Here is an article I wrote for kidsmoveandtalk.com:
Do you remember that commercial with the father joyfully pushing the shopping cart to the song, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?” Well, as we all know, mornings before school and work can be anything but joyful. The dog needs to get fed. The kids need to get up. And you just spilled coffee all over your white shirt. There are many ways you can feel empowered to greet your mornings and to help your kids feel the same. Let’s all take a breath and think about some ways to make your mornings run smoothly.
Start now. Before the school year dawns upon you, make sure you have systems in place. Make sure your kids’ room are neat and organized and ready to go. Make sure those itchy socks are out of the drawer and all the clothing your child prefers is on top of the drawer. Help your older child make a motivating morning playlist. Stock up on healthy food choices for both breakfast and lunch. Make sure school supplies are taken out of containers and in the backpack. Label all items.
Recognize that kids are different. If you have two kids, you may have noticed that one jumps out of bed easily and the other requires pleading. Don’t resort to yelling when both of them need different way to guide them into their day. If you are constantly telling one to get dressed and they don’t, maybe you are expecting too much out of that child. Consider the possibility that they need you to be present while they get dressed, at least for a little while. Temperaments vary wildly and you may need to adapt your routine to each individual child.
Routine, routine, routine. A routine is not only comforting to you, it sets up a predictable plan of action for all household members. It is extremely useful for everyone to be on the same page. Remember, the routine begins the night before:
In the morning:
Keep yourself calm. If you want your kids to go to school calm and ready to learn, you need to cultivate that skill in yourself. In order to keep calm, some self care must be involved. Get some exercise. Remember to breathe. Have a sense of humor! If you are anxious and cranky, you could send them to school the same way. Wouldn’t you rather them be calm and flexible? Having said that, there are some mornings that will go sideways no matter how well you plan. On those days, hone those same skills. Forgive yourself, and your child. A long, squeezy hug is always a good idea.
Some kids need rewards, and that’s okay. You will hear some parents say to never, ever let your child watch tv in the morning. But you would be amazed how quickly some kids get things done if you offer a reward. For example, if you have to leave at 8am, tell them that if by 7:45 (no earlier) they have everything done, they can engage in an agreed upon activity such as hand held devices. Until they are completed their morning routine, they cannot be granted their privilege. Other kids don’t need goals, they would rather sleep until the last possible minute. Still other kids are distracted and irritated from certain games. For those kids, make the reward be something different like earning points to a favored family activity like a water park.
Visual schedules can be very helpful. If you use a visual schedule, your child has to be able to follow it without you intervening. You can laminate it and leave in their room. Find some ideas here. A visual schedule can be extremely helpful but needs to be monitored and may need to change over the course of a school year.
Some mornings will be better than others, some days too, but you can rely on yourself to keep a stable and predictable morning routine. Feel free to share your ideas for helping make mornings go more smoothly. Have a great school year.
images from heart2heartparents.com and from discoveryhealthjournal.com
Self regulation is the current buzz term in parent and developmental literature. We’ve all heard of the famous “marshmallow study” where a marshmallow was placed in front of a child by an adult who also told them not to eat it, then left the room. In the study, the kids who were able to control their impulses (and thereby earn a second treat) were followed up years later and found to have generally done well in life (think: good SAT scores and a lower body mass index). The marshmallow study, originally done in the early 1960’s by Walter Mischel, has been called into question for it’s methodology, but it is still often quoted and referenced. Mischel even recently wrote a follow up book about the study. But the basic principle holds true through years of research: A child who is able to monitor and control their own behavior builds lifelong skills such as persistence in the face of challenge, ability to deal with anxiety and problem solve in an increasingly complicated world.
In a behavioral context, self regulation refers to the ability to act in a long term context consistent with your deepest values (Psychology Today). What does this mean for a child who is still developing a moral compass? Primarily that they value the power of adults and morally want to please them. It may also mean that they deeply value candy! In either case, the child shows a resolute decision to forego the immediate pleasure to attain a greater reward. In an emotional context, self regulation refers to the ability to calm yourself when upset or even keep yourself from getting upset in a the first place when some sort of trigger arises. Kids do not have the full cognitive ability to self regulate at all times, their brains simply are not developed enough to do so. Hence, tantrums occur. Learning self regulation is a lengthy process that occurs throughout development and can still be learned into adulthood.
Developmentally, even newborns turn their heads away from things they perceive as noxious such as, loud noises or bright lights. By about age 12 to 18 months, children are able to change their behaviors upon request, if not all the time. They respond to social and verbal cues from their parents such as “blow kisses”. By about age two, if a known caregiver is not present, they are able to transfer these skills with people they don’t know as well. From age 3 to 11, these skills continue to grow. Kids are beginning to learn that they need to wait until mom is off the phone until they can receive that snack they want. Of course, they are still not able to completely resist impulses at this age, as any parent of a young child will attest!
Older kids and adolescents, while better at self regulating than younger children, may still have problems curbing impulses. As their brains develop, though, they are better able to know what works for them and what doesn’t (parents also are learning these things about their own children). For example, a child may decide to go outside and play when they are angry with a sibling simply because they internally know it will distract them from the upsetting incident. Similarly, an adolescent may use that same intuition to reach out to a friend to help them calm their nerves before a tough test at school.
What might keep a child from being able to comply with requests or calm themselves down? Many factors as it turns out. A child who doesn’t want to play with a certain toy is more likely to help put it away. Other factors such as fatigue or hunger can affect all of us in being able to keep our emotions in check. Whatever the situation, kids who buy into the request have an easier time complying than those who don’t agree. For this reason, it’s recommended to give the request a positive spin rather than a negative. For example, instead of saying, “You can’t have candy for breakfast!’, say, “How about some delicious eggs for breakfast?” It’s always a good idea to help your child see, in as few words as possible, the positive aspects of a given choice.
The following are also great ways to help your child self regulate as they grow from infants to adolescence: (Gillespie, 2006)
- Observe: A baby will tell you she’s hungry by fussing or crying. But an older child is harder to read. They may come home from school out of sorts. You may need to help them to regulate themselves by offering a snack or sitting down to talk with them. You can also help identify their personal triggers such as crowded spaces or noisy areas.
- Respond: Be aware of your child’s particular needs. Do they need some time and space? Or do they need tighter routines and order? In the above example, a child may need to move their body to help them reorganize themselves after a busy day or a fight with a friend.
- Provide structure and predictability: Let your child know if things may change. Give them an idea of what’s happening that day or week. Keep a family calendar.
- Keep it developmentally appropriate: You can’t expect a toddler to sit quietly in a waiting room for half an hour. Bring toys or games to keep them occupied. For older kids, ask them if they need some space. Let them know you are there when they need you.
- Set age appropriate limits: For younger kids, for example, they need to stay in line so the teacher knows where they are. Explain why teachers have the expectations that they do. For older kids, develop contracts or agreements to let them know you respect their safety and their space.
- Show empathy and caring: For all kids, no matter their age, it’s vitally important that we as parents respect their needs and treat them as people of value. In the long run, this is what helps them handle strong emotions.