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Christine Carter, PhD Headshot

Back to School Advice: Turning the Morning Blitz into School Day Bliss

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Moment of truth: My kids and I spent the first part of the last school year without any sort of predictable morning routine, or at least one that worked. If my kids seemed tired, I'd let them sleep in -- and feed them breakfast in the car. If I was tired, I'd sleep in -- and then find my cranky self snapping at the kids to hurry up.

In my household, there is a vast difference between school mornings that go smoothly and those that involve nagging, missed buses and tears. It's the difference between heaven and hell.

Mornings are important. Will kids arrive at school flustered and distressed from their panicked run to the bus, having barely choked down breakfast? Or will they arrive well-rested and well-fed, bright-eyed and ready to learn? Plenty of research suggests that this difference can influence their school success in a big way.

The good news is that our mornings aren't simply catastrophes that happen to us; instead, our morning happiness is actually within our power to control, and finding that morning bliss is all about HABIT. Once a routine is established in our brains, it takes very little effort for us, or our kids, to enact that routine.

The bad news is that if we aren't deliberate in establishing our routines, our families can get into bad habits that become difficult to break. A few examples of the bad habits we got into last year: One of my daughters would always wait to come down for breakfast until I nagged her repeatedly -- sometimes to the point of yelling -- to do so; the other would routinely change clothes 1,000 times; both never put their PE shoes in the same (findable) place.

I did finally get it together and choreograph a morning routine that worked. It was HARD for the first several weeks -- my friends and family thought I was being particularly neurotic and controlling with my detailed checklists and minute-to-minute schedules. The kids started off strong, and then, about three weeks in, got bored and annoyed and wanted to have nothing to do with my routines. But I was so glad that I persisted! Turning that crazy morning blitz into morning bliss is SO WORTH IT.

My best advice for establishing a blissful morning routine? Prepare, prepare, prepare. Morning hell is born out of lack of preparation. Know what's for breakfast (and have that food in the house). Know what needs to be done before bed. Know exactly what the morning schedule is going to be.

More specifically:

1. Make checklists for each person in your household, listing things the night before that need to be done to help prepare for the next morning.

Here's my kids' "Night Before" checklist:

-Run dishwasher or hand wash dishes needed to pack lunch.
-Pack snacks and water bottles (or whole lunch, if possible).
-Prep for breakfast: set the table, set out cereal, put smoothie ingredients near the blender.
-Pack backpack for school, and put it near the kitchen door.
-Put a jacket, hat, and shoes by your backpack. If you want to look up the weather, do it now.
-Clean up your room. (This often unearths stuff for school that they would have forgotten.)
-Pick out clothes for the morning, and commit to wearing those clothes.

2. Get enough sleep. The hard truth is that it is nearly impossible to lead a happy life, or to have a happy childhood, when we're underslept. Don't kid yourself: 99 percent of adults need seven to eight hours of sleep per night.

I need a full eight hours, so I go to bed at 10:00 p.m. and wake up at 6:00 a.m.. This makes it possible for me to dawdle a little in the morning, to have some quiet time to myself, without feeling rushed and cranky.

My 9-year-old goes to bed at 8:00 p.m. and wakes up at 7:00 a.m.. My 11-year-old goes to sleep at 8:30 p.m. and wakes up at 7:00 a.m.. I know that my kids are getting enough sleep because they wake up without an alarm.

3. Set an alarm -- for the same time every day. This may seem obvious, but I get into trouble when I think I can get away with not doing this. We can't get into a good routine if it changes everyday.

Even though my kids typically wake up without an alarm, they set their alarms for the time when they must be out of bed -- they are already awake and reading when it goes off. They also set a second alarm for the time that they need to go downstairs to breakfast. I don't like to wake my kids up because I think it sets a bad precedent: I don't like to start the day by nagging them. Better to let the alarm do that.

4. Script your ideal routine. Here's ours:

7:00 a.m.: My goal is to be totally ready for my day, so that I can head to the kitchen to finish lunch and breakfast prep.
7:00 a.m.: Kids get out of bed and get dressed, brush hair, and make beds.
7:20 am: We all sit down together to eat breakfast.
7:40 am: We clear dishes and clean off the breakfast counter. Put lunchboxes with backpacks.
7:45 am: We brush our teeth and put our shoes on.
8:00 am: We're out the door!

5. Clear space to be successful. Muster the self-discipline to resist doing things that will derail your routine in the morning, or your mood. For me, this means I can't turn my computer on or check my email. For my daughters it means they need to eat breakfast before they can be expected to be focused or make any real decisions. We don't leave homework for the morning.

It takes time -- more than a month or so, for my family -- to really get into a routine like this. And until something like this is laid down as a habit, it takes A LOT of conscious effort to make happen. It is hard, as a parent, to maintain the consistency we need to for mornings to be virtually effortless and blissful. But trust me: It is worth it!

© 2012 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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