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We have three kids (a 9, 4 and 3 year old) and our middle child is severely disabled. My wife has some commuting challenges in the morning and thus has limited availability at the critical time and there's not much we can do about that. As such, I have a pretty tight timeline on getting everyone ready and out the door in the morning and my attention is quite divided to boot.

The short of it is that I need to find some way to train the 9-year-old to focus on things like eating his breakfast, brushing teeth, etc. on his own. I can remind him every five to ten minutes, but it seems I have to do it every one or two before he absent-mindedly disengages and begins playing with a toy or staring off into space, etc. It's hard for me to sustain this and nearly every morning we find ourselves rushing out the door in a blind panic no matter how prepared I am the night before or how early we start. The time is simply taken up by idle activity.

How does one teach focus to this age group? Are there some fair incentives to keep him on track and what's the appropriate behavior as this keeps reoccurring? I've been getting upset (which of course makes matters worse), but I'm really at a loss here. Would love some suggestions.

EDIT: I failed to mention in the original post that I have a limited window of time myself due to time syncing with our European and Australian offices (I'm in EST). There are excellent suggestions about starting earlier and baking incentives into the morning routine that won't work for my particular situation but may be helpful for others.

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    Quick thought. On a day when you maybe have slightly more time than usual, or on a weekend "practice morning", put him "in charge of" you instead of the other way around. Semi in-fun. With constant questions of "ok, now what should Dad do next?". Then you do it (or negotiate a better task), first telling him what he can do while you're doing it. Then interrupt him as soon as you're ready with "ok, now what next for Dad?" Hopefully he'll get some small insight into how hard "being the boss" can be. (You may have to cut it off if time does get short, but do it with a "thanks for helping!") – Jeff Y Jan 29 '16 at 22:21
  • I can't wait to see some answers here. This is exactly how our house is in the morning, and your kids' ages are almost the same as mine (11, 5, and 4.) I don't have a disabled middle child, just an angry, extremely hyperactive and stubborn one. I have to leave before the bus comes, and my poor husband calls me every morning, blood boiling. We know if we could get out 11 yr old to just get through his routine on his own, it would be MUCH easier to tend to the little ones who really do need help. – Jax Jan 31 '16 at 18:06
  • @Jeff Y - I will definitely give that a try – Shane Feb 2 '16 at 17:47
  • Are you sure the 9 year old is getting enough sleep at night? Kids tend to need more sleep than you would think. I have an 8 year old who tends to be noticeably slower on mornings when she is tired. – Aravis Feb 3 '16 at 16:32
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You might try incentives. Set a schedule and use a loud timer to mark the milestones. "Timer's running...five minutes til teeth have to be brushed." Timer goes off, are teeth brushed? If so, one milestone reached. "Timer is on again, ten minutes to eat your breakfast..."

You will be helping the younger two reach their milestones, true, but that's not unreasonable. Think of appropriate rewards for getting things done in time. Personally, I like cumulative rewards. Whoever gets the most star points each week gets to pick which restaurant we go to dinner at on Friday. Reaching fifteen star points gets you any single item at the Dollar Store. Rewards don't have to be expensive (and shouldn't be, IMO) but they should be things the kids can't get any other way. (yeah, you don't like him to have chocolate or junk food but one candy bar won't kill him and if it motivates him to earn twenty star point levels it is worth it...)

If that doesn't work we go to loss of privileges. "If you don't make all your milestones in the morning you lose electronics privileges that evening".

Here's the single most important factor in making a strategy like this successful; follow through. If you promise a reward you need to deliver it. If you set a consequence you need to enforce it. Don't relent just because you have fussiness and drama going on, just calmly stick to your guns. "I'm sorry that you weren't able to get your teeth brushed in time and now you can't watch TV, I hope you will be able to get done in time tomorrow."

The reason your nine year old can't focus may be because he sees no reason to make it a priority. Sure, Dad gets mad and stressed out but that happens every so often, just a part of life... Giving him personal incentives which he can control is likely to get a much better response than expecting him to care about your "adult" concerns.

One other possibility; if he has difficulty focusing in a lot of other areas of his life; excessive daydreaming, losing things, forgetting things (even things that are important to him) you might look into the possibility that he has some ADHD going on.

