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Wake Up and Smell the Calmness

I created a game with rewards for my son with attention deficit, and guess what? We no longer go crazy in the morning.

I have been involved with the ADHD community for over six years. I feel like I’ve seen it all — the highs, the rock-bottom lows, and everything in between. Truthfully, I’ve read about it all, but I haven’t lived it all (thankfully). Each of our kids with ADHD has their own crazy quilt of behaviors and symptoms. I’ve noticed some common threads, though, that run through a lot of our lives — like chaotic, super-stressful mornings.

Ricochet and I (and his big sister) mucked around in the morning mess ever since he started kindergarten (Daddy was lucky enough to leave for work before the rest of us were up). I posted on forums and blogs pleading for someone to tell me how to fix our daily morning disasters. Token systems and reward charts didn’t work for Ricochet. Yelling didn’t work either. It was time to put on my mean-momma hat and get serious. We were going to have a morning routine. We were going to stick to it. It was going to work. There was no choice.

I implemented a no-TV, no electronics rule. You couldn’t watch or play until you were ready to walk out the door to school. The TV could be seen from our family breakfast area, but eating and watching was taboo. TV was too distracting.

I wanted to reward Ricochet for getting ready on time and keeping our mornings calm, so I decided electronics was a great reward, if he was ready to walk out the door to school with time to spare. After all, electronics were his biggest motivator, so it had to work.

So I created a very visual checklist. I typed up, in order of completion, a simple list of each task Ricochet needed to complete in the morning to be ready to leave for school. It was 4 x 6 inches and encased in a self-adhesive plastic pouch to keep it from tearing. I used a large paper clip to mark the task that he was working on. When he was done, he slid the clip down to the next task.

[Free Sample Schedules for Reliable Family Routines]

Ricochet carried the list around the house with him, so he always knew what he needed to do next with a quick glance. It felt like a board game, and he got into it. The real motivation to play the game, though, was the last item on his checklist, the reward. It read, “If complete by 7:20 am, you can watch TV or play a video game!” Now that, my friends, is what we call external motivation. When you don’t have the motivation to do something, which is often the case with children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD), external motivation will move you off the mark.

We started using this “game card” for our morning routine when Ricochet was seven. It reduced the chaos by 75 percent. Within a year, Ricochet didn’t need the checklist anymore — he followed the routine from memory and enjoyed some screen time almost every morning before we left for school. He’s now 12, and our mornings are (mostly) calm. What a gift!

Here are a few more morning strategies that I learned and used over the years:

  • Wake them gently. Ripping off the covers and turning on all the lights will put anyone in a bad mood. This is not how you want to start off with a child with ADHD. Allow plenty of time for slow waking. Try tickling — laughter is a good start to the day.
  • Create a calming environment. Use soft lighting or indirect lighting and avoid fluorescent lights. They are harsh and irritating to most kids with sensory challenges. Keep noise to a minimum.
  • Prepare the night before. Lay out clothes, place shoes by the door, pack the book bag, choose what he’ll eat for breakfast, even put the toothpaste on the toothbrush, all before going to bed the day before.
  • Be flexible about breakfast. It takes a lot more effort for a child with ADHD to make decisions. Planning breakfast the night before may help, or he may just change his mind in the morning. If you can get your child to eat the same thing every morning, it removes decision-making from the equation and makes breakfast easier for child and parent. One year my kids drank a protein shake every morning instead of eating a traditional breakfast. Shakes are 100 percent portable if you’re running late.
  • Carve out time for movement. Exercise is medicine for those with ADHD. Allow your child 10 minutes to go outside and play, or to jump on a mini-trampoline indoors. Ricochet used to run laps around the living room before leaving for school. A morning dance party will rouse your child’s energy levels and increase good spirits. Anything goes here, as long as it’s safe and it gets them moving.
  • Stay calm. This is the most important thing. Remain calm at all times with a child with ADHD. This is a challenge for sure, one I am not perfect at, but that I try with all my might to do. Yelling or threatening escalates emotional reactions and causes more harm than good. Ask your child to stop for a moment and look you in the eye, then, calmly and softly, tell him what you need him to do and the consequences if he doesn’t. Set a good example — if you are anxious or angry, he will be, too.

Make a plan, find ways to motivate your child, and remain calm for less-chaotic mornings.

[Free Resource: Your  13-Step Guide to Raising a Child with ADHD]

5 Comments & Reviews

  1. My fixing to be 16 year old grandson, he is late to school every morning. I have tried it all, being calm and understanding, tell him he can’t keep doing this, yelling, he just tells me oh well, I really not care if I get there on time. He had been so rude, disrespectful, says the meanest things to me. Will not do one thing I ask or help us in any way. It’s painful and hurtful. I don’t want to lose this battle on helping him find his way through this. I’m adhd and I understand what he is going through or doing, cause I have those same issues so how do I get on to him for things I have issues with myself like sleeping, always late. I tell him I am old and is hard to change but I’m trying, but your young and can get control of all this, cause I don’t want to see you like I am it’s exhausting and makes life miserable at my age. His grandad keeps saying shut off phone, if I do that he will flip out of control, it will cause much more bad issues. Should I anyway? Help me

  2. We tried this this morning and it was like magic. Seriously, from screaming/rudeness/lateness/awfulness to happy happy school on time. In our family the incentive was time to play outside with Daddy, but whatever works. Thank you!

    1. Yay! Worked like that for us too. I was shocked. Then I waited for interest to wane. But, it actually worked for months, until he didn’t need the checklist/ game card any longer. 🙂

      ADDitude Community Moderator, Parenting ADHD Trainer & Author, Mom to teen w/ ADHD, LDs, and autism

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