A structured life forms new habits in a child, which forms new brain paths. Repetition reconditions a child’s brain, and while no one can go back in time and protect a child from the things they lost or suffered, we can begin today, through being intentional about offering them a structured life, to teach them new things—to re-train their brain with new neuropathways that they missed out on the first time around.
And when we do this, over time, the child begins to feel a sense of being loved. Because for a child, love feels like stability. Love feels like positive predictability. Love feels like control. Love feels like safety. “I know what’s coming at me. We don’t have a lot of surprises here. I can predict what’s happening, and that makes me feel safe.” From that place of feeing safe, a child’s brain can begin to develop those vital cognitive pathways.
Here are a few ideas of what structure can look like.
- Consistent sleep. Kids need to go to bed at the same time and get up at the same time as often as possible. It is not good or helpful for children to be inconsistent with their sleep habits, because it affects the health of their brain (ours too!) and emotional regulation. And a child lacks the executive function to be able to decide for himself when and how much he needs to sleep. That’s the job of his caregiver.
- Healthy diet. “You are what you eat,” is a phrase I remember hearing as a child, and truer words have never been spoken. We need to provide our kids with healthy options and minimize the junk they have access to. As I put it, “I want to get good stuff into my kids’ bodies.” There are some foods that are known to contribute to healthy brain development—protein, fiber, and healthy fats seem to be key.
- Daily physical rigor. Kids need to run. Plain and simple, kids need to move their bodies and explore their world. When a toddler is begging for his mom’s attention and his mom hands him a smartphone over and over again, his body and brain are not getting the input and interaction he needs for healthy brain development. Kids need to run and experience the interaction of play—rolling a ball back and forth or playing tag or getting the feedback of “watch this, Mom!” all contribute to healthy brain function.
- Reading together every day. Bedtime Books is one of the best habits you can give your child, for so very many reasons. Reading to your child accomplishes so much! Physical touch (cuddling on a couch or bed as you look at a book together), language development (all those words! Formed into correct syntax and grammar!), and imagination formation (stories, characters, beautiful imagery) are just the start of what reading together does for a child.
- A consistent schedule. Kids thrive in predictability. As early as two or three years old, children can understand the rhythms of life—daily and weekly schedules. Daily: get up, eat breakfast, get dressed, brush our teeth, go to the car for school or preschool or church. Weekly: go to school some days, go to church or temple or the mosque some days, have a Saturday at home. Even with the unstructured nature of weekends and holidays, we can (and do) create “holiday structure,” keeping to our sleep and diet practices as we communicate the plan for the day (this morning we’re going to be home. You can play together. After lunch, we’re going to clean the house together. You will be responsible for your bedroom (following your bedroom cleaning plan—structure!). Tonight we will have pizza for dinner and watch a movie.) Simply giving them the plan for an unusual day can make the difference between successful emotional regulation or chaos and emotional meltdowns.
Is this fool-proof? Not at all. Kids will still have their moments. So will adults. But in my experience, and based on my research, we’re on to something when we begin to embrace the vital importance of structure for our children and do our best to offer it to them—with (and because of) love.
One way we practice structure in our home is through the use of visual charts. I have made a few of the ones we use available here to give you ideas or a starting point. Feel free to print and use them!
- Visual Chart: How I Clean Up My Bedroom (Pink)
- Visual Chart: How I Clean Up My Bedroom (Blue)
- Visual Chart: What Can I Do? (Preschool)
- Visual Chart: What Can I Do? (Elementary School)
- Visual Chart: House Rules