Surviving mornings with a child with ADHD

Mornings are a bear. Excuse me. My child, who has ADHD and SPD, acts like a bear most mornings, dare I say a monster some days.

“The school morning routine is one of the most difficult areas for ADHD children,” says Betsy Corrin, PhD, a child psychologist at Packard Children’s Hospital and the Stanford University School of Medicine in the article, Minimize School Morning Mayhem for ADHD Children, on “The morning is time-pressured and involves a lot of steps. And such stressful situations don’t bring out the best in many ADHD kids or their parents” says Corrin.

So how do we get our kids out the door with our patience and sanity intact?

BEHAVIOR CHARTS: Your first inclination may be a behavior chart and reward system. That’s likely what your therapist recommended and you’ve read it in many books on ADHD after all. But there’s a huge disconnect here between what most ADHD experts tell us {to use lots of behavior charts} and what can be helpful for children with ADHD {charts are NOT effective for most of them because impulsivity prevents them from weighing consequences and rewards before acting}. However, a morning routine checklist is the one and only time I’ve ever been successful with a behavior chart with my nine-year-old son, Luke. {My low success rate is not due to a lack of trying.} I listed the items he needs to complete to be ready to leave for school in the mornings, even eating breakfast. I laminated it and put a paperclip on the side. The paperclip points to the item he’s currently working on. So he carries the card with him and moves the clip down each time he completes a task (it’s kind of like a game). Then, at the end it says, “If complete by 7:20 AM, you may play DS and earn one token.” Now, the token system didn’t work for us and we lost the checklist well over a year ago. If I recreated it today, he would be able to turn on the TV or play his iPod, both reward enough.

Visuals are crucial to a majority of kids with ADHD, especially if they suffer slow processing speed or poor working memory. Creating a visual morning checklist, one with a picture for each step, can be helpful for many kids with ADHD too. I think the PECS system would be most beneficial for this, with customizable and movable images. You place the separate images in order on the chart (PECS is velcro but you could make your own with felt or stick each to the wall with masking tape). As the child finishes a task, they remove the image for that task from the list and put it back into the unused pile. That step helps them see they are accomplishing tasks and how much is left until they are finished.


WAKE THEM GENTLY: Ripping off the covers and turning on all the lights will surely put anyone in a bad mood. This is not how you want to start off with a child with ADHD. Allow plenty of extra time for slow waking. If Luke is not up before me, I will try tickling him to wake up — laughter is a good start to the day. Our dog also likes to jump up on the bed and nudge and lick him {and his sister}, which is very helpful. It’s hard to sleep through dog slobber on your face.

Our therapist recommends setting their own alarm for at least 20 minutes before they have to get up. We tried this last year with Luke but he slept right through it. I have seen products that are supposed to help the toughest morning riser get out of bed — clocks on wheels that you have to chase and daylight simulators that light the room slowly over time like the sun rising. Here too is an inexpensive idea from John Taylor, PhD, author of The Survival Guide for Kids With ADD or ADHDHelping Your ADD Child, and From Defiance to Cooperation: “make the most of the alarm you’ve got by setting it on a metal pie pan with dimes in it and placing it just out of arm’s reach.”


CREATE THE APPROPRIATE ENVIRONMENT: It’s very important to control your child’s environment during the morning to help them make a positive start to their day. First, don’t allow them to watch television unless they are ready to walk out the door with time to spare. My son can’t eat when the TV is on and he surely can’t walk away to get dressed or brush his teeth. The TV is a big no-no, but music playing in the background could be helpful. As well, don’t turn on a bunch of bright lights right away. Use soft lamps or indirect light to illuminate just as much as is necessary. Avoid fluorescent lights too, they are harsh and irritating to most kids with sensory issues and many kids with ADHD have sensory issues.

PREPARE THE NIGHT BEFORE: The less stress each morning the better — do as much prep work as you can the night before: lay out clothing, place shoes by the door, pack their bookbag, choose what they’ll eat for breakfast, even put the toothpaste on the toothbrush, all before going to bed the day before.

BE FLEXIBLE ABOUT BREAKFAST: It generally takes a lot more effort for a child with ADHD to make decisions. Planning what they’ll eat for breakfast the night before may help, or they may just change their mind in the morning. If you can get your child to eat the same thing every morning it removes decision-making from the equation and makes breakfast easier for child and parent alike. Last year Luke {and his sister} drank a protein shake every morning in lieu of a traditional breakfast (he eventually grew tired of it). Even though making shakes every morning was a lot of effort, it was so much easier. And shakes are 100% portable if you’re running late.

Any portable food is a good idea. If your child is ok with eating in the car {and you are ok with letting them eat in the car}, let them have breakfast there. At that point they are a captive audience and the car can be calming {it is for Luke}. You can feed them a nutritious breakfast in a portable format: protein shakes, yogurt smoothies, breakfast burrito, fruit, breakfast sandwich, protein bars, cheese, etc.

