“My 10-year old needs me to help him get ready for school every morning. He forgets to brush his teeth, take his backpack, and get his lunch. If I didn’t follow him around, he’d be playing with his Legos and miss the bus.”
If this sounds like your morning, you are probably pretty frustrated and might already have tried making lists, offering rewards, and lots of yelling. One parent told me her morning routine was like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day, where he was caught in a time loop so the same thing reoccurred every day.
Parents work hard at teaching their kids to be prepared for school, but kids keep messing up. Sometimes it seems as if they have finally mastered their morning routine, but the next day it’s as if yesterday’s capacities had never been displayed. The Groundhog’s Day phenomenon is not just for morning routines – it applies to learning multiplication tables, recognizing sight words on Monday and acting as if they have never seen those same words on Tuesday, or forgetting to put completed homework into his backpack for the twentieth time this school year. So why can’t your child remember his morning routine, and what can you do?
Some kids might have ADHD or a Learning Disability that makes it more difficult to remember their morning routine. Kids with ADHD and LD are often very capable of learning routines but might require a different approach. Others may not have a diagnosed disorder but struggle with issues such as slow processing speed; working-memory deficits; or executive dysfunctions in areas such as organization, planning, or time management. Kids who tend to be impulsive may move too fast and therefore overlook the obvious when it comes to getting ready for school or doing other repeated activities. Others may struggle to utilize metacognitive skills, learning a specific habit but being unable to think about when and where to apply it. The best explanation is that each situation is a little different and that generalization – or applying what one has learned in one setting to another – is not easy. Accounting for the inherent difficulty of generalizing skills when teaching kids morning routines or other repeated activities can be very helpful.
Here are some strategies we suggest:
Use the LW4K method: Teach kids to Detect, Reflect, and Connect. When they can identify the skills they need, think about how these skills help them, and learn how and when to apply these skills, they increase their odds for success. In part, this is because they are no longer just following a routine but have more awareness and understanding of what they are doing and how it helps.
Focus on working-memory skills: Making multiple activities into one action gives you less to remember. Group several actions into one routine. Putting on pajamas, brushing teeth and washing one’s face could be remembered as “bedtime,” so that children do all three each night. Ask your kids to find other routines of two or more actions that they could “chunk” together, such as getting ready for school, soccer practice, or an overnight at a friend’s house.
Gamify, gamify, and gamify some more: Have you noticed how attentive and persistent your kids are with their games? Find an app or make up your own “game” to focus more attention and effort on the morning routine or another issue. Gamifying could be used to create competitions at home, rewards (that would need to be changed on a regular basis), or allowing gaming after the routine is completed. Check out apps such as Habyts to try.
Make it Simpler: Many kids who struggle with morning routines have under-developed executive-functioning skills. Think about this as a type of immaturity in their brains. Recent advances in neuroscience suggest that some kids can be three to four years behind their peers in the development of the prefrontal cortex, where most executive-functioning skills begin. These kids need your help to make routines simpler. Perhaps reduce the five or six steps in your morning routine to two or three, adding steps as they master these.
Ask Alexa to do it: Use visual and audio cues that capture attention. One way to look at difficult morning routines is that you are competing for your child’s attention. Have your child take pictures of his morning routines and create collages to leave in two or three strategic places in your home. Use a programmable digital picture frame and have the morning pictures on a loop at a selected time. Ask Alexa, Siri, Google Home, or a cell phone to provide verbal reminders for the routines at appropriate times. Have the child attempt to do all of the programming, and make it fun.
Our team at LW4K can help your child learn how to practice and support working memory skills. Sign your child up for a few of our classes. You’ll see how having fun playing with games and apps can be transformed into learning the most critical skills for 21st-century kids. If working memory is adequate, we suggest you identify areas of weaknesses in your child’s social-emotional or executive functioning skills and choose a class that addresses some of these concerns.