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“I Found the Solution for Morning Lateness, and It Sounds Amazing”

Few children with ADHD get out the door each morning without some degree of nagging, rushing, and/or stressing. Executive dysfunctions can make it difficult to remember and complete all the steps involved in a morning routine. Not long ago, I discovered a fun and effective solution that requires no alarm clocks or reward systems.

Child listening to music with a backpack on. How to Use Music to Motivate Your ADHD Tween in the Morning

Do you have a child in your family for whom time is an irrelevant construct? One who, after being told to “hurry,” is found eating a cookie on the backyard swing admiring a butterfly? One who exits the house every morning without socks, brushed teeth, completed schoolwork, and/or his backpack? One whose hair is typically on end and who is completely unfazed by the honks emanating from your already-running van?

I do. I call him Pokey-McPokester.

I’ve tried — really, really tried — to follow all the expert recommendations. I own a book called Smart but Scattered. I’ve attended local CHADD meetings where experts rattle off their tried-and-true tips for ADHD and students with poor organizational and planning skills.

I’ve brainstormed with child psychologists. I’ve tried an old-school alarm clock — one that wakes you up with a really annoying sound — as well as an iPhone alarm, an Echo Dot alarm, a time-tracking device, and combinations of all four.

And — if you come to my house — you’ll notice charts on every wall: morning checklists that spell out what to do and reward systems that track the number of consecutive days on which the checklists have been completed. I’ve tried stickers, stars, check marks… trinket rewards, candy rewards and cold, hard cash, too. I’ve given every form of positive reinforcement (read: bribery) a fair shake.

But Pokey McPokester just cannot manage a healthy relationship — any relationship at all — with time.

It’s not that he is defiant or belligerent; he wants to do better. It’s just that he doesn’t know how to. When all systems and strategies eventually lost their novelty and left Pokey feeling defeated, and I got tired of constantly pestering him, I tried something different.

I let time go.

And replaced it with music.

[Get This Download: Your Free Guide to Music for Healthy ADHD Brains]

How to Use Music for Motivation in the Morning

Step 1: Deliver the Music Sales Pitch

Pick a time when your child is not engaged in any critical tasks (while she’s video-gaming, eating an after-school snack, or swinging on the hammock — make sure they are relaxed) and approach them enthusiastically about your new plan.

This is how I put it to my Pokey:

I have a great idea that I think will make you feel successful and I’m excited to share it with you! You know how in the morning I’m always rushing you and you’re sick of hearing me nag? What would you say to using something totally fun and happy to help us!? What if together we create a morning “soundtrack” timed to the tasks you need to complete before school? Each song can let you know what you need to be doing so you never need to worry about time; you just get to follow the music and let it lead you!”

(In the beginning, there’s no denying this is a sales pitch — notice all the exclamation points? — and there may be some reluctance. If you get good reception, carry on to Step 2, below. If you don’t, you might need to sweeten the deal with a little more honey — insert reward system ideas here.)

Step 2: Start Small with Motivating Music

With your child, tackle the following three tasks.

  1. Select the daily tasks and the order that makes the most sense. Our morning routine contains 10 tasks (yours might have fewer): out of bed, shower, dress, eat breakfast, brush teeth, load backpack, put on socks, put on shoes, slip on outerwear, and get into van.
  2. Figure out how many minutes you have to work with. My Pokey wakes at 7:00 and our departure time is 7:35 am. That gives us 35 minutes.
  3. Determine the playlist. This is the fun part! Don’t worry too much about getting the first playlist right (it’ll get edited, believe me!). Just have fun with it and allow your kid to decide which songs he or she wants to match with each task. Does he want to get out of bed to a loud peppy beat or a soothing, calm ballad? Does hearing a cheesy song about “clothes” prompt her to get dressed quickly or does she prefer to sing along while she pulls on her leggings? If you need longer than one song length to complete a task, consider repeating the same song. It’s also fine to accomplish two or three tasks during one song!

[Read This: The 8 Best Songs for Growing ADHD Brains]

Roll with your kid’s ideas without stifling them. In my experience, a new family system is more likely to succeed when your child takes some ownership. The more they contribute to the arrangement, the more they’ll want to see it work.