PROVIDE MOVEMENT TIME: Exercise is proven to be very helpful to those with ADHD. Allow your child 10 minutes to go outside and play or jump on a mini-trampoline or, as Luke does some mornings, run laps around the living room, before leaving for school. Or how about a morning dance party to inject energy and good spirits. Anything goes here as long as it’s safe and it gets them moving.

REMAIN CALM: This is the #1 most important thing. Truly. You must remain calm at all times with a child with ADHD. This is a challenge for sure, one I am not completely successful with, but I try with all my might to remain calm. Yelling or threatening only escalates emotional reactions and causes more harm than good. Ask your child to stop for a moment and look you in the eye, then very calmly and softly tell them what you need them to do and what the consequence will be if they aren’t on task. Don’t be reactive, be proactive. Set a good example — if you are anxious or angry, they will be too.

What does your morning routine look like? What helps your ADHD child prepare for the day with success?

COVER3D_400sq_bestsellAward-Winning Blogger. Freelance Writer. Author. Warrior Mom.
A self-described “veteran” parent of a son with ADHD, Penny Williams is the author of the Amazon best-seller about her parenthood in the trenches, Boy Without Instructions: Surviving the Learning Curve of Parenting a Child with ADHD. She is also the creator of the award-winning website, {a mom’s view of ADHD}, a frequent contributor on parenting a child with ADHD for ADDitude Magazine and other parenting and special needs publications, and co-founder of the annual Happy Mama Conference & Retreat, a weekend away for moms of kids with neurobehavioral disorders. Look for her second book, What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting ADHD, in late 2014. Follow Penny at

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About the author

COVER3D_400sq_bestsellAward-Winning Blogger. Freelance Writer. Author. Warrior Mom. A self-described “veteran” parent of a son with ADHD, Penny Williams is the author of the Amazon best-seller about her parenthood in the trenches, Boy Without Instructions: Surviving the Learning Curve of Parenting a Child with ADHD. She is also the creator of the award-winning website, {a mom's view of ADHD}, a frequent contributor on parenting a child with ADHD for ADDitude Magazine and other parenting and special needs publications, and co-founder of the annual Happy Mama Conference & Retreat, a weekend away for moms of kids with neurobehavioral disorders. Look for her second book, What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting ADHD, in late 2014. Follow Penny at


  1. Midwestern Mom says:

    Lots of helpful info.  Mornings are really hard!  Before my sons medicine kicks in he in practically incapable of following directions, causing me to lead him by the hand at every step.

  2. MommaL says:

    I have a 6 year old girl thats a foster baby and shes ADD as well. Shes also a bear in the mornings. Routines, doing the same thing every morning in order, does work!
    She knows exactly what we are going to do and in what order.
    I also have two boxers that love to kiss her to wake her up..lmao!
    Its hilarious! She does get angry, but it gets up up!..lmao!

  3. Kim T. says:

    This post was like reading about my life.  Your whole blog is like a miracle to me right now.  Thank you.

  4. marsha&tired says:

    Thank you,  I can not even begin telling you how releived I am that I am no alone.  My son Logan is 11 he was diagnoised at 6. We were never told about therapy from his doctor or from the specialist who tests him.  This is the first year we put him in therapy and he is doing so much better.  I too am learining to be organized. We are a divorced family and logan lives 50/50 with both parents.  We have tried to be consistant in our homes but it’s difficult.  This is the first time that I actually feel like I am doing something great for him.  I do get short tempered with him and mornings are the toughest for me.  Thank you for the advice, even though the Therapist says pretty much the same thing, it’s diffrent to hear from a parent. I appreciate this website. 

  5. Glad this was on your front page this morning – bad morning here.  Couldn’t have found this on a better day!  We know what to do in the morning, but it is easy to forget when tensions are high.  This was a great reminder as well as some new suggestions for us to try starting tomorrow.  Thanks.

  6. Swati Singh says:

    ADHD is best controlled with a set routine and lots of physical and mental exercise for child ,the moment child is left idle he/she will be back to what the parent dreads and a smiling GOOD MORNING makes the day for both of us.Being a mother of six yr old daughter who has been diagnosed with ADHD and delayed development ,every day has to be well planned for her leaving little time for me and her to sit idle and only then has she been able to cross so many hurdles that were leaving her behind friends she wanted to play and talk with. Still miles to go….

  7. Tracytm6b says:

    9 year old has just been diagnosed although I have suspected it for awhile. I think his sister may have ADD. My son’s ADHD is much worse though. He has just started meds. I don’t have insurance and can only squeeze finances enough to get his meds since his problem has become so drastic. He is a good kid and really is gifted. He is in the gifted program but all that is being focused on at school lately is his problems with ADHD. Just found out I can get an IEP or something at school to help. The dr just allowed a change in meds starting in the morning. With both kids having issues it is tough. Although my little girl is 11 and hers is much milder. But I can see how hers is mire about the inability to focus and remember tasks and homework and could lead to big issues if we don’t find a plan that helps until I can either find a natural alternative that helps or afford a medical alternative. I don’t want either one so medicated it changes who they are but un his case he really needed it.

