Creating a Stress-Free ADHD Morning Routine For Your Child

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Clinical Psychologist Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell, Clinical Psychologist

Starting the day with a consistent morning routine can be particularly beneficial if you have a child with ADHD, and yet it can also be harder.

As someone who is not a morning person I can certainly identify with how tricky mornings can be before school!

The best way to create an effective ADHD morning routine is to gradually establish specific habits, creating structure and setting your child up for a successful day.

By following a strategic and well-designed new routine, you can help your child improve productivity, maintain organisation, and enhance focus throughout the day.

Most importantly of course, you can reduce the stress of a disorganized and chaotic morning.

Let’s look at how to do it.

A girl brushing her teeth

Understanding ADHD and Morning Challenges

The ADHD Brain and Mornings

The ADHD brain isn’t merely distracted; it’s wired differently at a neurological level. This unique wiring impacts attention, regulation of energy, and impulse control.

If your child takes ADHD medication, it won’t have kicked in first thing in the morning and this can make morning organisation harder.

As a parent, understanding this can give you invaluable insight into why mornings can be especially challenging for your child.

Importance of Structure and Routine

Routine brings comfort to the ADHD brain, acting like a roadmap for the day ahead. However, implementing a morning routine is not one-size-fits-all and it’s not easy.

Tailoring it to what works for your child will make it more effective and sustainable.

Navigating Attention and Focus

The ADHD brain often struggles with ‘executive functions‘ like organizing and prioritizing tasks.

For mornings, this might mean difficulty deciding what to do first or how to manage time effectively.

Small, clearly defined steps can make the process feel less overwhelming and more achievable.

More on that in a minute.

Tackling Hyperactivity and Energy Levels

Children with ADHD often wake up with varying levels of energy, making some mornings harder than others.

You can’t control your child’s inherent energy levels, but you can help channel them.

A burst of exercise or brief physical activities early in the day can serve as a positive outlet and can set your child up to be well regulated when they start the school day, ready to learn.

Managing Impulsivity and Distractions

Impulsivity might manifest as your child getting sidetracked by minor distractions, making it difficult to stick to the morning routine.

Consider incorporating brief moments of mindful attention to help your child centre themselves. By that I mean a minute or two to stop and pay attention to the present moment.

For example, sitting with you and enjoying the taste of their morning orange juice or toast.

tween boy standing in messy bedroom

Allowing Extra Time for the ADHD Morning Routine

One common ADHD struggle is time management. Therefore, it is crucial to allocate extra time for your child to complete their morning tasks.

This may mean waking up slightly earlier or starting the routine sooner, so that your child has enough time to accommodate any unexpected delays or distractions.

Low Dopamine and Energy Levels in ADHD

People with ADHD are thought to have lower dopamine levels, especially in the mornings. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with motivation, reward, and pleasure.

Lower dopamine levels can make it harder for you to feel energised and motivated in the morning.

Being aware of this as a parent can be helpful. Your child may need a bit of extra help to get motivated in starting their morning tasks.

Creating an ADHD-Friendly Morning Routine

As I mentioned earlier, start small and just focus on one change at a time.

The following are suggestions and won’t be right for every child.

Wake-Up Time and Alarm Clocks For an ADHD Morning Routine

Settling on a consistent wake-up time is helpful to establish a morning routine.

The body’s circadian rhythm thrives on consistency, making it important for your child to wake up at the same time each day – even on weekends.

Choose an alarm clock that helps your child gently ease into the day. Instead of jarring noises, opt for a gradual, soothing wake-up tone or a natural light alarm clock that mimics sunrise.

Your child may need more support than you think to get up and start their next morning routine. Make sure you allow extra time for this.

a sleepy child switching off alarm clock

ADHD Morning Routine: Incorporating Bright Light

Exposure to bright light in the morning helps reinforce a child’s natural circadian rhythm and makes them feel more alert.

Some research has found that the early morning transition from dim to bright light (sunrise to full sunlight) stimulates the release of the hormone cortisol which increases alertness.

To facilitate this, open your child’s curtains or blinds immediately after waking up. In an ideal world, get them outside for a few minutes.

