One September morning, Pamela, looking tired and frustrated, posed a question that always came up following any vacation from school, though I heard it most often in the fall. The summer was very enjoyable; it was less stressful with fewer daily activities for each child, no homework or projects to complete, and more time to relax. However, rules and daily routines were also relaxed, and Pamela’s assumption was that when school began, the easygoing positive family dynamic would continue.
However, she was distressed that mornings, dinner and bedtime were, in her words, “all out of control, chaotic.” Television and computer use were particular problems. Could I help her, and quickly? I asked her what part of the day was most troublesome and needed the most immediate change, as it works best to tackle one area at a time. We developed the following plan, the overall goal of which was Pamela regaining the sense of control she needed.
The following suggestions are quite general and apply to almost any behavior that you would like to modify. The goals include that your child understands that there are logical consequences to choices, and that your child takes on increasing responsibility for his or her behavior. Try a few, and see what works for your family. Keep in mind that changing behavior is difficult, and your preschooler’s behavior may actually seem to get worse over the first few days. Stick with any changes you are trying to make for at least two weeks before trying an alternative course of action.
- Your language and tone are vital to success. I have always stressed to parents that they listen to teachers and other caregivers that they respect, and model the consistent, positive manner in which these professionals speak to the children. For example, in a calm, strong voice, tell the child, “If you do…. then … will happen.”
- Decide what your goal is before you sit down with your child/ren. Have a plan that includes how you will talk about what has not been working and what you will change. For example, what exactly is causing stress in the morning? Is it eating breakfast, getting dressed, gathering the items needed for school, and/or use of television and other media?
- Sit down with your child/ren later in the day when there is time to talk. State that what you have been doing in the morning has not been working well. Explain that the following changes are going to be made so that you will each leave in a better state of mind to take on your day. Respect and acknowledge their feedback; if you feel it is reasonable, say that you are willing to try their suggestion. During the early years this type of discussion also builds the bonds of trust and open communication.
- Post pictures of new steps to the morning routine where the child can see them. Consider creating a poster together where the child draws pictures to represent each step.
- If your child voices dislike about the changes, listen and continue to acknowledge her feelings with respect. Briefly reinforce the need for the changes, such as saying, “I understand how you feel, but what we were doing wasn’t working so now we are trying to fix that.” No further conversation is needed – do not get caught up in a power struggle.
- Many parents find that giving children choices when it comes to morning routines is helpful. Again, pay attention to the language you use here. When you ask a question beginning with, “Do you want to…?”, the answer will always be, “No,” usually followed by a power struggle and possibly a tantrum. Instead, say, “Do you want to wear the blue shirt or the green shirt?” Then be prepared to accept the child’s answer – never offer an option that you are not prepared to accept. If your preschooler refuses to make that choice, the logical consequence is the loss of the right to choose. Firmly state, “Okay, then I’ll make the choice today and tomorrow we can try again with you making the choice. If your preschooler refuses to get dressed, it is okay to pick him up and take him to school as he is. I have told countless parents over the years to just bring their child into school in pajamas, and when the teacher says, “We are going to put your clothes and shoes on,” the child quickly complies. Getting dressed in the morning ceases to become an issue after one or two times of your child knowing that you mean it when you say you are going to school whether he is dressed or not.
- As exhausted as all parents feel at the end of the day, the more preparation that can be done for the following day, the greater the payoff. Prepare lunches, get clothes ready, sign forms, and check for needed items in backpacks. If you have vital items such as glasses or hearing aids that are used at night, keep a basket by the door in which the child places them at bedtime. This is a helpful routine to establish for notes or other forms that must be returned. I also have found that leaving a second pair of an item that a child must have, such as glasses, is tremendously helpful for everyone.
- Like all of us, the more sleep a child has, the more pleasant she will be in the morning. Limit evening activities on school-nights and begin bedtime routines a bit earlier than usual to allow for setbacks. Have routines for going to bed. For example, review the day together. Rather than asking, “How was school?” which normally elicits a one-word response, ask about a favorite activity, an art project, a book, or something nice your child did for someone else. Sing a song, read a book, tell each other stories, do some breathing exercises, or just lie down together. These activities all add up to a relaxed child who looks forward to bedtime and is ready to sleep. As a bonus, this routine helps strengthen your bond of communication.
- Breakfast is a good time to quickly tell your child what the day looks like. Who is picking them up and at what time are extremely important bits of information to a preschooler. If you are not picking them up, let them know what time you plan to be home. If the answer is unknown at this time, tell the truth; honesty is important for building trust.
- A hectic morning is not the time for resolving conflicts over food. Keep it simple: foods your child can handle himself, food he enjoys and will eat. Many children do not eat the traditional breakfast foods at this age, which is fine, as long as their overall diet is healthy. Remind your child of the time constraints for eating as she begins, and give a one-minute warning.
- When it comes to media use, the rule should be that your child must be dressed, have eaten and helped clean up breakfast, and all needed items are at the door, packed and ready to go, before any media can be used in the morning. Remind your child, “If you are able to follow the rules today, then you will be able to use the computer before we leave.” This procedure is an example of logical consequences. For example, if there is a problem turning the computer off and you are late to school, then remind your child that it was his choice that the computer will not be a part of the morning routine.
- When you begin to see positive changes, acknowledge them briefly with a statement about how you are feeling. For example, “I am leaving for work feeling so much better because of our new morning routine.” Avoid adding, “aren’t you,” since the answer to yes/no questions with preschoolers tends to be “no.”