Routines That Support School Learning

Dear Parents,

It’s a brand new school year. Are your children ready to learn at school? Children who are ready to learn are well-rested, fed, dressed appropriately, and clean. They arrive at school on time, with completed homework in their backpacks. They have a healthy lunch or money to buy one.

The easiest way to make sure that your children are ready to learn, every day, is to establish strong routines at home. A morning routine, evening routine, and homework routine are powerful ways to support your children’s education at school. Here’s how to get going on establishing your routines – pick one and get started now!

The morning routine:  Getting everyone up and out the door in a calm, organized way is one of the most important parts of your day as a parent. An effective morning routine takes care of the stress and the screaming, and sets everyone up for a good day at school and at work. Here’s the action plan:

– Spend 15 minutes every evening getting ready for the next morning. Lay out clothes.  Set out cereal bowls and boxes. Put non-perishables in lunch boxes. Sign everything that needs to be signed, collect homework, and put it all in backpacks. Put backpacks by the door. Check the calendar for the next day. Is there a field trip or a project due? Get ready now!

– Get up at least half an hour before the children. We all do better if we have a chance to get showered and dressed and have a cup of coffee before the kids need attention.

– Children are responsible for getting up on time! Even elementary school children can use an alarm clock. Set up rewards and consequences for getting up on time if it’s a problem.

– Make a written (or pictured) schedule for everyone. The schedule says when to get up, dress, eat, and go. Work backwards to figure out when everyone has to get up to be ready to get to school on time. If there is a traffic jam in the bathroom every morning, stagger the schedules.

– In many families, the use of media in the morning takes up way too much time. If this is a problem, make the morning a media-free zone.

– Provide healthy breakfast foods that children can handle on their own, and require them to make and clean up their own breakfast. Even a kindergartener can get a bowl of cereal and then put the bowl in the dishwasher!

Remember that you are training your children to be self-sufficient, so following the morning routine is their responsibility, not yours. When my kids were in late elementary/middle school, I was stressed every morning because they weren’t ready to go on time. Since it was possible, although not pleasant, for them to get to school on their own, I announced that the car left every morning at 7:30, and they were either in the car or not. Not surprisingly, they were all in the car and ready to go.

“Natural consequences” is an approach to discipline that allows children to experience the naturally occurring consequences of their actions. Natural consequences work well for morning routines. For example, if a child isn’t dressed when it’s time to leave, he goes to school in his pajamas. If a child hasn’t gotten his lunch packed, he has to eat the school lunch that day. You get the idea – and you usually only have to do it once if you follow through. Morning routines are a way for you to stay sane, but they also teach your children that they are responsible for themselves and that their behavior has consequences for them.

Sending everyone off to work and school in a happy, calm, relaxed mood is a wonderful gift that you can give your family every day.

The purpose of a good evening routine is to get everyone calm and settled enough to get to sleep at a decent hour. When children do not get enough sleep, their school work and school behavior suffers. Sometimes children who haven’t gotten enough sleep act tired and groggy, but just as often they act wild and inattentive. School-age children need 9-10 hours of sleep every night to be healthy and mentally alert, so if your child gets up at 7 a.m., he has to be in bed by 9 p.m. And many parents do not get enough sleep either!  You cannot be healthy and take care of your family if you are exhausted.

Two things have to happen before a family can have a good evening routine. First, the homework routine has to be in place. When evenings are spent in a battle over homework, no one can be calm and settled. Second, there has to be a family policy about outside commitments. If every afternoon and evening is a constant round of activities, there is no time for homework, family dinner, and an evening routine. I suggest that you limit everyone in the family to one or two outside activities at a time.  Otherwise our lives get as cluttered as our homes!

Here is an action plan for a good evening routine.

– Everyone gets home from work, sports practice and after-school care around 5:30.  While Mom or Dad gets dinner going, the kids work on homework.

