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When The Child Who Needs Structure Fights It The Most

The truth is, sometimes, the child who needs structure is the one who fights it the most.

I hear it all the time.

Every doctor, every therapist, every educator…

At some point in discussing my youngest son’s learning differences and special needs, every expert has made the same generalized recommendation, with varying degrees of concern and judgement.

He needs structure.

For a child with his level of differences, he needs structure to know that he can depend on the routine, even when he can’t depend on his own mind and body.

If he had more structure, you might not being seeing the increasing anxiety at home.

Are you sure you can provide the structure he needs outside of a school environment?

On my worst days, I want to respond to these types of statements with a few of my own.

Really, I have never thought of that?

Wow, I have never heard that before in all 12 years of dealing with this. You’re a genius.

Good idea – let’s put him back into a special education classroom and see what happens to his mental health and chronic health condition. I’m sure the structured environment will more than make up for the bullying, the lack of IEP compliance, less individualized attention, lack of understanding of his high IQ and documented decrease in self image and esteem. 

I may want to say these things, but I don’t. Most days, I agree and then try to communicate the hardest part of the “provide structure” recommendation –

Sometimes, the child that requires structure is the one that fights it the most.

When The Child Who Needs Structure Fights It The Most

This is one of the most challenging things aspects of our lives right now.

I know my son needs some structure and consistency, yet he resists every single attempt we make to re-establish it.

Part of it is that we got so completely out of routine with his recent hospital stay. Most of it is that even under the best circumstances, he tends to do all that he can to resist and defy scheduled expectations. Call it his creative, free-flowing side. Call it oppositional behavior. Call it being spoiled.

It doesn’t matter what you call it – it’s reality and it’s a constant need.

When The Child Who Needs Structure Fights It The Most - homeschooling, homeschooling mom, structure, routine, special needs, special education

When The Child Who Needs Structure Fights It The Most

Over the course of the past few years, especially since my son’s exposure to the daily structure of a public school option last fall, I have learned a few things that help get us back on track. No matter how much my son resists the structured (not necessarily super scheduled, but definitely routine driven and predictiable) environment he actually craves, the following has helped us both maintain a basic flow to our day.

My Routine Matters

This is probably the number one tip that I have in regards to creating structure for a child – Create your own structured day and routines first.

It may seem simple, but the truth is, when my son is experiencing chaos day in and day out, I tend to get incredibly chaotic as well. I feel defeated and that defeat affects my own daily routines.

If I want to help my son relax into a more structured the day, I have learned that the first thing I need to do is address my own. This means a structured morning routine, daily non-negotiables for housekeeping, and a general plan for our homeschool time.

Projects and Activities Help

No matter how badly our day is going, one of the surest ways to get my son engaged and back on track is with a hands-on project or activity. Because of this, I have a few planned activities every week, and employ them on days when my son is struggling to follow our rhythm and routine. These projects typically take the place of a portion of our traditional homeschool work, and I find they allow him to transition back into what we have planned (much better than he does when I lose it and start making demands).

Get The Day Back

Mom Confession: When the day starts to go badly, I tend to want to give up in defeat. I’m tired. He’s had such a hard time lately. There are so many reasons to just let the child be.

While all of this is true, it does not help my son to just allow him to watch seven episodes of Spongebob on the couch – even if that is what he might naturally be inclined to do – and here’s why. When he does just sit, it gets his sensory system out of whack. When the sensory input (or lack there of) is uncomfortable, his anxiety increases. When his anxiety increases, he starts to panic. When he starts to panic, a meltdown is soon to follow.

So giving up isn’t really an option. The best choice for all of us is to find ways to get the day back on track.

Turn on an audio book.

Go for a drive.

Bounce on the trampoline.

Take the dog for a walk.

Play at the park.

These are all simple strategies that help us seamlessly transition back into our routine.

When The Child Who Needs Structure Fights It The Most - homeschooling, homeschooling mom, structure, routine, special needs, special education

This has been and continues to be a focus and constant work in progress for me and for my son.

Do you find this to be true for you and yours as well? What do you do to get back on track?


For more information and support:

Weekly and Daily Routines (that are not so routine!)

Activities To Get Back On Track

Why Are Consistent Routines So Hard

When Waiting Is The Only Option


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  1. I suck at schedules. but have learned my boy does best when he knows what is expected of him.

  2. My boy feels like he’s suffocating and gets anxious when we have a super rigid schedule. But he flounders when there is no structure. I’m figuring out there is this magical sweet spot of flexible routines. Not too rigid. But not anything goes. It’s sooooo hard to stay in that magical balance though! I tend to “over correct” and swing between extremes. It’s our first year homeschooling and this is one of the biggest challenges I’m facing. Thanks for letting me know I’m not alone. My go to trick for getting us back on track is announcing “I’m going to go check the mail” (which I will even use when I know it has not come yet). My guy will always want to tag along with me and that brief walk and fresh air works wonders as a reset button.

    1. Oh my goodness – you are a genius!!! I am totally stealing the checking the mail idea. That’s awesome.

  3. I hear you. My son would do much better on a schedule. But he desperately fights any attempt to get him on a structure. Consequences for non-compliance escalate his poor behaviour, cause him to be unable to do any academic work, and actually make it harder to get him on-track. Still looking for a solution that works.

