Go brush your teeth! How to create effective routines for kids with ADHD

Remember the time before kids, when mornings were glorious? You did your thing, whatever you wanted. Woke up when you wanted. Drank your coffee while it was still hot. Had a long, hot, quiet shower. Once kids come along, mornings can become less-than-glorious. And, for those of us with kids with ADHD, mornings can be downright infuriating.

Unfortunately, starting (or ending) the day in a rushed, chaotic, and stressed state sticks with us and continues to affect us hours later. For our kids, that means it disrupts their learning and sleep. It is therefore essential to start and end the day off on a positive note.

Let’s win back our mornings and evenings and stop the hurried, stressful battles. Start by creating effective routines and increasing our kids’ independence.

Know your child

First, ensure your kids have the skills they need to complete all the things they need to do. If they don’t yet know how to brush their teeth, for example, then you have to start with skill building, which means you still need to help them.

However, most likely, they do have the skills. Unfortunately, kids with ADHD have a hard time performing them when we need them to. Which is why we need to help them create effective routines.

Know the brain

It is also helpful to understand a bit about the ADHD brain. It is ultimately important to know that their brains are not set up to help them be successful with things they need to do – especially ones we want them to do.

For all kids, the part of the brain that helps with knowing where to start or what to do next, avoiding  distraction, and sticking with the task until it is complete does not fully develop until adulthood. These things are even harder for kids with ADHD.

Therefore, it is critical to create effective routines that are consistent and predictable so that the routine becomes automated. Things go much easier when tasks become second nature so kids don’t even need to think about it.

Help with time

Kids with ADHD are stuck in the present. They know only two time zones – now and not now. So, when you tell them they have 10 minutes to do x, y, and z, well, 10 minutes is not now. NOW, they have time to do what they are doing. It’s when monster aren’t voice that comes out 9 minutes and 59 seconds later screaming why hasn’t anything been done yet that they know NOW they need to do the things they need to do.

Unfortunately, when they rely on our parent monster voice, they have become dependent on us nagging them all the time to get things done, rather than being independent. Not something we want to have happen.

Externalize Time

Kids with ADHD cannot keep track of time in their heads. Therefore, we need to externalize time for them, make it visual. I like giving kids their own (analog) clock that they can write on to create effective routines. They can then colour code time based on what they need to do.

For example, they can colour the space from 7:30 to 7:45 as green for getting dressed. 7:45 to 8:00 for eating breakfast. 8:00 to 8:05 for brushing teeth, and so on. I have kids carry the clock around with them so they can see the passage of time and start actually learning what 10 minutes means.

Bonus: Then, all you need to ask them is, “where are you in space and time?” (rather than nagging them about what they need to do) and they themselves can see, “Oh! It is 7:55 – I am supposed to be in the kitchen eating breakfast but I still haven’t even gotten dressed… I better do that quick.” With practice, they will be better at predicting time and moving along their routine.

There are also things like the Octopus watch for kids (no, I don’t have any affiliation or get any bonus for sharing this), which helps create effective routines by having kids keep track of what they need to do while becoming less dependent on us.

Support working memory

Often, kids with ADHD have trouble remembering the things they are supposed to do, even when they are in the middle of doing them.   Therefore, they need help remembering the very things they need to do.


Our brains are meant to have ideas, not to remember things. Especially kids with ADHD. They do best when the information is externalized for them so they don’t need to remember it. Pictures are helpful to a) show them exactly what they need to do (with no misinterpretation) and b) frees up their brain to focus on important things, like actually doing what they need to do.


Have kids visualize what it is they have to remember to do in their head. For example, they can visualize grabbing their socks, packing their backpack, and getting dressed.


When you can’t give a checklist or visual to help them remember, physicalizing can be just as effective. For example, if they have three things they need to remember, they can repeat back each step while holding up a finger for each step.


Chunk large pieces of information into bite-size bits that kids can easily remember. Simplify them as much as possible. Breaking tasks down helps build success because they can focus on one thing at a time and then check-in for a small reward (e.g., praise or a check mark) before moving on to the next step. Doing so is motivating and helps them from getting lost in the depths of their room. Be sure to praise their efforts in completing each step.

Give them a role

Instead of nagging your kids what to do, give their job a title and description. That way, instead of nagging, you only need to ask: “What is your job right now?” Kids then have to think for themselves without becoming dependent on you reminding them of each step. (Bonus: Giving their job a title also helps improve their motivation.)

So, instead of nagging them to brush their teeth, their job title can be “dental hygienist.”  Or instead of nagging them to pack their lunch, they can remember they are the “lunch kit supervisor.” Knowing their job is important when we create effective routines.

Tools of the trade

As with any job, we may need specific tools to complete the task. As a dental hygienist, they need their toothbrush and toothpaste. Anything else in their hands means they are off-task and not fulfilling their job as the dental hygienist. Knowing what tools they need beforehand helps get them organized and gives them focus.

You will need to help them set this up for them to be successful. Having them repeat what their job title is (e.g., dentist), what the outcome is (e.g., clean teeth), and what tools they need to complete it (e.g., toothbrush and toothpaste). Yes, it is work up front, but once they get in the habit of repeating these things to themselves, it will become automatic.

Avoid time robbers

Even if they remember what they need to do, kids with ADHD easily get off-task. Their brains can’t help but get sidetracked by things I like to call time robbers.