    • Akatommie_04 says:

      I just recently started looking into starting my own blog, came across so many wonderful blogs from both Mothers and Fathers that I have hardly been willing to go to bed, and can’t wait to wake so I can feel that I’m not the only one going thru what I do. In reading your post I was wondering if you have started the IEP process, if so, how is it going?  My son was dx with ADHD in Kindergarten but, I really knew at about 6 months. It is a process to get the IEP possibility even started and of course YOU have to initiate it because schools won’t, it costs them money nor do they want to have the possibility of not meeting the State Qualifications that is sooo required for them to meet now.
      Hope to hear from you.

  8. Karen Alaniz says:

    What a great article!

  9. Karen Alaniz says:

    Whoops! I didn’t mean to hit the post button so fast. Anyway, the PECS system is great. I taught special education and we used it a lot. I also have my own darling with ADHD. When he got to a certain age where he didn’t want me telling him what to do, but virtually always failed to get the simplest of things done in the morning, I changed to drawn pictures of what he needed to do. Then instead of the fight being personal (between him and me), it was between him and the list. All I had to say is, “check your list.” On it were things like “eat breakfast” and “put backpack by door” and “feed dog.” Works great for older kids, even if they can read. Those visuals seem to stick in their brain better. LOL Love your website, by the way! ~Karen

  10. Sweet Boy's Mommy says:

    This is amazing. Thank you. Everything makes sense and I can’t wait for dance party in the morning.

  11. Kris Phelps says:

    Very Informative, Thank You!!!

  12. Guest says:

    Hi there,
    My son has not been officially diagnosed with ADHD but mornings are by the far the most difficult times for us. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to absolutely lose it. He is so argumentative. Now when I try and give him choices he just retorts yelling I’m want to do this which isn’t one of the choices. I have a chart which worked for a while but…I feel like we are back to where we started. In any case I thought my chart might be helpful to people who have children under the age of 5.

  13. ADHD mom says:

    Our therapist recommended to avoid struggles in the morning. We have to focus and our number one goal at this time is to get our son to do well in school. He has ADHD and is on the autism spectrum. Our therapist gave us “permission” to do things for our son in the mornings. He is eight years old but she reminded us not to compare him to other 8 year olds or to our selves at that age (in terms of morning routine) . She recommended we make the morning routine quick and do a lot for our son jus to “get it done” and avoid conflict, like one would do with a toddler. So although our son is very intelligent (far above his peers) we do dress him every morning quickly, even while he is reading a book, and carry him to the bathroom where we help to brush teeth and comb hair. The whole process takes five minutes and completely eliminates morning conflict. We then head to the kitchen where we select the breakfast (one of a few items he and his brother like) and place it on the table for him). At this point he eats, with some prodding, and takes his medication. Our therapist said that if we continue to do this daily, our son will get in the habit of having these things happen (getting dressed, brushing teeth, breakfast) in a rapid sequence and it will eventually become habit and he will eventually do part of all of it himself. She said that for now, this is simply not on the list of things to discuss. Our goal is to have a peaceful start to the day so that school (and behavior/performance at school) becomes the number one priority. He does have a behavior chart at school and does well with it but she advised us against a behavior chart for morning routines because she said it would place too much emphasis on mornings (in comparison with school or other issues). We are so grateful to this therapist. It is working out very well and we are no longer stressed or worried about our mornings.

  14. Elizabeth says:

    This was such a wonderful article. So helpful since we had a horrible morning with my 11 year old son. Only one problem though, I too have ADHD and so this makes for a terrible combination! Once the morning chaos is ovet and done with, I find myself feeling so guilty and thinking of different ways I could’ve handled the situation. But by the next morning, the ideas are out the door. Any suggestions?

  15. Debbie says:

    We tried this and it worked great , for a while. Now my 11 yr old just ignores the chart and mornings are not good once again. Today she almost missed her bus because she refused to get her outerwear on when asked and kept on fussing in the bathroom with her hair. I am so frustrated

  16. Jennifer says:

    This post is fantastic! i would like to try using the checklist in our house…do you have a download you can share?


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The "ADHD Mommas" are not medical or mental health professionals, nor an ADHD coach. Any opinions shared here are just that, opinions. I, and the other "ADHD Mommas," are sharing our experiences with our own ADHD children. Please do not re-post or publish any content or photos without a link back to {a mom's view of ADHD}. Have the courtesy to give credit where credit is due. Copyright protected. All rights reserved.

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