    1. Yes, one million times, Jill.
      🙂 Shawna

  4. I absolutely needed to read this post today. I have five children, the eldest with ADHD and the middle with ADHD and autism. I find that there are a million ways my day can get off track and I, too, feel so defeated when it happens. I have noticed that the giving up and letting them watch tv – even educational programs and documentaries- throws off their regulation and the end-of-day routine – from dinner to bedtime – becomes so difficult when that happens. Thanks for the ideas for getting back on track. We are in New Hampshire, so we tend to get a bit of cabin fever in the winter, but a nice car ride with an audio book in the CD player for an hour or so would be wonderful. Maybe some hot cocoa, too. They’d all enjoy that. Sounds like just the “reset” button that we might need, and I might even schedule it in weekly. Grateful to know I’m not alone! I have heard the structure and routine spiel over and over, but it is so much easier said than done. I especially have trouble with stopping and redirecting him if he is doing something creative, as he often is, like building with Legos or making a house for his stuffies out of a cardboard Amazon box that just arrived. I don’t want to interrupt that to get him back to a schedule just because I’ve arbitrarily decided that right now should be handwriting time. It’s hard to implement t routines and schedules that allow for this kind of spontaneous creativity.

    1. We are in NH too, between Winnipesaukee and Squam…I totally get your cabin fever realities! I agree that it’s verychallenging to balance between spontaneous and joyous learning/play and more organized or focused ‘seat work’. My daughter is nearly 7 and we are seeing some challenging things from her, mostly related to executive functioning and perhaps some ADD. I also try to keep my little guy who is 4, contentedly playing nearby or with us, as well as accommodating my husbands work-from-home-in-the-winter-non-schedule schedule. Sigh. We are struggling now too.

    2. The car and an audiobook is my #1 get the day back on track suggestion.
      And yes, I totally understand the pain of how to keep the routine, but honor the spontaneity. As I said, this topic is the most challenging thing I face in all of this. As least we know we are not alone.

  5. I wonder what definition of “structure” is in use here. Structure can mean time for a walk, playing a game, time for unstructured play, making lunch, building with Legos, etc. My daughter seldom did anything that resembled “schoolwork,” yet she (the child who was allergic to academics) has a 4 year degree in Theology, runs her familiy finances and juggles part time work at her church with raising 3 kids. I’ve been there. I felt God telling me when the meltdown came after 5 minutes of math, “Go to the park.” I’m so glad I didn’t worry about giving my daughter enough academic structure. BTW, as a former teacher I knew she would have been labeled ADHD, dyslexic, dysgraphic, and more. She went from reading at a 3rd grade level at 13 to college at 19. Structure is a good thing, but there are many different (and educational) ways to structure your day.

  6. Emily Michaelson says:

    Saw this post from the Homeschool Weekend Links. So glad to have found your blog. I will surely be visiting back here again soon. Thanks you for your work!

    1. Thank you so much, Emily! I’m glad you are here. 🙂
      Love, Shawna

  7. I have two grands on the spectrum. I have found that simply having our read aloud puts us back on track. One child struggles with dyslexia and is definitely an auditory learner. The oldest, with asperger, deals with anxiety which makes me think that I am on a roller coaster. The simple art of reading calms both children,
    I enjoy your blog and I am so thankful for you.

  8. I really enjoy your blog–it has saved me on more than one occasion! I just wish you had a kid older than my oldest so that you could lead me into the deep water of letting go of a young adult child who has fought structure her entire life and as she outgrows the stage where parental control is appropriate is descending into a chaos of her own making that simply hurts to watch.

  9. Christina Harris says:

    I love you. Thank you for being here and doing what you’re doing.
    Mom to Quinn, 13 yrs old, autistic

  10. Rebecca Amador says:

    One of our best days recently was to get in the car and drive an hour to Dallas while reviewing memory work and to get a favorite burger and a Sprinkles cupcake as a reward for (near) mastery and good attitude. We also reviewed while eating. 2 + hours of productive school time. Reminiscent of getting in car to put baby to sleep…whatever it takes ! Now we have a monthly goal and a fun reward to look forward to.

  11. Deanna Moore says:

    This was the perfect read today! My 7 yr. old (and the whole family) is struggling with behaviors that I’m totally confused by. And school has completely stopped while we sort out what’s going on. She is also refusing to do anything, even playing, if she believes it to be “schoolwork”. I’ve been working this past week to make a detailed schedule for her, and myself. It’s important that I have a good routine down before I can help her with hers. And that’s hard. being s SAHM of 4, and still working weekends, and living far from any stores means I have little time for a routine of my own. Once I find a good rhythm, I am hopeful for a significant turnaround.

  12. I struggle with this daily with my son. Both of us have autism and in addition he has ADHD and ODD. So he needs – we both need structure and routine, yet he fights me on it constantly. Without the structure things tend to cause me great anxiety. Things fall apart for me and become increasingly chaotic. To make things even more complicated, I am agoraphobic and have physical disabilities, both of which make getting out of the house to clear our heads difficult.
    I have the daily struggle with giving up, wondering whether I should just send him to school. Your blog is a great help, even if its just so I know I’, not the only one struggling.

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