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From Frantic to Focused!

A return to school also means a return to routine, but sometimes that weekday morning schedule can be anything but routine. Some days it all goes rather smoothly. Everyone’s out the door on time, clean and ready for the day, required accoutrements in tow - all without any tears. Other mornings you can find yourself in the midst of ‘tantrum-ing’ turmoil of uneaten breakfasts, un-brushable hair, mismatched clothing, half put-together lunches (being complained about before they’re even made), missing schoolbooks and lost shoes. Yikes! It makes for a stress-inducing way to start the day, to say the least. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve found myself looking at the clock having been up for less than an hour and thinking, ‘Only 14 more hours and we’ll all be in bed again. Just get through today.’ Perhaps not the best coping strategy.

Having friends and family to vent to and share these kinds of experiences with can be priceless, for as the old adage goes: ‘Kids don’t come with a guidebook.’ But other parents, and those same empathetic friends, can also be a great source of advice as well as support. For example, take this scenario: Nearly every time I direct a child upstairs to brush their teeth on a morning (thus completing their ‘getting ready’ routine), what I end up doing is propelling them into an abyss of time-sucking electronic distractions, impromptu dance performances or endless searches for lost toy parts. Here’s a great tip someone shared with me just last week: If your home has a downstairs bathroom, keep toothbrushes there. That way you don’t have to re-herd anyone on a morning. Genius!

That useful parenting tactic came from Gail Bell, B.Ed., MA, and Co-Founder of Parenting Power. Drawing on over two decades of experience as an in-class educator and educational administrator and her own experience as a mother of two, Bell considers that routine itself is key to navigating bigger family routines. She firmly believes “we need to set our kids up for success. We schedule their time outside of the home but rarely do we schedule their time in the home. Time management is a skill, and we need to help them learn it.” Bell also outlines how pre-empting upcoming events and planning ahead can prove hugely beneficial when it comes to meeting weekly demands, advising “consistent family meetings will keep you on track. I highly recommend a weekly family meeting where your family goes over the week ahead and the schedule for it. Putting it down on paper is important too. Your kids can’t just put it in their phone - it won’t work.”

Jill Thompson, a full-time student and single mom of four kids ages 15, 11, 9 and 7 agrees, “We have been doing the exact same routine for years now so we don’t really have many issues in the morning. But if I think back, what has helped us the most is staunch organization and routine.” And that routine isn’t a last-minute dash to complete tasks; it’s as proactive as possible. Thompson’s family organization for the morning begins the evening before as soon as her kids return home. “When they get home from school, the first thing they do is put their backpacks in the backpack spot, their agendas in the agenda spot (if it’s there, I sign it; if it’s not there, I don’t) and their lunch kits in the lunch kit spot, and hat and mitts in their bins.” Bell is a proponent of this kind of forward-thinking strategy, asserting, “The idea that work comes before play is key. Bags are ready for the next day before the TV goes on. We have to train our kids and it provides them with real-life skills.”

Trish Muntain, a full-time Executive Assistant at a national non-profit and mom of one active toddler, finds that planning ahead of time also helps ensure her morning goes as well as possible, “I’ll have my son’s clothes out and everything he may need that day, ready to go the night before.” In the morning, she also gives her young son reminders so he knows what to expect and makes sure he understands where he’s going that day. But Muntain also allows for his mood, sharing, “I think the biggest thing for us is knowing your child and accommodating for that. Luckily he’s a morning person, so I don’t have a struggle getting him awake.” Bell also recommends setting expectations for daily routine that can assist in those time-wasting moments of mini-crisis. For example, Bell advises, “Decide the breakfast menu during the family meeting so there’s no discussion or choice to be made in the moment.”

Of course, expectations have to realistically match children’s capabilities but that doesn’t mean small children can’t help out or fulfil their own duties. As Bell explains, “Expectations do have to be age-appropriate. As parents, we’re not asking them to do much. For example, kids can make their own lunches and they can do it the night before. My job is to keep the fridge full and provide them with ideas of what they could make.” Similar strategies can also be applied to recreation equipment, even for little ones. “A five-year-old can get their bag ready. If you and the kids put together lists of required activity equipment or take pictures [of the equipment] if they can’t read, you are teaching them how to prepare and be organized. This is especially important for single parents who can feel at times like they have to do everything themselves, and that’s exhausting,” says Bell.

Bell also describes how completing these tasks can lead to important learning opportunities for developing children. “Consequences are a significant part of this learning process. If a child forgets an important piece of equipment or book for school, they’re learning a valuable lesson. Lots of life skills are gained in making mistakes, but clear communication of expectations is key,” says Bell.

Full-time student Thompson has also found that the natural consequences of forgetfulness or mistakes often turn out to have positive effects. “My kids are largely responsible for how their mornings go. Natural consequences and social pressure seem to work mostly in our favor. Of course, I do think it is important to have grace for my children and if I am able to, I will drop off a forgotten lunch bag at their school. But more often than not, I am at my own school and that is not an option, and I don’t sweat it too much. They can eat their lunch when they get home, and I truly believe that those days provide my kids with an important lesson.”

Beyond learning to double check sports bags or making sure your school lunch is packed, Bell believes these kinds of incidents lead to bigger picture educational opportunities, explaining, “As a single parent, life can get crazy time wise but when children help out, they are able to develop resiliency and problem-solving skills. Everyone can help. Everyone in the family is part of the team." Thompson has found that similar experiences have taught her children valuable lessons, explaining, “I don’t come to their rescue very often when it comes to missing mitts and hats because I have provided them with their essentials and a system to keep it organized so they will oftentimes borrow from each other, and they seem to sort themselves out quite nicely.”

Sometimes, though, that schedule needs to allow adaptability for each family member’s personality and potential early morning bad moods or, at worst, uncontrollable occurrences such as slept through alarms or sick kids. However, Bell explains the competency your children and family develop through regular practice of time management and life skills also helps them to apply coping strategies. On those really crazy mornings, Bell recommends asking for assistance. “Be honest. Ask your kids for their help and tell them you have to pull together as a team.” Muntain describes how her morning allows for quite a bit of flexibility for her family and how that helps them to function at their best. “For us, it’s really about multi-tasking and not worrying about the conventional way of doing things (sit-down breakfasts, etc.). Someday I would like that to happen, but it just isn’t possible right now. A bunch of this is going to change over the next couple of years, of course, as he gets older. But for now, this is how we do things.” Bell acknowledges that all schedules include a little obligatory ‘wiggle room.’ “Of course there will always be compromises. For example, on the mornings when my kids have to be out of the house extra early, I make their lunches.” Thompson has grown to be more relaxed about certain aspects of her family’s routine, choosing her morning battles wisely or, more importantly, avoiding them. “I am pretty lax when it comes to what they wear. As long as it is clean, they can wear it and that has eliminated the exhausting wardrobe arguments we used to have.”

Steps toward a smooth running September schedule need not be severe to be successful. Bell recommends making incremental changes. “If your kids are not doing anything right now, start small. Kids need to know their morning and evening routines and as parents, we need to follow through with consistency.” That first day turns into the first week, then the first month and before you know it, new schedules become routine in a way that works for your family. 

Good luck!

Victoria is a Calgary-based mother of three, freelance writer, post-graduate student and founder of the Canadian Association for Single Parents.


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