What are their time robbers? TV? Bey Blades? Fortnite? Books? Figure out the vortexes your kids get sucked into and then work to minimize or eliminate those distractors. Because anything more appealing than what they are supposed to do will take precedence. (You may also need to work on impulse control in the meantime.)

Master one step at a time

I like to build stewardship (a great example is Stephen Covey’s Green and Clean example). In doing so, have your kids pick one part of the morning routine they can be the boss of. It doesn’t matter how it gets done, but it is their job to get one thing done each morning on their own. And you trust them to get it done, sans nagging.

Collaborate with them to identify what that one thing is. Then, together, make a plan. Once your kids find a system that helps them remember their job and get it done (and they do it consistently for at least a week), you can add another job that they can also become the boss of.

Start slow. And avoid nagging. It may take a week or more for them to even start on their own. But, we want them building accountability and mastery. Perhaps they can still seek out support, such as one reminder from you at a certain time, but ultimately, it is their job.

With everything else, continue doing what you are doing. Over time, as they master each step, they will become more successful tackling their routines on their own.


To create effective routines, timing is everything. If you do have to remind your kids the next step in a routine (especially early on when you are establishing a consistent routine), it is best to give instructions right before the task is to be completed. Reminding kids the night before about what they need to do in the morning is likely not going to be remembered.

Also, make sure kids have enough time to complete tasks! If they are too focused on “how am I going to get this all done!” it won’t get done.

Avoid stress

Any stress hinders kids’ success. Even when the stress is over-excitement, such as going to a birthday party or opening presents Christmas morning. The part of the brain that helps them with task completion goes completely offline when overly stressed or upset. So, it is critical to start and finish the days off calmly – otherwise, stress sticks with them, making it even harder for them to do the things they need to do.

Stay calm

If you are freaking out and nagging or yelling at your kids, it’s only making things worse. Do the opposite of what frustration wants you to do. Likely, talking softly, getting on your kids’ level, asking how you can be of help will help move things along.

Make it fun!

Remember Mary Poppins, how everything turns into a game? Don’t rush kids – those “lets see who can do it the fastest” games might work in the moment for a short time, but these types of games can cause a lot of stress and anxiety for kids. See how else you can make chores a game.

Stop, Collaborate and Listen.

Ask your kids, what kind of morning do we want to have? And see what everyone can do to create effective routines and ultimately make the morning glorious.

Work with your kids – see what gets in the way of them being successful and together brainstorm ideas of how to make the mornings smoother. Use the information here as ideas and see if your kids can come up with their own ideas as well. Don’t judge any of their ideas – even if they say that you hire someone to do everything for them – write it down. Otherwise, they will check out of the process and you just become the nag again. Once all the ideas are down, then you can go through and check the ones you both like and cross off the ones that won’t work.

Once you have a final list, make a plan that everyone can agree on. Agree to re-evaluate the plan in a few days, up to a week, to see how things are going. What is successful, what needs tweaking. The first plan is not always the best plan, so you may need to do this a few times before you get things right. 

Teach self-monitoring

This is a whole article in and of itself. But, I wanted to include this skill here because self-monitoring is an important part of creating effective routines.

To get started, have your kids identify what their job is and the best way to get it done. Have them tell you their plan and predict their performance. Have them identify their time robbers and what they are going to do to manage them. You may even want to video tape them going through the process to see where they are successful and where things need adjustment. Involve them in watching the video and commenting on what works or doesn’t.

Rather than you rewarding them, have them reward themselves, such as giving themselves a star for each step they complete.

Keep the success going!

Kids with ADHD benefit from ongoing rewards. It is easy to forget their successes and to slip back into old habits. To create effective routines that are maintained, it is important to keep track of their successes doing things on their own, such as a check mark for every time they complete a step in their routine. Once they hit a certain number of checks, they can earn a bigger reward, such as time doing something fun with you!

What is most important?

At the end of the day, no matter how rushed I am or how frustrated I become, I take a step back and ask myself this question. When I identify what kind of mornings I want (e.g., us all leaving happy and still loving each other), I can think about what my best action in the moment is to help create that morning. Yelling is never the answer.

Think about what is most important to you in a moment of frustration. If it is to get out the door because of an very important meeting, then perhaps you are helping your kids along a little more than usual. But, if it is to stay connected with your kids or to build their independence, what can you do to help that process?

I also look to see if there there is something I can let go of? In my house, emptying and repacking the lunch kit is an ongoing battle with my youngest, so I have decided the battle is not worth it – there are other, more important things she needs to do before and after school. So, this job is mine. (Then, I can actually see what she is eating or not.)

Other immediate tips and tricks to try:

As you get started on creating effective routines, here are some other immediate ideas of things to try in your current day-to-day activities:

  • Get a rising sun alarm clock. This has been a blessing in my house – my kids get up much easier and positively because they are rising with the “sun.”
  • Play upbeat music your kids enjoy. This can help keep them motivated and light. (And music is a good gauge for how long things are taking – my little one knows songs are roughly 2 minutes each so she could brush her teeth to one and get dressed within two songs.)
  • Get things done the night before. I typically pack lunches as I clean up dinner. Kids can pick out their outfits. Pack their backpacks.
  • I like to make overnight breakfasts, whether overnight oats that soak in milk in the fridge or cook overnight in the crock-pot. Overnight French toast, morning muffins… there are lots of options. Better yet, have your kids help out!
  • Limit (or better yet, completely take away) screen time during routines.

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