The only real requirements are that the length of the playlist equals the amount of morning time you have to work with and that the tasks match up somewhat sensibly to the songs.

As for the format, our family’s platform for listening to music is Spotify. We use the playlist feature, but obviously a CD can work just as well.

Step 3: Put the Music System on Paper

In one column, list the song titles. In the second column, list the task(s) matched with each song.

If there is a transition between rooms or floors, write that down, too. For instance, at first my Pokey needed to know he should be walking downstairs between “The Greatest Show” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Post the musically inspired schedule to your kid’s bedroom door. I can assure you that your child won’t reference this much after the first few days. It’s basically just there to help your child — and you — get the initial hang of it.

Step 4: Prepare to Launch the Motivational Songs

Decide how to launch the playlist each day. We have an Echo Dot in our son’s room with a reminder set at 7 am. It chants repeatedly, “Wake up, pal. Time to start your ‘Morning Playlist.’” That’s Pokey’s cue to voice activate (from the comfort of his bed) his Spotify playlist and voila, the fun and motivational songs begin.

Trouble Shooting Tips

Be aware of movement from one floor to another during the morning routine, as you may need to change the speaker source of the playlist. In our case, when Pokey comes downstairs, I simply change the source from his Echo Dot to my phone — it’s an easy fix.

Again, get creative with it all. If an iPod plugged into a speaker in the center of the house is what works, roll with that. You may even think of something that works better for your family and its technological tools.

Step 5: Give Motivational Music a Go

The first morning, expect some portion of your plan to flop. “Seriously, four minutes to put on socks and only 30 seconds to eat breakfast???” Unscheduled (or anticipated) time sucks — like going to the bathroom — can also interfere with the plan.

Talk about how the plan flopped and encourage your child to share ideas to improve it. Even better than that: Encourage your child — if he’s developmentally capable and/or technologically savvy enough — to fix the hiccup on his or her own.

Your child might not resolve their morning struggle, but what a boost of confidence to fix their music playlist and, by proxy, their issues with time. Keep tweaking until it mostly works.

Step 6: Switch Up the Music Periodically

Finally, keep in mind that if your child is a novelty-junkie like my Pokey, schedule a new list in a few weeks to keep it fresh. Chances are, playlist re-creation won’t be painful for you or your child like all other time-management family systems.

Instead, it’ll be fun.

[Read This Next: “Mozart Helped Me Focus My ADHD Brain.”]

Updated on December 6, 2019

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  1. That’s a great idea.

    I recently got an Alexa system and set up a similar morning routine, but I included weather (how warm to dress), language lesson podcast, reminder to log my weight, it reads my Google calendar and Alexa To Do lists too.

    I’ll look at adding a Google Drive music playlist of my favorite morning motivational music.

    ———

    That said… please stop referring to your child by that nickname.

    I don’t care how cute, funny, or endearing you think it is. To nickname someone about a bad habit or personality quirk (especially a mental difference) is demeaning, bullying, and stigmatising.

    I can’t imagine that your child picked this nickname himself. Or that he doesn’t mentally cringe every time you say it or write it. He’s probably mortified that someone else might start calling him that.

    Nicknames for reasons like this are NEVER a good idea; they’re not encouraging, not upbuilding, and not solving anything. They only serve to belittle, harass, and embarrass. And your child will remember it for years! (BTDT)

    So please, stop calling your child by nickname.

  2. Nicknaming your kid with a negative nickname is abusive and indicates that the child has problems because the mother has a massive anger problem. Blaming your kid when she is supposed to be an adult not a witch will result in a very angry adolescent and adult.

  3. 2 points here.
    1. Thanks for this awesome idea! I’ve seen a TON of ideas and none have worked very long for my children (8 & 13). My 13 yr old loves singing/whistling (we’ve made up our own fun “good morning!” songs!) so I really feel like a playlist will be a big hit! Thank you!