– After dinner, everyone has some time to finish homework, play, talk, read, or watch TV. Do not allow children to get overstimulated with wild play, violent video games, or scary TV shows. Keep it calm and easy. Most elementary school children are supposed to read to a parent every night, and now is a good time to do that.

– Start the bedtime routine about an hour before bedtime. Have it written down and posted for each child. Each child is responsible for their own routine. A good bedtime routine for elementary school children includes getting the backpack packed up and ready to go, laying out clothes for the next day, washing up, brushing teeth, getting in pajamas, and having some quiet time with Mom or Dad.

– Middle and high school kids still need a routine, although it will be different and they have to be part of establishing it. Preparing for the morning is still appropriate, as is some quiet time reading in bed before going to sleep.

Once the children are in bed, it’s time to wind down and get ready for a good night’s sleep yourself. Remember – if you do exactly the same thing at the same time every night, then your child’s body will be trained to fall asleep at the end of the bedtime routine.

Most families have to establish a strong homework routine and incentive system to make the evening go smoothly. Some children can get homework done pretty much independently, and it isn’t an issue. Others, though, drag their families through three and four hours of crying and screaming every night. Life is too short for that! The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) has an excellent homework survival guide for parents on their website. Go to their website, select the Families tab, find the Back to School section, and select Homework: A Guide for Parents. Peg Dawson, a school psychologist from New Hampshire, has a lot of suggestions about setting up routines and reward systems. Here is an action plan, based on Peg’s system:

– Set up a routine for where and when homework will be done. Choose a place, and set up a homework center with supplies and a calendar for due dates. Remember that some children do best in a quiet spot away from the family, but others need to be near Mom or Dad for help and supervision. Do homework at the same time every day. Some children do best if they get it finished up as soon as they get home from school, but others need to play or relax first.

– Help your children set a homework schedule every day. Sit down with them for a minute or two and review their assignments, make sure they have all the necessary materials, set time limits for each assignment, decide in what order to do the assignments, and schedule in a break or two.

– Set up a system of rewards for homework completion. Some children do fine if they just have something good to look forward to when homework is finished, like a favorite TV show. Others need something a little fancier, like earning points towards a bigger reward.

– Write a homework contract that states expectations and rewards.

Different children need different homework routines. Children need to be part of the discussion and planning for their own homework routine, because you are teaching them to be responsible for their own learning. The big decisions are: Where will homework be done, when will homework be done, what are the rewards for completing homework appropriately, and what are the consequences for failing to complete homework appropriately?

It’s your job as a parent to provide the setting and structure your children need to complete homework. It’s also important to provide the supplies and organizational tools your children need. Supplies include paper, pencils, markers, ruler, calculator, and glue stick. A timer helps many kids keep on track. The most important organizational tool is a calendar. At the beginning of the year, write down school holidays and the dates report cards come out. As the year progresses, keep track of field trips, picture day, conferences, science fair, SAT dates, and due dates for assignments – especially long-term ones.

Some children are motivated and rewarded by grades. Others need external rewards and consequences. Adults like to talk about what “should” motivate kids, but the truth is that grades aren’t important to everyone. Start where your child is when it comes to rewards and consequences! Some children are motivated to do homework by the promise of TV or computer time after it’s finished. Others need the opportunity to earn points towards a bigger reward.  Some children need immediate rewards. Others like to work toward a bigger weekly reward.

If you have a child who is struggling with homework, pick just one of these steps to get started. Look up the homework policy online, or touch base with the teacher. Set up a homework center, or get a calendar and write down assignments.  Just get started, and add steps as you can.  n the end, you’ll have a solution to the homework problem.

Strong routines at home are a powerful way for us to support our children at school.  Pick the routine that will serve your family best and start working on it, one baby step at a time!


Our very own education specialist Alice Wellborn is now a regular contributor at and we are thrilled to share her wise words with all of you. Alice is a school psychologist and the author of the amazingly helpful book No More Parents Left Behind. She has many other articles posted in her blog. 

Get the book at: No More Parents Left Behind

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