School is starting back up. This means the dreaded school day mornings are returning. Many parents report mornings to be challenging to navigate. Mornings can be even more of a challenge for neurodivergent children like those with autism and ADHD. Mornings set the stage for the remainder of the day. As such, it’s beneficial to establish a routine that reduces the morning chaos as much as possible. With some planning and support in place, it is possible to create a morning routine that works for your family.
Establish a Routine
Everyone’s daily routines are different. Before implementing morning routine changes, it’s essential to outline what you want your mornings to look like. Write out each activity that you and your family have to do each morning. Next, place the tasks in order from waking up to out the door. Consider what your mornings currently look like (or what they looked like last school year) and determine what is needed to make them smooth and successful.
Use the following prompts to guide your thought process:
- What is a realistic time for each family member to wake up? You will want to find a balance between ensuring everyone gets a healthy number of hours of sleep and ensuring everyone is up at a time that will allow them to get everything done.
- What time do you need to be out of the house by? It’s helpful to think of this time as 5 or 10 minutes earlier than the actual time you need to leave by. Giving yourself an extra few minutes can act as a safeguard for the days when something doesn’t go quite as planned.
- How long should each task take? Again, give a bit of a buffer. If your child can typically chow down breakfast in 5 minutes, you may still want to plan an extra 5 minutes to dedicate to breakfast. There may be that one day that they take their time to eat.
- Consider which tasks must be done in the morning and which can be saved for after school.
Use Visual Supports
Now that you have an outline of your morning routine, consider adding visual supports to prompt your child through the tasks. Visual supports can help a child understand what is expected of them. Many children with autism thrive with visuals for this reason. There are many options including first-then boards, visual schedules, prompt cards, visual timers, etc. It is easy to get carried away by adding a ton of visuals, then soon realize that the visuals are over-stimulating or simply unhelpful for your child. With so many options, it’s encouraged to try one at a time and see what works best for your child. Like anything else, visuals should be individualized. Let’s review a few options for visual supports. Consider trying one at a time with your child to identify which visuals are beneficial.
Visual schedules can be created in many different formats. Typically they consist of a board with pictures and/or words of each activity needed to complete.
A visual schedule for a morning routine might look like this:
- Use the bathroom
- Take a shower
- Get dressed
- Eat breakfast
- Brush teeth
- Gather backpack
- Put on coat and shoes
Of course, the individual activities and order of your visual schedule are likely to look different. If your child cannot read, it is best to use pictures that represent each activity. If your child can read, you could use pictures or words, depending on their preference and what is most beneficial for them.
Time can easily get away from young children, who haven’t fully grasped the concept of time. This is where visual timers can be helpful. They could be used in combination with a visual schedule or on their own with verbal instructions. Once an instruction is provided, the visual timer can be set to help your child identify how much time is left of that activity. For example, if your child tends to eat very slowly and you’re often running late because of that, you might set a timer for 15 minutes to visually show them how much time they have to eat breakfast.
Visual Cues Around the House
If your child has challenges with remembering particular steps in the morning routine, you could put prompt cards up around the home in areas that would assist them in remembering the task. For example, if they tend to forget to brush their teeth, a visual prompt on the bathroom mirror that says “brush teeth” could help them remember to do so. Or if leaving the house without their backpack is a common occurrence, a visual cue on the front door that says “Got your backpack?” could reduce the likelihood of leaving the house without it. Even something as simple as a picture of a backpack might serve as a prompt to grab their bag.
Reinforcing Morning Routines
Finding your child’s motivation can help to reinforce following a morning routine. What are they motivated to do? Are they motivated to watch TV rather than follow their morning routine? You can use that motivation to reinforce follow through! Allow TV time (or whatever they are motivated for) contingent on completing all items on the morning routine checklist.
Set the Stage the Night Before
Avoid thinking of morning routines as activities you do exclusively in the morning. Setting the stage for the next morning should be done the night before. The activities you do the night before can assist in smoother mornings.
A few things you can do to “set the stage” include:
- Lay out clothes the night before. Some families even find it beneficial to plan and organize outfits for the whole week, on Sundays.
- Prep lunches and pack backpacks. “Mom I need you to sign this permission slip!” as you’re scrambling to pack lunches, is not what most would consider a smooth morning. Organizing all materials needed for school the night before, makes for one less thing to worry about in the morning.
Sticking to a Morning Routine
Once you find a routine that works, do your best to stick to it. Life can get hectic and routines tend to fall by the wayside when that happens. One of the common symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is insistence on sameness. Autistic children tend to thrive on schedule and routine, with predictability in their daily activities. This can be preferred and helpful for all kids too. Therefore, it is important to maintain the established routine and avoid major modifications, unless needed. However, if the plan isn’t quite working for you and your family, then changing it up is best.
The importance of a well-established morning routine can’t be overstated. Finding the balance that works for each family member is vital. While it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the chaos of mornings on school days, adhering to a routine can help everyone start their day on the right foot.
Sevin, J.A., Rieske, R.D. & Matson, J.L. A Review of Behavioral Strategies and Support Considerations for Assisting Persons with Difficulties Transitioning from Activity to Activity. Rev J Autism Dev Disord 2, 329–342 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40489-015-0056-7