If natural light is not an option, try using a desk lamp with daylight-spectrum bulbs.

Summary of ways to incorporate bright light into an ADHD-friendly morning routine:

  • Open curtains or blinds upon waking.
  • Get your child outside in the morning if possible.
  • Invest in daylight-spectrum bulbs for your child’s desk lamp.
A girl stretching her arms up in bed as she wakes up. Her curtains are open, so the room is bright.

Effective Morning Habits for an ADHD Morning Routine

Developing effective morning habits is essential in establishing a new morning routine tailored to your ADHD needs.

What “micro-habits” do you in the mornings that make a positive difference? What micro-habits could you start to build in?

For example, while the kettle is boiling in the mornings I usually do some stretches, because this feels like a great use of time and I find it energising. Perhaps you and your child could try this mico-habit together?

Remember that routines can feel overwhelming for an ADHD brain, so keep it simple if you can.

If your child’s current morning routine lacks structure, work on changing one thing at a time.

For example, you might decide that you will supervise them getting dressed (to help make it a more efficient process) and you will use the time you save to go outside together for 5 minutes and run around.

Once that is established as a habit, you can introduce another change.

Organising Your Child’s Morning Tasks

Using Visual Schedules and Sticky Notes

Creating a visual schedule for your child’s morning tasks is a great way to organise their morning routine.

This can help ADHD children stay on track and complete their tasks in a timely manner.

Using sticky notes or a whiteboard with colourful markers can also be a good idea to make the tasks more engaging and easier for your child to understand.

Visual cues like a well-placed sticky note can be life-savers!

Watch the video below by Twinkl to help get you started with a visual schedule.

YouTube video

Prioritising Necessary Tasks

Listing tasks in order of importance can help your child focus on what needs to be done and prevent them from feeling overwhelmed.

Personally, I love to list the main tasks (not too many) and then tick or cross them off as I go. It feels very satisfying!

This also helps in ensuring that essential tasks like eating breakfast and getting dressed are completed before less important ones like playing with toys.

Planning Ahead for a Smooth ADHD Morning Routine

The key to stress-free morning routine lies in preparation.

Completing tasks like setting out clothes, packing school bags, and prepping lunches in the evening can be game-changing.

Not only does this save time, but it also eliminates the “morning rush” that can overwhelm children with ADHD.

Clothing Choices Simplified

Choice overload can be real for children with ADHD. By picking out clothes the night before, you reduce the number of decisions needed first thing in the morning.

Consider involving your child in this activity as a part of their nightly routine to empower them and reduce morning debates.

Streamlined School Bag Essentials

Just like with clothing, have your child pack their school bag the night before.

Ensure that everything from homework to water bottles is ready to go.

Make it a part of the evening wind-down, so it becomes a habitual practice, reinforcing organizational skills.

Lunch Preparation as a Team Effort

Preparing lunches beforehand can also be a team effort.

Engage your child in making lunch choices or assembling their lunchbox. This not only saves time but also gives them a sense of ownership and independence, which can be empowering.

Time-Saving Breakfast Options for a Smooth ADHD Morning Routine

Consider easy and nutritious breakfast options that can be made quickly or even prepared in advance. Smoothies, overnight oats, or yogurt parfaits are good options. This ensures your child gets a balanced start to the day without adding to the morning chaos.

Successful ADHD Morning Routines: Set Up a ‘Launch Pad’

Designate a space near the door as a ‘launch pad’ where everything needed for the day can be placed.

This will minimize the last-minute scramble for missing items and ensure a smoother exit in the mornings.

A boy placing his books into the school bag his mum is holding open

Avoiding Video Games and Distractions in the Mornings

Digital distractions like video games and television can be particularly engaging for a child with ADHD, often to the point of becoming a major time sink. Clearly state that these activities are off-limits until morning tasks are complete.

Setting this boundary helps your child understand priorities and keeps the morning on track.

Explicitly communicate the rules to your child, and where possible, involve them in setting these guidelines. This gives them a sense of ownership and accountability, making it more likely that they’ll adhere to the rules.

