Getting Kids Up and Out in the Morning


“Ask Dr. Mike” is an interactive feature where you can ask our Editor, Michael F. Mascolo, PhD, a parenting, education, family or development question you may have. Do you need to know why your child behaves as he/she does? Do you need a way to bring your family unit back together in more meaningful ways? Are you struggling as a parent with your own development questions? Well, Ask Dr. Mike! It’s free and family friendly – and designed for you.

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Dear Mike:

“My child is in 7th grade and refuses to get up and get ready for school in a timely manner. We wake her up, we’ve tried to give her control by giving her an alarm clock, but nothing seems to work.  Every morning is a disaster!   I have three children to get to three different schools each day before I go to work. The expectation is that she get dressed, eat breakfast, pack a lunch, and brush her teeth before getting in the car. Every morning ends in a shouting countdown.  We leave the house with her running after me as I drive down the street because her time was up. Can you recommend a new strategy to help our morning run more smoothly? I am having a difficult time at the beginning of the workday because of this constant struggle!   Please help!”

Mike’s Answer:

Getting the kids up and out of the house in the morning can be a real chore. Most parents experience this problem at one time or another.  Happily, you can do many things to make the mornings run more smoothly.  Ask yourself, what is preventing my child from getting up and following the routine?  Most often, two basic things tend to get in the way. They have to do with motivation, organization and negotiating needs. Let’s look at each one in turn.

Motivation:  You’ll Get What You Want When You Do What I Ask.  Perhaps the most difficult issue here has to do with motivation.  We are all surprised at what children are able to do once they are motivated to do so.   Getting up and ready for school is a bore.  Our kids would much rather be having fun.  That’s one reason why they get so distracted.  How do we motivate a child to do something that she doesn’t want to do?

How do we typically try (and fail) to motivate children?  We threaten them with punishments. If you are not up at 7:00, then you won’t be able to go to the party on Saturday night!   We bribe them: If you get up at 7:00 without a problem, you’ll get an extra hour of computer time.  Or, we try to reason with them to get them to see it our way: If you get up at 7:00, you’ll have more time to get out of the house.    None of these strategies works.   The consequences of the various threats, bribes and reasons are too far removed from what the child cares about.  Saturday night is so far away!  But staying in bed is right now!

To motivate your child, do the following:

  1. Find out what is truly important to your child—what your child wants (or doesn’t want) most in the world.
  2. Make getting what your child wants dependent upon complying with your rules.

It’s as simple as that.  If you do this right, you will get results.

So, your child wants to go to the party on Saturday night.  She really wants to go badly.  Don’t threaten her with the possibility of taking this away from her.  Don’t tell her that if she gets up and out of the house promptly that she can go to the party.   These things are too far into the future to matter – they won’t motivate her in the here-and-now.  Instead, take the party away from her right now!  “You have lost your privilege to go to the party on Saturday.”  But then, allow her to earn back the party by complying with your wishes: “You can earn back going to the party once I see you get up at 7:00, get dressed, eat breakfast, pack a lunch, and brush your teeth.  If you miss any of these, you will have earned what you want.  You’ll have to start again tomorrow.”

If you do this and mean it, you will find that your mornings will swim along very nicely indeed.

Organization: Break Down Tasks to Make them Manageable.  Another reason why children fail to get out of the house on time has to do with organization.  Getting  out of the house requires that I plan things out, that I am able to inhibit things that I would rather do.  Sometimes, the task is overwhelming!

But this is solvable.  Simply break down the task for your child.  Provide as many supports and cues as you can to help your child move through the morning routine.  As he or she masters the steps, you can gradually take away the supports.

For example, instead of asking that a child keep everything in mind at once — get up, dress, eat breakfast, pack a lunch and brush her teeth –  create a list for each of these.   Put a time next to each item on the list.    Hold your child responsible for each item on the list one at a time.  So, the alarm goes off at 7:00.  You come into your child’s room and say, “You have to be up by 7:05!  You’ve got five minutes!”  Once the child is up, you hold her responsible for the second item: You must be dressed by 7:15!  You’ve got 10 minutes.”  And so forth.

Of course, these types of strategies will fail unless we have a motivated child!  That’s why motivation is first.

Negotiating Needs: If You Want Me To Respect Your Interests…  It is also important to acknowledge that there may be legitimate reasons why children may have difficulty getting moving in the morning.     Is there some reason why your child has difficulty getting up in the morning?  (Perhaps she has difficulty falling asleep the night before.) Is there a reason why she won’t pack a lunch?  (Perhaps she doesn’t like the offerings.)  Is there a reason she avoids brushing her teeth (Perhaps she doesn’t like the toothpaste.)  If there are real reasons why children may fail to move along in the morning, addressing those reasons will help.

One more thing: Sometimes parents get into the habit of doing too much for their children.  They sometimes feel as if it is their responsibility to get their children out of the house.  When we do this, we often forget that parents have needs too.  Parents often forget about their own needs; we put those of our children before us.

Parents, however, also have needs.  In the morning, parents have the need to get out of the house, get the kids to school, and get to work.  If we’re not out of the house at the right time, not only will you, child, be late, but I will be late too.  It’s okay, and often even helpful, for parents to state their needs.  Rather than, “we have to get out of the house by 7:45”, you can say, “If we are not out of the house at 7:45, I will be late.  I need you to be on time or else I will suffer the consequences.”   This often gives children a new sense of perspective.

Moving the Kids Along

There are many reasons why children have difficulty getting out of the house in the morning.  Young children and children with attention problems might benefit by getting help breaking down the morning tasks.  For other children, it may simply be a problem of removing some not-so-obvious obstacles.  Most often, however, the problem is motivational.    Happily, you can motivate your child without threats, external rewards or punishments.   It’s simple:  You don’t get what you want until you do what you’re supposed to do.