Behaviour & Emotions

How to make a hard thing easier: The power of rehearsals

Power of rehearsals

If your child is unfamiliar with a new environment or a new routine, it can really help to ‘rehearse’.

For example, when our daughter was starting school, I knew she would be timid and unsure about how to manage the big school playground. So, we took her to the school grounds a couple of times on the weekends to let her ‘practise’ the playground. She was definitely in awe of the tall climbing structures. She climbed up cautiously, and then she said she was stuck and couldn’t get down.

We asked her, “Okay, what will you do if you feel stuck up here when Mummy and Daddy are not here with you?” She looked very worried and wailed “I don’t knoooooowwwww!”

She was starting to get panicked and worried that school would be scary. She wanted Daddy to lift her down. 

We tried to ‘talk her down’ for a good while. We asked her to try turning her body around on the ladder, to climb down independently. She felt too scared to do this. She was starting to get panicked and worried that school would be scary. She wanted Daddy to lift her down.

He did lift her down, and we made a little agreement that for now, since she knew that particular structure was too scary for her, she would only go on the parts of the playground she was comfortable with. (And we would keep coming back to let her practise the big playground on the weekends until she was more confident.)

We also practised things like walking to her classroom so she knew how to find it. We asked her to tell us where the toilet was, and where we would meet her at 3pm. Reducing surprises and helping a child to feel like they have a plan, reduces anxiety for a child facing a new environment.

Reducing surprises and helping a child to feel like they have a plan, reduces anxiety for a child facing a new environment.

This kind of rehearsing is very useful for a child who is trying out a new experience for the first time. It can be applied at all ages – like when your child is learning to catch a bus.

“Okay so do you know how to use your AT Hop card? How will you know which bus to catch? What would you do if the bus goes past your stop?”

Hypothetical ‘What would you do if...’ questions are so useful!

Smoother sailing through stormy seas

Another way to use the rehearsal concept is if you are wanting your child to practise a tricky transition. We can pick a context that has become quite fraught. Maybe we've noticed that we are dreading a particular time of the day.

Perhaps it’s when your child is saying goodbye to you at kindy, or turning the iPad off when it’s the end of screen time, or maybe it's going to bed without a fuss. Or, perhaps they insist on starting the day before dawn...

A monkey tale

When our youngest child was two, I remember trying to teach him to stay in bed until a reasonable hour in the morning. Rather than 5AM, we wanted him to stay in bed until his little ‘monkey sleep clock’ opened its eyes at 6:30AM. Our son didn’t seem to be a fan of the monkey and didn't even want the clock in his room, so we decided to have a rehearsal during the day when it wasn’t scary, and he could practise the new rule.

His older siblings all joined in the game. The whole family lay down in the sitting room, pretending to be fast asleep (lots of fun pretend snoring), and then when the monkey opened his eyes, we would all sit up with big grins and say ‘good morning’ to each other.

Our older kids loved the rehearsal. Unfortunately, our two-year-old, who the lesson was aimed at, seemed to perceive that the monkey clock was demon-possessed. He screamed with abject terror each time the monkey opened its eyes without anyone touching it - even with all of us there with him in the lounge, even in the middle of the afternoon....

This was a rehearsal we had to abandon! We also abandoned the monkey clock.

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Keep it playful and make it game

Monkey clocks aside, in general, rehearsals are a handy parenting hack that you can apply to any ‘tricky’ time of the day. Rehearsals are a playful teaching tool, and they really help a child to understand what we want them to do.

For example, rehearsals could play out something like this:

“Bedtimes have been a bit tricky recently. Things have been getting a bit too drawn out. From now on, after you have jumped into bed, we will have two stories, one song and a big squeezy cuddle. Then I am going to say goodnight and leave the room. And no matter how many times you beg, I am not going to read more stories, or sing more songs. Okay? Got it? Alright! Let’s have a practice!”

We then ‘rehearse’ or practise it being bedtime in the middle of the afternoon.

We then ‘rehearse’ or practise it being bedtime in the middle of the afternoon. (Separate the practice time from the actual bedtime so that it can remain playful and feel like a game).

If your child delivers a stellar performance of following the new regime during practice, but this is NOT how they usually behave at bedtime, we can prompt them - “Okay, but I think you should BEG me for more stories!” or “Okay, but I think you should cry really loudly now!”

Kids will most likely chuckle at this point and will feel like it’s a great game, but really they are practising accepting a boundary. It is also a powerful rehearsal for US of holding the boundary.

Go over the ‘game’ of rehearsing several times.

“Whoa we both did that new way of doing bedtime so well!! Okay, let’s do it again!!”

Have fun with it and maybe even swap roles! You can be the one who is lying in bed begging for more stories or songs. Your child can practise being the firm parent!

This idea of rehearsing can be applied to any pattern of behaviour that’s starting to become tricky. Dr Becky Kennedy writes more about this concept of practising challenging scenarios with our kids, in her book Good Inside (pages 206-206). Storytelling is another way of rehearsing - telling your child a story about ‘another’ child who overcame a particular struggle.

So there you go, a simple tool to add to your parenting kete. And if practice doesn't make perfect, we believe it will at least lead to a huge improvement!


Kristin Ward

Kristin Ward manages the Family Coaching team and enjoys working with tricky dynamics in families. She loves supporting parents to see how they can be on the same team as their kids, no matter what challenging behaviour they are facing. A mum-of-three, Kristin is passionate about seeing whānau thrive and strongly believes there is lots parents can do to build close and warm relationships with their children.

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