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Making Your Morning Routines Manageable

Author: Connie Schnoes – Boys Town Center for Behavioral HealthSM

On school days, getting children out of the house on time with their clothes in order, teeth brushed, tummies full and backpacks in hand can be challenging.

And getting kids out the door without having to nag, yell and race may seem impossible.

But by creating a positive morning routine, you can teach your child to take responsibility for getting ready for school and have more pleasant interactions with him or her in the process. A smooth morning routine also can help your child feel more successful, improve his or her self-image and reduce stress in a big way.

I didn’t say it would be easy. Old patterns are hard to break. You and your child may have a history with morning routines that needs to significantly change. With time, effort and patience, smoother, happier mornings can be a reality.

If you continue to remind, do for and help (when help isn’t required), your child will likely let you keep reminding, doing for and helping. This pattern actually teaches your child to be dependent on you and to avoid the tasks of a morning routine. Coming up with a new plan is about teaching your child to complete his or her morning routine as independently as possible.

The following steps can help you develop a strategy, that when used consistently every day, can shift the responsibility for getting ready in the morning from you to your child. That is, your child learns what morning tasks are his or hers and eventually does them with little or no prompting from you. 

1. Decide what time your child needs to walk out the door to be to school on time. This might involve getting to the bus stop, starting the walk to school or being in your car for a ride.

2. Think about all the things your child needs to do from the time he or she wakes up until it is time to leave. Think carefully about how much time each task requires and ensure that you and your child have enough time to get everything done.

3. Make a list of the things that need to be done in the order they should be completed. For young children, adding drawings or pictures to the list may be helpful.  Your list might look like this:

  • Get dressed
  • Brush hair
  • Eat breakfast
  • Take medicine
  • Brush teeth
  • Grab coat and backpack (placed by the door the night before)

4. Decide with your child on an activity he or she can enjoy if there is some free time after the tasks on the list are completed. You must approve the activity, which could include watching TV, playing a video game, playing with the dog, reading, listening to music, playing the piano or working on the computer. Write this activity at the bottom of the list.

5. Post the list in two or three places where your child will see it every day.

6. Tell your child he or she is to do each task on the list every morning and check them off as they are completed. (Monitor your child as he or she works through the list.) With young children, you can check off a task together and read the next one. When everything is done at least five minutes before it’s time to leave, your child can enjoy the last activity on the list.

7. As your child engages in and/or completes a task, provide specific praise (e.g., “Good job getting dressed”; “Your hair looks good”). You also may provide encouragement by saying things like, “Just two more tasks and you get to watch TV” or “Wow, you are doing great! I bet you’ll have time for piano this morning.”

8. When your child gets everything done with time to spare, make sure he or she gets to do the fun activity. If all tasks don’t get done on time, make sure he or she doesn’t do the fun activity.

9. No matter how many tasks your child completes, make sure he or she leaves for school on time! Your child may end up tying his shoes in the car or missing breakfast or going to school with messy hair. The key is not to give in to the temptation to nag or scold or to do a task for your child. You can talk with your child’s teachers and let them know you are working on teaching your child independence and responsibility so they’ll know why your child might come to school hungry or with messy hair a few mornings. Chances are this won’t happen for very long before your child figures out how to get through the routine successfully.

With positive morning routines, planning and patience are the keys to success. If you give this strategy a try and it doesn’t seem to be working, make sure your child has enough time to get everything done. Always praise your child for his or her efforts and continue to use the fun activity as motivation to complete the list on time. And remember, change takes time. Be consistent, be patient and believe in your child.