Tips for a Smoother Morning Routine
with Your Gifted/2e Kid
When you understand what makes mornings hard for your kid, you can make mornings a little easier
Mornings are tough for a lot of families with intense or sensitive gifted/2e kids.
Why? Here are a few common reasons:
(1) Transitions are taxing.
The morning routine is essentially a long string of transitions, one right after the other, from waking up until the kids enter school (if they go to school outside the home). Waking up is a transition from asleep to awake. Getting out of bed is a transition from prone to upright. Eating breakfast, getting dressed, brushing teeth and hair, getting out the door, going into school - all transitions. Whew.
Transitions are taxing for everyone because they require some amount of cognitive control, physical control, emotional management, and sensory processing.
But transitions are extra taxing, stressful, and effortful for intense and sensitive kids.
Kids with weaker executive functioning find it difficult to keep track of and execute so many tasks without becoming distracted. Kids who are prone to anxiety don’t like change and may feel stressed by time pressure. And kids who are sensitive to their environment have to manage a ton of different tasks, objects, and environments between waking up and starting their school day.
(2) Daily tasks are boring.
Many intense or sensitive gifted/2e kids are interest-driven - their brains focus MUCH better on tasks they find interesting than on tasks they find dull. For ADHDers and autistic kids, it’s particularly difficult to focus on tasks that don’t pique their interest - and it’s because of their neurology, not because they don’t want to get ready or help out.
It’s therefore truly difficult to focus on relatively boring tasks like getting dressed or brushing teeth. It’s particularly hard when more interesting opportunities are available - like building Legos, telling you dino facts, or reading a book.
(3) Daily tasks are difficult beyond being boring.
For many 2e kids, daily tasks themselves are also difficult. That’s a paradox of twice-exceptionality - 2e kids are extremely intelligent and advanced in areas like verbal reasoning and novel problem-solving, but daily tasks are HARD.
A kid with poor fine motor control may struggle with the dexterity needed to manipulate buttons, zippers, shoelaces, or a comb. A kid with sensory processing sensitivities may find it painful to brush teeth or put on certain clothes. Or, they may be stressed by food choices early in the morning. A kid with executive functioning challenges may find it hard to get started on a new task or lose track of a task in the middle.
(4) Your kid dreads school.
If your kid does not like school, mornings are probably extra hard for them. They may start to dread school the moment they wake up. They may drag their feet and avoid getting ready because they don’t actually want to leave their home and go to school.
It’s important to know that many intense and sensitive gifted kids complain about school in the morning but actually enjoy it once they’re there. For these kids, their complaints are probably linked more to item (1) above - transitions are taxing, and they’d happily stay at home in their pajamas playing and reading if that were an option. This often describes my kid, who periodically says "I won't go to school!" and actively resists the transition but who seems to genuinely like his current school. When he was younger, he cried or complained at drop-off approximately 80% of the time even though he could tell us at other times he enjoyed school.
I’m relatively confident my kid is enjoying school when:
He happily reports on his school day in the afternoon or at bedtime
He says he enjoys school at other times not during the morning routine
His teachers report he is happy and engaged
I have observed him having fun in his class
If you’re pretty confident your kid enjoys school - even if they complain about going - it probably won’t de-stress your morning much to focus on school. (The important indicators will be different for each kid, so my list is a personal list, and has shifted over time as my kid ages.)
On the other hand, many intense or sensitive gifted/2e kids have negative school experiences, and this can make your mornings extra stressful.
Research suggests that 2e kids in particular are highly likely to experience an unsupportive school environment and may even be bullied by classmates or teachers.
If your kid truly seems to dread school or you know they are having a tough time, feeling excluded, in conflict with their teacher, or regularly overwhelmed, that will obviously make the morning routine much, much harder for them.
So how can you build a smoother morning routine?
Below are 4 tips, based on the 4 main difficulties above.
(1) Make transitions less taxing.
Get creative about how to make the morning routine less taxing. Can you reduce or remove some tasks or transitions?
Below are some ideas to make transitions more predictable and structured - which reduces the effort and executive functioning needed. Not every strategy will work for every kid or family. For example, some kids dislike visual schedules - they find them more stressful because they create a sense of pressure and expectation. So, I encourage you to experiment to find what works and doesn't. (If you want more help with this, consider my coaching program!)
