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The problem: When my daughter, Paris, started kindergarten, I faced a daunting schedule adjustment. She was moving from a preschool with a flexible start time to an elementary school where the bell rang at 7:50 a.m. sharp.
How would my husband and I get her to school on time? How would we switch to an earlier, more efficient schedule?
Photos by Steve LaBadessa
Bad habits: Our family was used to drawn-out mornings that started out slow and lazy and escalated into a chaotic frenzy.
My husband and I usually slept through the 7:30 a.m. alarm because we were exhausted from working well past midnight the night before. When our daughter and her younger brother, Dante, bounded into our bed demanding breakfast, we sluggishly got dressed and scrambled some eggs.
Eventually, we looked at the clock and our lethargy switched to panic. We madly filled out field trip permission slips and dug through piles of unfolded clean laundry in search of matching socks – things we should have done the night before. This all had to change.
Rise and shine: First, we needed to nail down a wake-up time. In a perfect world, we'd pop out of bed an hour before we piled into the car at 7:30 a.m. Not possible! My husband and I are night owls and work late. Plus, I wanted the kids to get as much sleep as possible. A 6:30 a.m. wake-up time was ruled out.
We decided to set the alarms for 7 a.m., giving us 30 minutes to get out the door. We knew that we might face racing through our routine in only 15 minutes if we slept in.
Delegating: Next, we developed a schedule for our morning routine. I wrote down our tasks: dressing kids, making breakfast, brushing kids' hair…wait! I couldn't accomplish all this myself. My kids needed to take on some responsibility. They would put on their clothes and brush their teeth without my help.
We started holding dress rehearsals over the summer. I posted a copy of the schedule on the refrigerator.
The result: Our daughter is now in second grade and our son in kindergarten. Most mornings we're marching out the door in 15 to 30 minutes. It's not always pretty and doesn't always go smoothly.
Typically, we're running along the sidewalk leading up to the school just as the bell rings, but when the teachers take attendance my kids are at their desks, clothed and fed—and most days they're wearing matching socks.
Most important, they're well rested and ready to tackle the day because we didn't rise at the crack of dawn.
Here are 15 tips to help you speed up your morning routine:
1. Map out a schedule. Our family came up with a schedule together. We held a meeting to brainstorm a list of tasks and talk about who should do what. And then we decided on an order in which the tasks should be completed.
We agreed that everyone should get dressed before breakfast, as our kids wake up ravenous and the promise of a meal always motivates them.
I wanted to involve the kids in creating the schedule so they'd also feel responsible for getting to school on time.
2. Choose outfits the night before. Arguments over whether my daughter could wear a pajama top to preschool used to derail our mornings. Now, we fight those battles the night before school because she chooses her outfit when she puts on her pajamas for bedtime.
Both she and her brother set their clothes next to their beds, and then I review their choices, making sure they included underwear and socks.
These items are crucial. When my son realizes he's out of clean underwear at 6:30 p.m., I can do a load of laundry that night, or at least spot-clean a pair. If he opens up an empty underwear drawer at 7:15 a.m. he's wearing dirty underwear to school that day.
3. Find shoes the night before. Our family will be zipping through our morning routine, and then my son will cry out, "I can't find my shoes!" I'll frantically race around the house, searching in closets, under beds, behind sofas. Ten minutes will pass and then I'll remember that the kids played outside last night, and I'll pull soggy sneakers from a flowerbed that was watered by the sprinklers at 5 a.m.
Demand that your kids find their shoes the night before and set them next to the front door. If you do only one thing to prepare ahead, this should be it.
4. Get the kids to bed on time. When our children are in bed by 7:30 p.m., they wake up the next morning cheerful and sprightly and do remarkable things such as brush their teeth without me threatening to take away their allowance. When they go down late, they wake up groggy and grumpy and do miserable things such as drop their toothbrushes in the toilet.
My husband and I always strive to get our kids to bed early on school nights—but we sometimes fail because, let's face it, getting a kid into bed can be like getting a cat into a bath.
5. Prepare the night before. Yes, I'm exhausted and more than anything I want to slip into bed and watch Mad Men, but I know that I'll breeze through the morning routine if I devote time after the kids are asleep to making lunches, putting homework in backpacks, and making a late-night run to the grocery store so we have milk in the morning.
I try to check the kids' backpacks for field trip permission slips and event notices. I also shower, pick out my outfit, and prepare my bag for work.
