Tips for getting kids moving in the morning

Today’s post answers a reader question. You can read previous answers to readers’ questions here.

I have tried morning routines with my kids aged 6 & 8 but they don’t work. I still end up nagging at them and rushing out the door so we aren’t late. I work 3 days a week, so need to leave the house by 8.30am so I am not late for work. How can I get them to follow a routine?

There were many questions in last year’s survey along these lines – about getting kids to follow a routine or to do more for themselves. As I have shared previously our mornings on the whole run pretty smoothly. You can see what our morning routine currently looks like here – What my key routines are looking like in 2017.

I certainly do remember when school mornings were more challenging – breast feeding babies, soothing toddler tantrums, placating preschoolers while still trying to get everyone out of the house in a timely manner.

From preschooler age with our third child onwards, I would create a visual routine for the kids to follow. You can see what this looks like and download a free template here. We would continue to make new routine charts for the kids each year to reflect their advancement up the education ladder.  This served us very well as each subsequent child started preschool, they just assumed this is how it was done and they would start using this process.

I know if I had started this process with our first child when he was in preschool I would have saved myself a lot of work and frustration! While I cannot know from the details left in the survey, I am assuming that this parent has tried to start the kids off on routines once they are in school. From my experience and chatting to other parents, it can be harder and take longer to get kids to follow routines, when you are introducing them once they are in school, but it is definitely possible and something worth pursuing.

While I cannot guarantee success here are some tips to get kids moving in the morning.

Study your child

How kids operate in the morning is definitely a personality thing and it is something that can change over time as well with kids (hello teenager years!). If we have experienced issues with a child not getting themselves ready in a timely fashion in the mornings, I make an effort to spend a few mornings watching exactly what is going on with the child and try and identify what the problem is. Here are a couple of examples from our house over the last few years:

  • One child would fly through all parts of the morning routine, but the stumbling block came with getting dressed. After watching and chatting to the child, I identified that he found his socks itchy and uncomfortable and didn’t like wearing them, so was putting off getting dressed as long as possible. The next weekend we went out and bought new socks and the problem disappeared.
  • One child was leaving getting ready to the very last minute and rushing to get ready even though I thought he was up in plenty of time. The problem was that he wanted time to read in the morning. The solution we came to was that I would wake him up 15 minutes earlier so he would have 15 minutes to read after breakfast and before getting ready for school – problem solved!

Night time preparation

Part of the bedtime routine in our house is getting everything ready for school the night before. This means things like placing their library book in their bag on library day, placing their school clothes out ready and tidying their room.

It is so much easier to find things when we aren’t under a time pressure. Where is that other sport sock?

As the kids have grown older they do show some resistance to this idea, mainly from the kids in secondary school. I don’t force the issue with them – you really do have to choose your battles! I do however have an understanding with them, that I am happy to help them find any missing items in the evening, but if it comes to the morning and they start getting their stuff ready and cannot find stuff, they will need to look for it themselves.

A child in year 5 decided they would take the risk and get things together in the morning and when he came to me to ask for help to find a missing book he needed in the morning, I let him know calmly and kindly that he would need to find it himself. I explained that if I had time once I had completed all my tasks I would help him then.

He did search himself and eventually found it, but it did mean that he left about 10 minutes later than he would have liked. As he usually gets to school quite early, he wasn’t late for school, but he didn’t like the time that he arrived, so he went back to getting his stuff ready at night.

It is super helpful for parent/s to do as much as they can the night before as well, so as to make the mornings as calm as possible. You can see what our routine looks like here – Evening routine – getting prepared for the next day. It takes the pressure off and allows for our focus to be on just getting ready and keeping an eye on the kids getting ready.

Make sure everyone is getting enough sleep

Kids who are over tired are more likely to be cranky and less cooperative. Ensuring they are getting adequate sleep is important if you want them up in the morning, alert and following a routine.

And just as it is important to make sure kids get enough sleep, so they can awaken in the morning feeling fully refreshed and ready to go, it is just as important that as parents we are also getting enough sleep each night.

I know my patience is significantly reduced when I am tired. How we react to our kids behaviour can determine what happens next. If we quickly lose our patience with a child who is taking 20 minutes to eat a piece of toast, then that can easily spiral into a battle of wills. If we aren’t tired and can think clearly to come up with a different approach to the problem we are faced, we can often ensure a more positive outcome.

Don’t expect instant miracles

I think the key reason why “routines fail” is because as adults we expect it to stick straight away and it simply doesn’t. I spent considerable time working with the kids to get them to the point where they would follow their routines without need for my intervention.

In the beginning, they need reminders, they need redirection and they need support. Creating a morning routine is essentially building a habit. Think about a habit that you are currently struggling to establish – going the gym, eating less processed foods, stopping complaining etc. They are hard and take time. Persistence is the key and we need to keep persisting with the kids too.

