Your Child's Morning Routine

Now that school’s back in session, it’s time to address what’s working or possibly not working with your child’s morning routine. So many of the parents that I work with confess to me that they can hardly recognize themselves in the morning. This is especially true for the parents that I work with who have sons with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). I’m not saying that it’s true across the board but so many parents expressed frustrations to me that are similar to, “Why in God’s name do I have to remind [my kid] to put on shoes before leaving the house?” I’ve been asked this. No parent likes to start the day barking orders about every miniscule detail and no child likes to start the day being barked at. 

Writer, Glen Cook, once wrote, “Mornings are wonderful. Their only drawback is that they come at such an inconvenient time of the day.” One of the problems with morning routines is that you and your child are racing the clock. I once heard an adage about tasks that can be done in less than a few minutes. “Do them now!” I feel that this truth can apply to anyone and mornings are frequently consumed with tasks that take less than a few minutes. This is why I advocate for knocking as many of these things off of your child’s morning-to-do list by doing them the night before. The idea goes by a few different names in research on the science of creating healthy habits. The name that I like the most is, “the launch pad.” 

To be honest, I’ve spent so much time in my life, up to my mid-thirties, hunting through my home or apartment like a whirling dervish in the morning, looking for my keys, phone, homework, wallet, shoes, that random thing that I might need on any particular day, etc. The idea of the launch pad is just for your child to put their keys, homework (in his backpack), lunch money, and anything else they might need in the same spot…the night before. It takes a minute for your child to put their phone in the launch pad the night before to bed. But it can take precious time that could erode a saint’s patience in the morning for your son to figure out where he last had it. This also plays into a good nighttime routine but I’ll save that for a separate blog. 

Another thing that I’ve been an advocate of for over a decade is what I used to consider a laminated morning routine in the form of a checklist on the back of the door with an attached dry erase marker tied to a string. Now that technology has evolved, the options for doing this have changed. 

I’m going to dork out on neuroscience for a bit, but your child’s prefrontal cortex is hardly developed. It finishes developing around the mid-twenties so enjoy the ride. The prefrontal cortex or “upstairs brain” as Dan Siegel calls it, is home to what’s called executive functioning. For the sake of simplicity, regard executive functioning as the set of brain skills (planning, organizing, one’s sense of time via the working memory, focus, perspective taking, self-monitoring, etc.) required to execute a task. Included as part of this — through what’s called metacognition — is the capacity to reflect on one’s plan and also learn from mistakes. 

When you remind your child to remember to make their bed, put away breakfast dishes, brush their teeth, shower, comb their hair, etc…you’re not doing them any favors. In fact, you’re making your child dependent on you for tasks that he should increasingly be able to do independently as his brain develops. Though these are skills that are largely regarded as being essential to parenting, wouldn’t you rather be investing your energy in more enjoyable parenting tasks? That’s where your child’s morning routine on a laminated checklist on the back of the door comes into play. 

If you notice your son’s usually nicely parted hair is looking more like the hair of an 80’s punk rock video extra, don’t shout at him to comb his hair. Instead, ask him to check his list (and maybe a mirror). The difference is subtle but the command, which could end up triggering an argument, replaces your child’s prefrontal cortex with your voice. The question you could ask encourages your child to use their prefrontal cortex and develop that metacognition that I mentioned a bit ago. Asking your child to check on what they need to do teaches skills and strengthens the working memory. 

If your son has ADHD, that is an inherent impairment in executive functioning (or lower dopamine levels in the brain that are required to be motivate the working memory to get geared up to a particular task), then this difference is essential. It’s the science of building healthy habits. Once a habit is set, the brain relies less on the working memory (which is impacted with ADHD) and the habit is more of a function of procedural memory. Procedural memory is the kind of memory that you take for granted. You don’t have to think through how to drive a car at this point in your life. You don’t ponder, “What should I do first?” when you step into the shower. Those are both procedural memory. 

I mentioned that technology has evolved so that you don’t have to rely on laminated morning routine sheets that honestly take some time for a parent to make. [Though if you’re a son's a client of mine, I have ones that I’ve created either as a 8 x 11 inch magnet for the fridge or as a large note pad. They’re in my office. Just ask me for either. Or copy the image attached to this blog.] However, there are also a ton of apps out there than can do this checklist for you if you’re a tech savvy family. 

I’m not going to go through a list of all of the apps. “Brili” is a great app that focuses on building routines. The great thing is that the app allows for family sharing. So you can create a morning routine for you son (let’s call him Billy) that allows you to track how his morning routine is going without having to shout, “BILLY! Did You brush you teeth!?” from the kitchen when he’s upstairs in his room. He simply checks it off on his on his app, and then you see on the Brili app on your phone that it’s done…and everyone’s peace of mind is saved. 

Other apps, like “iAllowance,” “AllowanceBot,” and to a lesser extent “iCozi” all allow a parent to do this same job of monitoring your son’s tasks by in-app self-report including the morning routine. The additional bonus of some of these apps is that they allow you to build in and track rewards for areas that may be a particular challenge in your household. They haven’t invented an app yet that can sniff your son’s toothbrush to tell if Billy really brushed his teeth or just ran his toothbrush under the faucet. Nonetheless, I think that these apps offer opportunities that veer away from a screaming match when no one has the time or inclination. 

“Streaks” is an app that gameifies the science of healthy habits through “streaks.” If your son is a teen or tween, then he’ll be familiar with the idea from Snapchat. “Streaks” may take with your son or it may not, but either option is worth a shot compared with the alternatives. 

There is one thing to consider with regard to problematic morning routines. It's derived from the philosophy of an intervention, Collaborative Problem Solving, and harks backs to the initial quote that I mentioned from Glen Cook, about how morning seems to have the worst timing for a family just trying to get out of the door. 

What’s the deal with making the bed? Who’s coming over? I think that it’s important for you to ask yourself why you have a given expectation before insisting upon it, especially if it’s leading to conflict. If time is tight, then maybe such things as your son making his bed in the morning can go on the backburner until he gets home from school and everyone’s not pressed for time. 

If getting out of the door feels impossible day-after-day, then consider what items of the morning routine can be shelved so that you can focus on what’s most necessary. What’s most necessary or meaningful is going to vary by family and culture. It’s worth the effort to have a discussion with your child about where to focus your attention and in what goals to set. No one’s asking for perfection. Better will do just fine.

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