Create a simple get-ready routine that is the same every day and that strings together - for example, starting at 6:30am we eat breakfast, brush teeth, get dressed, comb hair, and go.
Consider doing all the get-ready tasks at either the beginning or end of the morning, with play time before or after, instead of moving between tasks and play multiple times
Make your routine concrete with a visual reminder or to-do list; you can try an interactive list using dry-erase markers, velcro, blocks to stack, or task cards to turn over when they're complete
Use timers to signal important transition times
If you’re always rushed, give yourself and your kids more time
Do some tasks the night before - for example, set out clothes, pack lunches, or organize backpacks
Reduce mental demands - for example, if your kid struggles to choose breakfast, you decide or limit the options to 2
Put everything for the routine in the same place. We used to keep a tray with my kid’s toothbrush, toothpaste, lotion, and comb in the kitchen near the back door. Now we do our routine in his room, so most of the supplies are on his bedside table. You might store socks with shoes instead of in the bedrooms.
(2) Incorporate interests.
Make daily tasks more engaging - and therefore easier to focus on - by incorporating your child’s interests and things they enjoy.
Try integrating something enjoyable into the routine itself - for example, your kid could listen to a podcast or music while getting ready, or they could watch a video while you brush their teeth. Maybe your kid would like to race you to see who can get ready the quickest, or would get ready happily if you made the routine into a silly game with a silly voice or a pretend newscaster (”She’s got her pants on - where’s her shirt? Will she choose the red or the orange today??”)
Try to offer something enjoyable once they have finished the routine - for example, you could let your kid select the music, play with the iPad, or use their phone once they’re in the car and ready for school. Or, some kids can focus on their morning routine tasks if they are looking forward to something afterwards - some bonus screen time, free play time, a special snack, or enough time to take a favorite route to school.
Get creative about your kid’s particular interests or favorite ways to be silly and playful - what would motivate them or make the routine more enjoyable?
(3) Provide support for what’s hard.
If some aspect of a morning task is truly difficult (beyond the effort needed to focus on something dull), provide support and accommodations to make your kid’s morning experience less stressful. Again, these supports can be super individualized, so iteration and experimentation is often needed to find what works best.
For kids with poor fine motor control, buy and use clothes they can use independently, or proactively offer support with zippers, ties, etc.
For kids with sensory sensitivities, invest in sensory-friendly supplies - very soft toothbrushes or electric brushes; seam-free socks; swings, trampolines, or weighted blankets so they can regulate first thing after getting out of bed.
For kids with food-related sensitivities, offer their safe foods for breakfast so they find it easier to eat.
Break down tasks into small chunks your child can handle.
Many kids need extra reminders during the morning routine - instead of calling out directions from another room, stand near them, maybe touch their shoulder, and get their attention to let them know when it’s time to transition.
Give hands-on support - help your child get started on a task or do some or all of the task for them. In our house, we’ve decided it’s easier for us to dress our preschooler while he watches videos. We know he can dress himself, and he does so enthusiastically when it’s not time to stop playing and go to school. In our case, getting dressed isn’t physically difficult for our kid, but it is emotionally difficult because he’s sad to stop playing. To make the school transition easier, we do this part for him every school day.
(4) Work to improve their school experience.
If your kid is truly unhappy at school, it’ll be hard to improve their morning experience without improving their school experience. The tips above might help with some aspects of the routine, and I also encourage you to advocate for their needs at school. You can see an article with advocacy ideas here.
If you want more ideas like this directly to your inbox, sign up for Gifted Lab Notes, my weekly email with tips and information for parents of intense or sensitive gifted or twice-exceptional (2e) kids.
In Support Your Intense Gifted/2e Kid, my 8-week coaching program, we go more in-depth on all of these topics - how to set up de-stressing systems at home, how to incorporate your kids’ interests into challenging tasks, how to support your child with their challenges, and how to advocate for your child at school.
If you’d like more help adapting these ideas to your specific kid and family, check out Support Your Intense Gifted/2e Kid and get on the waitlist so you’re the first to know when registration opens.