If one week we focus on getting them to stick to a routine, but then in the middle of the second week, we are tired of saying the same thing each morning and go back to doing it ourselves, the kids won’t bother persisting. They will wait for you to take over. If there has been a pattern of stop start with morning routines, then it will take longer to get kids passed the initial phase and for it to develop into a habit.

Get up 30 minutes earlier

On the perfect day you might be able to get up at 7.15am and have everyone out of the house by 8.15am, but life is rarely perfect. Even with the best night time preparation things will go wrong. Adding another 30 minutes to your time allowance is especially critical if you have a child who isn’t keen on moving in the morning. This extra time, allows you to work with your child in a calm manner, where you are not constantly looking at the time and internally stressing about being late.

Getting up 30 minutes earlier can also work well for many kids as it allows for a more gradual transition from sleep mode into action mode. I am one of those people that once up out of bed are fully awake and ready to attack the day. A few of our kids are like that, but some aren’t. They need time to warm up. They need time to gradually wake up and have some time to themselves before they have to follow a routine.

Make time for connection

In the midst of all the following routine business by both parent and child, I have found that making time for connection even if it is just a couple of minutes makes a huge difference wiht kids. For example while he was way too old to be carried, there was a stage where I would go and wake up one of the kids who was (and still is a slow starter in the morning), gently pick him up, give him a hug and carry him to the table to eat his breakfast.

It took me about a minute to make this connection with our child, but the difference it made was immense. Prior to the connection strategy, I was in and out of his room three to four times until he would eventually make his way grumpily to the breakfast table. It wasn’t a great start to his day and it caused me frustration that he wouldn’t get up the first time I woke him.

He would eat breakfast in his groggy waking up phase, at the table in quiet as he up later than the others and this gave him time to wake up and it allowed us both a better start to the day. This phase eventually ran its course and he no longer wanted me to carry him and he now gets up the first time I wake him on his own.

To be able to allow time for connection though, we need some white space or buffer in our own morning routines. If we are only getting up in time to complete all the steps of our standard morning routine, we have no room for connection, hence my recommendation to get up 30 minutes earlier.

My morning routine allows for space for just sitting with a child on my knee like I needed to do today, for five minutes, as he had woken up out of sorts. If our timeframes are too tight, our stress levels increase and kids can sense this, sometimes being more needy or going even slower!

Eliminate distractions

Television, iPads, phones etc are all massive distractions for kids and adults in the mornings. Our kids have never been allowed television or devices in the morning, but there was a stage when I realised sometimes we were rushing out the door because I had become stuck in my emails on my phone, or responding to texts etc.

So I set the same boundaries for myself as I did for the kids – no technology use in the morning before school and it made a huge difference. If our kids are looking at us and we are on our devices, we are sending the wrong message about what the priority is for the morning activities.

Naturally if kids are not distracted by watching the television, they can focus on their routines more. If I am not on my phone, then I can encourage kids in the right direction if they need it and I get my tasks completed with plenty of time so there is room for error.

Speak to your child’s teacher

The reader who sent in this question is working three days a week, so there is an opportunity to use natural consequences. A natural consequence is something that happens after your child behaves in a particular way. In this example, it could be worth trying the natural consequence of the kids being late for school. Only you as a parent will know if this is an appropriate strategy given the personality of your kids.

If you are going to try it, I highly recommend chatting to your kids’ teachers first. Most teachers are very supportive of building independence in kids – having them organise themselves and their belongings so they are at school at the right time with all the things they need. Let he or she know that on the days you don’t work for the next couple of weeks, you are going to wait for the kids to get themselves ready, even if this means they are late.

The night before you plan to do this, explain clearly to the kids that if they don’t follow their routines tomorrow you will simply wait for them to do so and go about your tasks. It will be up to them to be fully responsible for getting themselves ready. When they wake up in the morning remind them again, then get yourself ready. Once ready, advise the kids you are ready and you will be waiting for them and ride it out and see what happens!

You can read more about natural consequences here.

Use logical consequences

It isn’t always possible to use natural consequences. On the days the reader works, there isn’t the flexibility to leave the house later than 8.30am. It could also be the case that the 6 year old follows the routine and is ready on time, but the 8 year old couldn’t care less about being late for school.

Logical consequences may be something that works better in this scenario, but logical consequences are a last resort if all the above have not worked.

Logical consequences are different from natural consequences in that they require the intervention of an adult—or other children in a family or a class meeting. {source}

As you can see from the Positive Discipline Tool Card below, there are certain elements to logical consequences that need to be incorporated to ensure that it isn’t actually a punishment.

In this example, the reader might let her child know that if they continue to play with LEGO in the morning and don’t get ready for school, then the LEGO will have to go away until after school.



Persisting with getting kids to follow morning routines is definitely worth it. It is worth it for the parent as they don’t have as much to do, it is worth it for the child as they learn essential life skills like time management and personal organisation and it is worth it in terms of family harmony as there is less nagging and fighting.

What other tips would you add?