Technology doesn’t have to be the enemy though. Consider using timers or apps that lock certain functions until set tasks are done. These can act as helpful tools to keep your child focused on their morning routine without veering off-course.

Place remote controls or gaming consoles in a designated area, separate from where morning tasks are performed. This physical separation can act as a helpful mental cue for your child to focus.

ADHD Morning Routines: The Importance of a Good Night’s Sleep for Your Child

The Night Owl Effect

Children with ADHD often experience a “night owl” effect, which means they feel more productive and alert during the night. This can contribute to late bedtime routines, making it difficult for them to wake up in the morning, leading to morning chaos and stress.

Finding ways to help your child with ADHD wind down earlier in the evening can counteract the night owl effect.

Establish a relaxing and consistent bedtime routine that helps them transition from daytime activities to a sleep mindset, such as reading a book together or doing a calming activity or deep breathing exercises.

Regulating Sleep Patterns for ADHD

Kids with ADHD are more prone to nightmares, bedwetting, and sleep disorders like restless leg syndrome. This can lead to a poor quality of sleep and affect their performance during the rest of the day.

Creating a consistent sleep schedule for your child is essential for regulating their sleep patterns and improving their wellbeing. Stick to regular bedtimes and wake-up times, even on weekends, to help your child’s internal clock adjust.

Creating a quiet and comfortable sleeping environment can help prevent nighttime disturbances. Ensure the room is dark, cool, and free from noise or distractions that could disrupt your child’s sleep.

Maintaining and Evaluating Your ADHD Morning Routine

Adjusting the Morning Routine as Needed

To make your morning routine work for you and your child, it’s important to be flexible and adjust as needed. You can’t expect to get it right the first time.

Consider your current morning habits and identify areas that need improvement. For example, if you struggle with waking up on time, experiment with different wake-up times to see what works best for you. Make gradual changes and observe the results.

Keep your daily routine manageable and avoid overloading your to-do list. Having too many tasks can be overwhelming, so allocate a reasonable amount of time to complete each one.

A boy lying in bed, rubbing his eyes.

ADHD Morning Routines: The Role of Occupational Therapists

Occupational therapists (OTs) bring a specialized skill set that can be extremely helpful for families managing ADHD. They are trained to break down everyday tasks into manageable steps, which can simplify complex morning routines for your child.

An OT can observe your child’s specific challenges and create personalized interventions.

Whether it’s helping to prioritize tasks or finding the most efficient way to complete them, their guidance is tailored to fit your child’s unique needs.

Occupational therapists can help you introduce practical tools like visual timers or color-coded schedules.

The ADHD Morning Routine and Fine Motor Skills Difficulties

Some children with ADHD may also struggle with fine motor skills more than those with neurotypical brains, affecting tasks like buttoning a shirt or tying shoelaces. OTs can offer targeted exercises and alternative methods to make these routine tasks less challenging.

Parent Training and Support

Occupational therapists and child clinical psychologists can work with you as well as your child. This support can include how to implement and enforce morning routines effectively, reducing morning stress and conflict within the family unit.

young child working with occupational therapist and mother

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the best morning routine for ADHD?

The best morning routine for ADHD varies from person to person, as it depends on individual preferences and needs. However, some common practices can include waking up at the same time each day, having a healthy breakfast, engaging in exercise or mindfulness activities, and breaking tasks into smaller steps. A simple, consistent routine can help improve focus and reduce anxiety.

How to ease ADHD morning struggles?

To ease morning struggles, try preparing your environment the night before. This can involve laying out clothes, preparing breakfast items, and setting up necessary materials for the day.

It’s also essential to establish a consistent sleep schedule and ensure you get enough rest.

Incorporating stress-reducing techniques, such as mindful “micro moments” where you focus on the sensations in the present moment, can also help make mornings more manageable.

A child eating a bowl of cereal

Why are mornings difficult with ADHD?

Mornings can be challenging for people with ADHD due to a combination of factors, including difficulty waking up difficulty shifting attention from one task to another.

Executive function skills, which often lag in individuals with ADHD, can make it harder to organise, prioritise, and initiate tasks in the morning.

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Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children.

Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.

Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.

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