Most important, if the car is on dead empty, my husband reluctantly drives to the gas station. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you'll get up extra early to fill up the gas tank before school because most likely you won't. I've tried several times and I always hit "snooze."
6. Invest in several alarm clocks. When my daughter started kindergarten, I let her pick out her own alarm clock. She chose the biggest, pinkest, tackiest clock you've ever seen and now she feels a sense of autonomy when she wakes up to the sound of its princess song.
My husband and I also have a clock next to our bed and there's one in my son's room. The alarms are all set for the same time: 7 a.m. If I try to sleep through mine, one of my kids pounces on me in bed and wakes me up.
Some mornings, when I need to get dressed up for work, I wake a half-hour earlier than the rest of the clan. But mostly, I try to get as much sleep as possible.
7. Always make time for cuddles. On rushed mornings, I'm tempted to skip the hugs and kisses. Bad idea! If I don't squeeze in time for cuddles my son mopes around the house a weepy mess.
A few minutes of focused attention from Mom motivates him to peel off his pj's and put on his school clothes at speeds that would win him a trophy in any clothes-changing contest, if there were such a thing.
8. Kids should get themselves ready. Our kids dress themselves and brush their own teeth. Our daughter styles her own hair, and, well, our son walks out most mornings with bed head. While they're getting themselves ready, my husband and I are able to change into our work clothes and start on breakfast and lunches.
My son first dressed himself at age 4 and my daughter at age 5. It took some time for them, especially my son, to learn that the shirt tag goes in the back.
9. Speed things up with music. Kids won't get out of bed? Abba's Dancing Queen and Mamma Mia will spring them into action. I play the music softly at first and then gradually go louder and louder. If they continue to play dead, I jump on their beds until they abandon ship. A little exercise wakes me up as well.
More tricks for rousing sleepyheads: Tickle your kids gently under the arms; kiss them repeatedly; or, my favorite, sing a song really badly and say that you won't stop until they start getting dressed.
10. Divide and conquer. My husband sometimes gets up at ungodly hours and leaves for work, but most mornings he's around and he's a huge help. While I put together the kids' lunches, he handles breakfast and he usually makes something for me as well.
I find that I'm more alert at the office – and don't say stupid things in meetings – when I've eaten something.
11. Keep breakfast simple. I wish I could say that I'm feeding my kids vegetable omelets and quinoa stew every morning, but who has time for that?
My breakfast menu is simple: a hearty grain and a piece of fruit. Most often the kids slurp up a bowl of cereal or munch on a piece of toast, and they love bananas sliced into wheels.
Sometimes I chop fruit the night before when I'm preparing school lunches, and if I'm feeling ambitious, I'll boil some eggs and serve them with a little salt in the morning.
12. Keep chores to a minimum. I'm all for kids cleaning up their own messes and contributing to the household duties, but if I had my kids cleaning the fishbowl and folding laundry in the morning we'd never get to school. We save those tasks for evening and weekends.
The morning chores list is short. My daughter feeds the fish, my son the cat. They're both encouraged to put their pajamas back in the appropriate drawers, make their beds, and carry their breakfast dishes to the sink. Do these things always happen? Feeding the pets, mostly. Making their bed, rarely. At least we're trying.
13. Do what you have to in the car. There are those mornings when we move through our morning schedule with the efficiency of a well-oiled machine. And then there are those mornings when we laze in bed until 7:15 a.m.
How do we speed through our schedule in 15 minutes? We throw on our clothes and then get everything else done in the car. My kids are well-versed in eating toast, brushing hair, and putting on shoes while strapped into a car seat.
14. Put together an emergency pack. For mornings when we're running late, I've assembled an emergency pack that I keep in the car's glove box. In it, there's a sports bar (breakfast), sugarless gum (cleans teeth), hairbrush, barrettes, and a few dollars so the kids can buy their lunches at school if I didn't have time to pack them.
15. Take breaks. Our family skips the routine on weekends. We let the kids stay up a little later and try to sleep in on Saturdays and Sundays, although we rarely get past 8 a.m.
Occasionally, we even break from our schedule on school days, especially on the mornings after a late night when the kids stayed up attending a school event or celebrating Grandma's birthday. Sometimes it's more important for kids to get an extra hour of sleep than it is to learn that the word ball begins with the letter b. A few tardy slips never hurt, at least not in kindergarten.