10/27/2014 03:17 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Children Develop an Internal Clock

The following is an excerpt from The Learning Habit by Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman, Rebecca Jackson and Dr. Robert Pressman by arrangement with Perigee, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, Copyright © 2014 by Good Parent, Inc


Knowing what time "feels" like is hard work for kids.

Most adults have developed what we call an "internal clock." This allows us to estimate how long tasks should take. It also alerts us when things are taking too long. However, when we are truly immersed in a task, our internal clock can shut off. Many parents have had the "Oh NO!" moment - the moment where we look at our watch and suddenly realize we are late to pick up our child.

It's a pretty frightening feeling, as no parent wants to let down their child or leave them waiting for a ride. My "Oh NO!" moment happened on the third week of school, when I was so immersed in a project I forgot to walk out to the bus-stop to pick up my five year old daughter. Now I have an alarm set on my phone as reminder.

One of the most wonderful things about children is how open they are to fully turning themselves over to an experience.

Watch them play, take in a movie, dance or daydream. They are almost literally transported someplace else. This magical ability to get lost in projects makes time management challenging for them. They don't want to annoy their parents, leave them waiting, or make them late. They are simply having an "Oh NO!" moment every day. It's not fun. I've been there.

The other half of time management has to do with developing an "internal clock." This is developed after children understand what a certain period of time should feel like in their body. A six year old understands past, present and future, but has no concept of how long ago in the past something was. It could have been one week or one year ago.

An eight year old understands there are seven days in a week, but probably can't tell you how many minutes an average movie is. The concept of time and estimating time is complex.

Kids don't grasp time, they learn routines.

Use visual reminders of time for all children: calendars, pictures, etc. Have them wear a watch, but realize that unless they internalize a certain period of time (actually know what an hour feels like, or what 5 minutes feels like) time means nothing to them.

To teach children time management skills, the first step is to have them internalize the amount of time something should take. Make it time specific. Here's an example from a father interviewed for The Learning Habit research project.

Case Study: Seth and Time Management

Seth's father Tony realizes that he frequently has to bark orders at Seth (age 8) in the morning so he gets dressed. Seth seems to dawdle and get lost in tasks - even the simple task of putting on clothes takes 25 minutes and requires that Tony keep him on task.

Tony tries a new tactic. He sets a timer in his son's room for 5 minutes. He sits with Seth for the first morning and points at the timer to keep Seth on task.

The next day, Tony sets two alarms for his son. The first to wake him up and the second goes off 5 minutes later. Tony stays with his son while he gets dressed, and says "nice job staying focused."

After two days, Tony sets the alarms at night, but does not need to be in the room anymore.

Kids and Alarm Clocks

Many parents cringe at the idea of setting alarms for kids. It's important to note that alarm clocks have come a long way over the past few decades! Kids don't need to be startled awake by a painful noise anymore. For a small investment, you can have them awakened to music that gets gradually louder, even a favorite song.

There is nothing weird, or wrong, or mean about setting alarms for children to use. It helps them stay on task. As a highly creative person who also has a tendency to become overly focused on tasks, I frequently use automated reminders and alarms to stay on schedule.

When teaching a child how to learn time, it's imperative that they develop an internal clock. This is the only way they will learn how to self-regulate. If parents are reminding children or using orders, children will not self-regulate.

LEARN MORE: The Learning Habit gives parents research and case studies on real kids using media for consumption and creation. Information on nearly 50,000 parents who participated in the groundbreaking research project and includes information on Time Management.