My kids started back to school again today for Term 3, after our mid-year holidays. And of course, this means the morning routine that goes along with it. Mornings are especially difficult for children and adolescents with ADHD – and their parents, of course!
A study found that most parents and carers who have children with ADHD rate their child as having moderate to severe impairments in their morning functioning, such as getting ready for school and out the door on time. Parents and carers of children with ADHD report feeling overwhelmed, exhausted and continuously stressed in regards to their mornings getting kids ready for the day.
I can absolutely relate! So many of our mornings ended up with me or the kids in tears. There have been many times I’ve turned up to work frazzled and stressed, albeit with some interesting stories to tell my colleagues.
So, why do children with ADHD have difficulty getting ready for school in the morning, more than other children their own age? There are several reasons, but one of the main contributors is their executive function system. Executive functions are a set of mental skills, including working memory, flexible thinking and self-control. They are like the command centre for our brain. They are responsible for planning, organising, managing our time, remembering what to do in order and switching focus from one activity to another.
Children with ADHD have deficits of their executive function skills, due to the parts of the brain responsible for these functions being smaller and delayed up to 30% compared to neurotypical children. Knowing this can help us understand why children and adolescents with ADHD struggle to get ready for school in the morning. It is extremely taxing on their executive function skills. If the child is taking medication, it often has not kicked in yet, which stimulates their ability to use their executive function skills as well.
But, don’t lose hope! We, as parents and carers, can support our children’s executive functioning skills. Here are six tips to make your mornings less stressful, get you and your family out of the door on time, without yelling – most days.
- Slow down, stay calm and emotion coach.
The most significant change I made in my morning routine with my children was to actively stay calm and slow down. We are like a thermostat in our homes. Nothing dysregulates a child more than having a dysregulated parent. It is really hard to stay calm while your child is refusing to get dressed or do anything they are asked to do. But you can do it!
Remember to breathe and stay calm. I love the saying by L.R. Knost, “It’s our job to share our calm, not join in their chaos”. Try saying that to yourself when you feel stressed, and share your calm with your kids.
Try emotion coaching through the negative behaviours. “Oh mate! I can see you are not looking forward to school today. I wish I didn’t have to go to work either!” The book How to talk so kids will listen and and listen so kids will talk (on my recommended resources page) has fantastic ideas on how to communicate to facilitate cooperation. It’s highly recommended!
- Pre-Planned routines – setting your child up for success
A morning routine is vital for any child with ADHD.
Why? A routine gives a predictable structure, in which children and adolescents with ADHD thrive. A routine is doing the same steps, in the same way, each time we do something. By implementing a routine, we reduce the need for our children with ADHD to use their planning and organisational skills and reduce reliance on their working memory. The routine becomes automatic, and they don’t need to remember all the steps each morning.
Include your child in the planning of this routine. If you need help to get organised, grab this free downloadable worksheet to get you started.
Include your child in the preparation of their routine. This gives them a choice in the way they get ready for school, rather than just being told what to do. This can be extremely helpful for children with co-morbid Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD), as they will feel as though they are in control of what they are required to do. If they have school refusal, find a time to talk through the morning issues, when they are calm and medicated, so definitely not in the mornings. It might surprise you how insightful they are about their issues as well as open to problem solving ways to make the mornings run more smoothly.
Don’t be discouraged if your child doesn’t remember the routine straight away, and if you need to make tweaks along the way. They will need lots of support to implement the routine and practice it for it to become permanent.
- Reduce the steps in the morning routine
Reducing the steps in the morning routine is essential for better mornings. We know that children with ADHD struggle with planning, organising and managing their time, so it makes sense that reducing the number of steps in your routine would benefit them.
I can hear you asking how we can reduce the steps in the morning and still get out on time?
We have three separate routines to keep our school days running smoothly. We not only have a morning routine, but we have an afternoon and an evening routine, to allow us to shift some of the activities and tasks we have to do to get ready for school, away from the morning.
This allows our mornings to only include a few essential activities, which significantly reduces our stress. This is going to be different for every family. Brainstorm which aspect of the morning routine is the most challenging for your child and see if you can move it to the previous afternoon or evening routine.
I am going to share with you our routines, and hopefully give you some inspiration to plan your routines.
Our afternoon routine
Put today’s things away
- Shoes in the box next to the front door
- Uniforms in the washing basket to get washed if they are dirty or
- Uniforms go into a predetermined ‘cube’ in their shelves if they are clean
- Lunchbox and drink bottle on the kitchen counter
- Ice bricks in the freezer
Prepare things for tomorrow
- Get a new pair of undies and socks and put it in the ‘cube.’ If they can’t find what they need, we still have time to get it ready, rather than stressing out in the morning because they can’t find a matching pair of socks
- Complete their uniform checklist
Our evening routine
- Pack our lunchboxes ready for the next day (using leftovers from dinner!) using a lunchbox planner
- Prepare anything out of the ordinary routine for the next day such as soccer gear, piano books or library books
Our morning routine
- Get dressed (sometimes they even wear their uniform to bed if I know we are leaving super early in the morning)
- Put an ice brick in their lunchbox and put is straight into their backpacks
- have breakfast (which has been premade (ham and egg slice is my favourite – It’s super simple, and you can premake and eat cold or reheat quickly!)