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    It might be wiser to have breakfast first and then brush the teeth... – Stephie Feb 3 '16 at 8:40
  • Excellent suggestions! Quick thought: maybe the 9er is just not a morning person and needs more time to get into sync with the day? There are people who need longer before all their systems are up and running. – Seul Feb 3 '16 at 9:27
  • @Stephie, actually there's the theory that acidity from food softens the teeth's enamel so if you brush teeth right after eating/drinking you brush the enamel away. I have hence heard the recommendation that if you cannot leave 30 minutes between eating and brushing teeth you should rather brush them before having food. – Seul Feb 3 '16 at 9:30
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    @Seul my source said ten minutes, but it probably also depends a bit on whether you are having orange juice (acidic) or a slice of bread. I suspect both values are estimates. And when my kids had toast with honey it's probably better to brush the remains off. Much more relaxed after a scrambeled egg.... – Stephie Feb 3 '16 at 11:14
  • @Stephie, I agree. I only meant to say that there are situations where it can make sense to reverse the order. Especially if I'm having coke and a grapefruit for breakfast again ;-) – Seul Feb 3 '16 at 12:43
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I had the same problem and with a similar age grouping ( 9, 5 and 3). I more or less solved the problem by tackling two different issues.

The first one is the child's focus. In my case, making my older aware of the fact that with age comes responsibility, and that as the older brother he has to help us with his siblings. With the understanding that greater responsibility comes with some privilege; some minor treat like getting a little later to bed or things like that. I also worked with him through all his morning tasks, one at a time, starting with the next when I was sure he would be able to finish the previous one. Soon after, his younger brothers wanted the same privileges, so they had to share the same level of responsibility.

But I think the main issue is that they don't understand why all the rush. You have to make it their problem instead of yours. What I did was set a target time half an hour earlier than really needed. If we got out in time, we would drive right to the school's front door, park in the closest possible spot and watch cartoons. The longer it took them to be ready, the further away we had to park, thus reducing the available time for cartoons and increasing the length of the morning walk.

This worked so well that if some day I was the late one, I would have to stand a hearing.

  • This is a great answer and could possibly be the best solution for a lot of people. Unfortunately it won't work in my situation because I work remotely and need to time synch with an office in Switzerland. I have a very important window of overlap with that office of status handovers and the like and this compresses the amount of time I have to get everyone ready. I should have mentioned that as a constraint in the original post, apologies. – Shane Feb 2 '16 at 17:42
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Ok, we've found an answer that borrows from the suggestions here. Step one, have a talk with him / her about responsibility (I really liked Jeff Y's approach of placing him in charge on occasions to teach him that it's not easy). While framing the problem and it's seriousness, work directly with them to try and find a solution, stressing the importance of independence and timeliness. In absence of something brilliant from the child, try and lead the conversation towards the following solution:

Take an old phone and install an alarm clock app on it and place it on the other side of the room. It takes a while, but eventually he will get up and turn it off. The time can be an incentive to get out of bed and get ready on their own quickly or you move the time earlier the following morning. This alone can save quite a bit of time, it's actually working for us.

Timers might be a good idea during breakfast (as mentioned by Francine DeGrood Taylor). We haven't done this yet, but timers work well for us in other areas. I might also bring in the general approach of a cumulative "points" as I think it's a good general motivational strategy for discipline that could have a relationship here.

The second piece is make sure they are up early enough to give them a few minutes to suck on their digital pacifiers or whatever "deals with the devil" you might have at your disposal. My son is hopelessly addicted to a few games, which we allow him to play sparingly. If he finishes on time, he has whatever remaining time before we leave to play his game. It won't be much, but some games are ongoing and even the potential for five minutes is strong motivation for him.

WARNING... This should be presented as a very difficult to achieve and with absolute limits that could be risky for them as the game will be turned off when it's time to go. It should be presented as "you might even have time to play a couple minutes of your game if you're ready soon enough. You'll need to understand the game they are playing a bit and warn them against starting a session that they can't interrupt when it's time to go. The times for this have to be very, very clear or this will backfire and they will throw a tantrum over having to put the game down at the moment you need to be rushing out the door, so use with caution. :)

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    Nice writeup! If they can bring their game to the bus stop/school/drop off point you may avoid the tantrum as the end time is essentially out of your control. – Diego Sánchez Feb 5 '16 at 17:31

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