School drop-off is in ten minutes and you’ve asked your kid to put his shoes on six times already, but he’s still sitting there casually poking his waffle. That’s when you realize that the waffle prodding means that he hasn’t brushed his teeth yet. Oh, and he has syrup down his shirt so that needs changing too. At this point, your blood pressure starts to rise and you’re barking out orders as you move through your home like a hurricane trying to get everything you need so that you can get out the door. It’s a stressful way to start the day (and one that guarantees a late slip).
If any of that sounds familiar, some structure is likely what you need in order to have more calm and less chaos in the early hours of the day. Fortunately, we got the full scoop from parenting educator Laura Linn Knight on how to start a morning routine for kids, so you can have exactly that.
What are the benefits of a morning routine?
A lot needs to get done in a short period of time in the morning and getting your kids on board can be a battle. We hinted at this earlier, but the solution is a morning routine. Per Knight, “morning routines help your child learn time management skills, cooperation and how to follow through with a plan.” Once you have an A.M. ritual in place to help your child master these valuable skills, the pay-off is pretty big for the whole fam. For starters, a solid morning routine will result in “smoother transitions out the door, less nagging and a more peaceful home environment [at the start of the day],” says Knight. OK, we’re sold...but how does one go about implementing a routine when chaos has been the status quo? Good news: The most effective approach is also pretty straightforward.
How to establish a morning routine for kids
At first, a morning routine might feel like an uncomfortable departure from the familiar. That said, you might be surprised by how easy it is to get everyone on board if you start off on the right foot. (Coincidentally, that’s also the reward.) Just follow this two-step approach to establishing a new routine and mornings will start to run as smoothly as a well-oiled machine before you know it.
1. Collaborate with your kid
According to Knight, the number one way to ensure success when it comes to establishing a morning routine for your family is to make it a participatory process. That’s right, collaboration is the key to cooperation: “When a routine is created without a child, the routine becomes more authoritarian and power struggles often arise,” explains Knight. In other words, nobody likes to be bossed around.
As such, the expert recommends finding a quiet time to sit down with your child for a conversation that starts off with a question—something along the lines of: What do we have to do to get ready in the morning? This puts the ball in the kid’s court, so to speak. In response, your child will likely throw out some good ideas (i.e., Eat breakfast!); and from there, the parent can fill in anything that’s missing. (Funnily enough, your kid forgot to mention brushing their hair.)
2. Put it on a poster
Once you’ve had that chat, you’re on the right track—and the outcome should be something resembling a routine. Still, the collaboration doesn’t end there. Next, Knight recommends that you enlist your child’s help creating a handy visual aid to make the routine more concrete: Grab a poster board and some art supplies, so you and your child can put those good ideas down on paper in the form of an outline.
The process will be fun—your kid can (and should) get creative with decorating the poster—and the finished product will serve as a guide that your child can reference independently, or with gentle prompting, as they go about getting ready for the day. (Pro tip: Photographs, drawings and other images are especially helpful for younger kids.) Yep, that’s really all there is to it...except for a couple of other bits of advice you’ll want to keep in mind before you get started.
A few more tips before you get started…
- Keep it simple. This might go without saying, but a child is much more likely to adhere to a routine that’s easy to follow. Try not to make things more complicated than they need to be and check your expectations to make sure they’re age-appropriate and you’re meeting your kid halfway. In practice, that means that little things—like picking out an outfit the night before or leaving shoes by the front door—go a long way towards making a morning routine simpler and more kid-friendly.
- Avoid power struggles. The whole idea behind getting your child involved in the process—exchanging ideas about the routine and creating the visual guide—was to avoid a scenario in which you come across as a micromanager who’s harshing their mellow every morning. Alas, if you’re not careful, there’s still some risk of that once the morning routine has been implemented. For this reason, Knight tells parents not to worry if it takes a child a little while to learn the new routine. Instead, remember that “your child is learning a new skill and you are teaching tools that will last a lifetime,” but that the learning process doesn’t happen overnight.
If your child is struggling with the new routine, Knight suggests you remain patient and just continue to point your child back to the poster, as an invitation for them to figure out what happens next whenever they get distracted. Above all, the expert emphasizes that parents should never use the poster, or the routine it represents, as a way to punish or bribe the child, as this is a surefire way to bring power struggles back into the picture and stop progress in its tracks.
- Keep your cool. We touched on this already, but it bears repeating: No good will ever come from becoming visibly or audibly exasperated with your child—and that’s especially true when you’re implementing a new routine. Kids are sensitive creatures and tend to mirror the emotions of their caretakers. As such, if you want a happy-go-lucky morning, do your best to project positivity—or, you know, fake it until you make it—lest the routine turn into something more fraught than what you had going on before.
- Frontload the boring stuff. You know how the parenting pro said not to use the morning routine as a way to bribe your kid? Well, that’s 100 percent true, but there’s a clever workaround. Your child definitely shouldn’t be offered a special reward for adhering to the routine; however, if you devise the schedule such that the not-fun stuff happens first—followed by the parts of the morning your child really enjoys—you might actually get the results you hope for (but never get) from a bribe, without the risk of a power struggle. Example: First, we make our bed; then, we get bacon and pancakes. Clearly, you’re not really going to withhold breakfast if your child doesn’t make their bed (nor do you have to make bacon and pancakes every day), but this approach does encourage cooperation, insofar as it ensures your child has something to look forward to as they make their way through the more mundane tasks in the morning routine.
3 Sample Morning Routines for Kids
Here, a couple examples to inspire you to start a morning routine of your own—you know, for the sake of your family (and your mental health).
Morning routine from a mother of two (ages 4 and 6):
7:00 a.m Alarm goes off; wake up the kids
7:10 a.m Get dressed; brush hair and teeth; make beds
7:30 a.m Race (there’s always a race) downstairs for breakfast
7:35 a.m Kids eat breakfast (cereal or waffles and fruit) while parent packs lunches
8:00 a.m Pack up backpacks; put on shoes
8:05 a.m Out the door and in the car for school drop-off
Morning routine from a mother of a 2-year-old:
7:00 a.m Parents wake up, get dressed and prepare breakfast
7:30 a.m Wake up toddler
7:35 a.m Breakfast (eggs, toast or oatmeal).
8:00 a.m Get dressed and brush teeth (“Some mornings this goes smoothly and other mornings my toddler wants to play rather than get dressed—we set a timer to help with transitions.”)
8:15 a.m Into the stroller for school-drop off
Morning routine from a mother of two (ages 5 and 8):
6:00 a.m Mom wakes up and works out (“I hate waking up this early in the morning but I'm actually much groggier if I don’t work out and this is the only time I have in the day to fit it in!”)
6:45 a.m Shower and get dressed
7:00 a.m Wake up the kids
7:10 a.m Make beds, get dressed and brush teeth
7:30 a.m Kids eat breakfast (cereal and fruit)
7:50 a.m. Kids put dishes away and put on shoes (“The kids usually pack their bags the night before but there’s usually something missing or a toy they want to bring with them so we have to redo the packing.”)
8:00 a.m Walk or scoot to school (“Mom makes their lunches the night before to save on time.”)