    2. I agree with previous posters about the nickname being problematic. However, I HIGHLY doubt the author has a “massive anger problem” (the commenter may be projecting; I hope they don’t provide such harsh feedback to their own child!) so please let the mean comments roll off your back!

    Mom/parent shaming is not helpful, instead let’s lift each other up! This parent gig is challenging enough without harsh negative feedback. There are more effective and gentle ways to express disagreement. We need to support each other. Tricia Arthur, you are doing a great job and I’m thankful you shared this awesome new-to-me idea!

  4. I love the idea of using music as a cue for steps in a routine. I think this is a good starting place. I can also see music being a good reward, use of upbeat music to help get the child moving, etc. I would suggest verbal prompts with this still, such as “I hear Uptown Funk, what step of the routine are we supposed to be one now?” or “The song is almost over, that means you need to pick up the pace with breakfast.”

    I do have reactions to some of the elements in the article

    1) I strongly agree with the comments about not labeling the child based off of a behavior/skill deficit. I am a big believer in growth mindset – that individuals can strengthen their brains and expand their skills with effort. Kids with ADHD are no different, they are also capable of great growth. BUT kids/people stop believing in their growth potential when they are labeled. If the child is called “Pokey” that may become a way they identify and are likely to feel defeated or incapable of change because of it. So, I hope this is not how the writer refers to her child out loud – it may just be how she is referring to them for the sake of the article.

    2) I am bothered by the idea that a child should be able to consistently complete a 10 step routine in 35 minutes. For some kids this may be simple, but for many that is a very unrealistic morning expectation. We are all wired differently and some people aren’t suited to a rushed routine to start their day. Were this my child I might start by trying waking 15-30 minutes earlier and allowing free time once the routines are completed. That way there is built in reinforcement – get your routines done quickly and you have time to relax before heading off to school. Since I don’t know all of the things this family has tried, it is possible that the family determined after trial and error that 35 minutes works best for their child – I just think it is important to put out there that this is not something that is reasonable to expect for all kids/people.

    Thanks for the interesting idea Tricia Arthur. I will explore ways to test this concept out with some of my ADHD clients and my own child with ADHD.

  5. That name is very funny. I’m definitely going to use it! Music is also a great idea to keep us all on time in our house.
    People stop judging! Your comments are so ugly. Sheesh.
    Pokey is an adorable name that shows love and understanding in a difficult situation.
    Sigh. There is just so much wrong with all the judgements that were written.
    Instead we applaud you! Thank you so much for sharing your ideas that worked for you. Thumbs up!

  6. I LOVE the music idea for morning routine. We’ve been struggling for seven years now to minimize the time warp in our lives, to varying success. I would suggest having some of those things done at bedtime–shower, load backpack, brush teeth… We also use a “launching pad” to collect our things near the door that we need when we leave the house. I also learned just this morning that tickling him wakes him up laughing rather than annoyed. I thought it was a stupid idea when I read it, but I was once again desperate to get him out of bed and surprise! I didn’t get punched in the face and I got to hear laughter instead of a hate rant. Ah, thirteen…

    Re: Pokey McPokester, I was so sad to learn that my son felt crushed to be called “Slow Toe,” a moniker he received from a care provider that we used for an entire school year. I thought it was cute, but it made him feel shame and guilt. I felt like a terrible mom to have repeated it so often in total oblivion to his perspective; I had no idea until he spoke up as a second grader. That said, we didn’t dwell. Once he let me know, we ditched it and moved on. It happens.

  7. I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks that is a LOT of stuff to ask a kid to do in 35 mins. Heck, that’s a lot to ask ANY human–child, adult, neuro-typical, or otherwise–to do in 35 mins. I think the music idea is a good one, but I also think the author has tremendously unreasonable expectations for her child.

  8. Hi all,

    I’m always appreciative of comments, all kinds.

    I’m glad the music ideas resonate with most. And I am def appreciating the addition of some new ideas given here. Thanks for engaging!

    The nickname conversation is a lively one, and I can appreciate the perspective folks brought to this. “Pokey McPokester” is used strictly for this article and for playfulness between my husband and myself. Rest assured, our little guy never hears it.

    Thanks again for engaging!

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