- brush their teeth and hair
- grab their bags and go
- My son also has the job of feeding our dog, as he is the oldest and has more responsibilities than his younger sisters.
By shuffling the morning routine activities, we are breaking up a huge task, like getting ready for school, into smaller, manageable ‘chunks.’ Now they only have a handful of things they have to do during the most challenging part of the day. If you also do the same, and break up your own routine, you can slow down to really listen and respond to your child.
- Use visuals to support their executive functioning system deficits.
My house looks a bit like a classroom with whiteboards and visuals everywhere. Visuals are so important for children with ADHD. They support their working memory, planning, time management, executive functions and they oster independence, which allows you to stop nagging them!
Hands down, the most critical visual to support your morning routines is a schedule. This can change as your child gets older or more independent. When my children were really young, I had a single step schedule which helped them get to the next step in their routine. I placed each one where they needed them also known as the point of performance.
When they got a little older, I used a picture-based checklist that stayed on the dining room table, so they could come and check-in if needed. Then we moved to a written checklist. I could just say, “Go and check you have done everything you need to do.” Because we have had the same morning routine now for a while, they can get themselves ready for school independently – most of the time.
- Use time management strategies
People with ADHD often struggle with time management. Dr Russell Barkley talks about this as “time blindness” meaning people with ADHD often struggle to use their time efficiently and live in the ‘right now’ without considering the future. They find it hard to predict how fast time is passing and how much time it takes to do something.
This can look like:
- Difficulty knowing how long they have worked on something
- Poor planning and management of their time
- Procrastinating (they often leave everything to the last minute)
- Failure to meet deadlines
- Moving slowly to get ready even when they’re running late
Now you know that your child isn’t going slowly on purpose to annoy you or make you late for work! They are blind to time. So what can we do to help?
We need to represent time physically and visually in three ways:
- How much time do they have to complete the task (e.g. We need to leave in 25 mins)
- How much time has gone already
- How much time they still have left
In order to do this, we can use physical items and technology:
Please note: I am not paid to promote these at all! I just think they are awesome!
- The Time Timer app is fantastic! (And free at the moment due to COVID-19!) Check it out here for the android app and here for the iOS app. If your children are distracted by phones, tablets or computers, then you can order a physical timer.
- There are lots of other alternatives, such as watches, sand timers or oil drip timers. Google ‘activity timers’ and see which one would suit your children.
- YouTube also has some fantastic countdown timers that you can put up on the TV. This one is great as your child doesn’t have to be able to tell the time, and it beeps at each minute interval. My son also likes the bomb blast timer.
Make sure, particularly if your child can’t tell the time well, that they can SEE the timer moving, as opposed to a digital timer counting down. This way, they can visually see how much time they have left.
- REWARD REWARD REWARD
Now we know that it presents a considerable challenge for children to get ready for school because of their executive function deficits. We also need to remember a lot of our children may have anxiety, do not enjoy going to school, so we can add a lack of motivation and distress to their challenges too.
Make sure you focus on the positives that your child is doing and praise them regularly and reward them when they do something well – no matter how small it seems! You can do this verbally, physically or tangibly.
- Verbally: “Great work! You got your lunchbox – you’re a champion!”
- Physically: “High five! You brushed your teeth!”
- Tangible reinforcement that motivates your child
- Tokens for each job they do that can exchange for a prize at the end of the morning. Set up a little lucky dip bag with cheap toys or trinkets in it, which they get to dive into at the end of the morning if they get out on time, or if they reach a predetermined number of tokens.
- Break up pieces of a lego set and giving a piece each time you see them doing as you have asked. They can then have the lego set to make at the end of the morning.
- If they are ready by a set time, you can stop off at the hot bread shop for break sticks (we love these!) or a deluxe chocolate shake from McDonalds.
With tangible reinforcement, you must stick to your word. If you say, we can only go if you are out of the house by 7am, and you don’t leave until 7:05am they will have to miss out. But let them know they can try again tomorrow and never shame them for being late.
I hope these strategies will get you off to an excellent start but please remember – you don’t have to implement all of these things at once! This can lead to you being overwhelmed, and you might just give up. How about starting with planning a night routine to take the load off your mornings or with establishing a reward system.
What is going to make the most significant difference for you? Start there.
And remember, if you need support with your morning routine, contact a psychologist in your area to work with you to create family specific strategies for you..
Let’s get ADHD Done Differently.