As the lazy days of summer give way to more stringent back-to-school schedules, parents are stressed. Sixty percent of parents lose sleep during the back-to-school season, and 57% consider this time of year to be the most stressful, according to a recent Herbalife/OnePoll survey.
For working parents, these months can be filled with conflicting schedules, competing demands, and a slew of additional tasks that need to be crammed into the morning schedule. By the time children wave “goodbye,” some may feel as if they’ve already put in a full day’s work.
However, parents and productivity experts have found some tips to help tame some of the biggest back-to-school morning challenges. Using the same approaches to time management and productivity that you use in the office, you can take back control of your mornings—well, at least mostly.
Prep in advance
One of the most important things you can do to prevent morning chaos is to prepare ahead of time, says Pratibha Vuppuluri, chief blogger at She Started It!, an online resource for working mothers. Planning ahead can save time and create order. Create an evening checklist of everything you can do to prepare for the morning the evening before: laying out clothes, checking homework, and ensuring backpacks are packed, preparing lunches, etc. That way, you have as much order as possible during the morning crunch.
Social media consultant Jillian O’Keefe uses Sundays to sit with her son and plan what he will have for breakfast that week. Then, they work together to cook what they can in advance for easy reheating in the morning. “This saves us a ton of time each morning. Plus, I’m ensuring my son is eating a healthy and filling breakfast,” she says. You can also carry that over to other meals, prepping and preparing as much as possible ahead of time to save time during the week.
Set up systems
Back-to-school paperwork is its own challenge, O’Keefe says. She has created a system to prevent lost paperwork and ensure timely responses. At the end of each school day, they go through his folder immediately and separate the paperwork into three piles:
- For home
- Needs a reply
“Each category has its own color-coded folder. I know what needs to be filled out and returned, and, my son knows which folder to go into to grab the paperwork that needs to go back to school when he packs his bag in the morning,” she says. If your school is using online platforms for forms, consider setting aside a few minutes each day to check for and respond to anything new. As you look at your processes, keep them as simple as possible, streamlining where you can.
Create timelines and rituals
Sometimes, it’s easy to underestimate the amount of time various tasks take or how much truly needs to be done in the morning. Creating a time-blocked morning planner can help, Vuppuluri says. Start with the variable early back-to-school days, which may have different demands each day. Break each task down into its components. For example, breakfast includes preparation, cooking, serving, and cleaning up.
Your planner may also include responsibility for each task, Vuppuluri says. If you have a partner or spouse, split up responsibilities as much as possible, and give children their own tasks to complete. Then, go over it with your child (or children), and get their input on how to make mornings easier. Getting their buy-in can help motivate them to stick to the plan.
Sometimes, adding an element of ritual helps morning plans go smoother, too, says stress coach Terry Lyles, PhD, author of Performance Under Pressure: Crack Your Personal Stress Code and Live the Life of Your Dreams. Lyles has a 6-year-old son and says invoking “rituals”—a series of actions that are done a certain way every time—can be powerful. “That’s what makes professional athletes great at what they do. You can’t deviate from the rituals. They’re like clockwork,” he says.
Morning rituals may include the order in which you rise, eat breakfast, and perform the remaining tasks. The order of sticking to a ritual can create a sense of calm and familiarity for children, he says.
O’Keefe looks at what can possibly go wrong in the morning and tries to prevent it. While she helps her 7-year-old son get ready for school, she also gives her 3-year-old daughter something to keep her occupied. “She gets bored, which is when she starts getting into trouble,” she says. So, O’Keefe keeps a box of special toys for the morning or may even allow some screen time to keep her daughter occupied while she gets her son ready.
Lyles says it’s a good idea to have a Plan B for as many situations as you can. That way, if a child gets sick or missed the bus, you know the exact contingency plan to which you’ll pivot instead of scrambling to find solutions. Of course, that’s not always possible, and some households have special circumstances that present challenges, but to the extent that you can plan ahead for challenges, do so.
Stop shooting for perfection
Even if your mornings seem chaotic, keep things in perspective, Vuppuluri says. Instead, look for what works for your family, and stick with it.
“Allowing for us to take a step back, create the steps, and ensure that there’s clear communication with the child and walking them through the journey of the morning so that they can get out of the house in a happy environment, is critical for both the parents as well as the child’s mindsets,” she says. Don’t let the pressure of trying to create a “perfect” morning create added stress.