Do you have a child in your family for whom time is an irrelevant construct? One who, after being told to “hurry,” is found eating a cookie on the backyard swing admiring a butterfly? One who exits the house every morning without socks, brushed teeth, completed schoolwork, and/or his backpack? One whose hair is typically on end and who is completely unphased by the honks emanating from your already-running van?
I do. I call him Pokey-McPokester.
I’ve tried — really, really tried — to follow all the expert recommendations. I own a book called Smart but Scattered. I’ve attended local CHADD meetings where experts rattle off their tried-and-true tips for ADHD and students with poor organizational and planning skills.
I’ve brainstormed with child psychologists. I’ve tried an old-school alarm clock — one that wakes you up with a really annoying sound — as well as an iPhone alarm, an Echo Dot alarm, a time-tracking device, and combinations of all four.
And — if you come to my house — you’ll notice charts on every wall: morning checklists that spell out what to do and reward systems that track the number of consecutive days on which the checklists have been completed. I’ve tried stickers, stars, checkmarks… trinket rewards, candy rewards and cold, hard cash, too. I’ve given every form of positive reinforcement (read: bribery) a fair shake.
But Pokey McPokester just cannot manage a healthy relationship — any relationship at all — with time.
It’s not that he is defiant or belligerent; he wants to do better. It’s just that he doesn’t know how to. When all systems and strategies eventually lost their novelty and left Pokey feeling defeated, and I got tired of constantly pestering him, I tried something different.
I let time go.
And replaced it with music.
How to Use Music for Motivation in the Morning
Step 1: Deliver the Music Sales Pitch
Pick a time when your child is not engaged in any critical tasks (while she’s video-gaming, eating an after-school snack, or swinging on the hammock — make sure they are relaxed) and approach them enthusiastically about your new plan.
This is how I put it to my Pokey:
“I have a great idea that I think will make you feel successful and I’m excited to share it with you! You know how in the morning I’m always rushing you and you’re sick of hearing me nag? What would you say to using something totally fun and happy to help us!? What if together we create a morning “soundtrack” timed to the tasks you need to complete before school? Each song can let you know what you need to be doing so you never need to worry about time; you just get to follow the music and let it lead you!”
(In the beginning, there’s no denying this is a sales pitch — notice all the exclamation points? — and there may be some reluctance. If you get good reception, carry on to Step 2, below. If you don’t, you might need to sweeten the deal with a little more honey — insert reward system ideas here.)
Step 2: Start Small with Motivating Music
With your child, tackle the following three tasks.
- Select the daily tasks and the order that makes the most. Our morning routine contains 10 tasks (yours might have fewer): out of bed, shower, dress, eat breakfast, brush teeth, load backpack, put on socks, put on shoes, slip on outerwear, and get into van.
- Figure out how many minutes you have to work with. My Pokey wakes at 7:00 and our departure time is 7:35 am. That gives us 35 minutes.
- Determine the playlist. This is the fun part! Don’t worry too much about getting the first playlist right (it’ll get edited, believe me!). Just have fun with it and allow your kid to decide which songs he or she wants to match with each task. Does he want to get out of bed to a loud peppy beat or a soothing, calm ballad? Does hearing a cheesy song about “clothes” prompt her to get dressed quickly or does she prefer to sing along while she pulls on her leggings? If you need longer than one song length to complete a task, consider repeating the same song. It’s also fine to accomplish two or three tasks during one song!
Roll with your kid’s ideas without stifling them. In my experience, a new family system is more likely to succeed when your child takes some ownership. The more they contribute to the arrangement, the more they’ll want to see it work.
The only real requirements are that the length of the playlist equals the amount of morning time you have to work with and that the tasks match up somewhat sensibly to the songs.
As for the format, our family’s platform for listening to music is Spotify. We use the playlist feature, but obviously a CD can work just as well.
Step 3: Put the Music System on Paper
In one column, list the song titles. In the second column, list the task(s) matched with each song.
If there is a transition between rooms or floors, write that down, too. For instance, at first my Pokey needed to know he should be walking downstairs between “The Greatest Show” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
Post the musically inspired schedule to your kid’s bedroom door. I can assure you that your child won’t reference this much after the first few days. It’s basically just there to help your child — and you — get the initial hang of it.
Step 4: Prepare to Launch the Motivational Songs
Decide how to launch the playlist each day. We have an Echo Dot in our son’s room with a reminder set at 7 am. It chants repeatedly, “Wake up, pal. Time to start your ‘Morning Playlist.’” That’s Pokey’s cue to voice activate (from the comfort of his bed) his Spotify playlist and viola, the fun and motivational songs begin.
Trouble Shooting Tips
Be aware of movement from one floor to another during the morning routine, as you may need to change the speaker source of the playlist. In our case, when Pokey comes downstairs, I simply change the source from his Echo Dot to my phone — it’s an easy fix.
Again, get creative with it all. If an iPod plugged into a speaker in the center of the house is what works, roll with that. You may even think of something that works better for your family and its technological tools.
Step 5: Give Motivational Music a Go
The first morning, expect some portion of your plan to flop. “Seriously, four minutes to put on socks and only 30 seconds to eat breakfast???” Unscheduled (or anticipated) time sucks — like a poop — can also interfere with the plan.
Talk about how the plan flopped and encourage your child to share ideas to improve it. Even better than that: Encourage your child — if he’s developmentally capable and/or technologically savvy enough — to fix the hiccup on his or her own.
Your child might not resolve their morning struggle, but what a boost of confidence to fix their music playlist and, by proxy, their issues with time. Keep tweaking until it mostly works.
Step 6: Switch Up the Music Periodically
Finally, keep in mind that if your child is a novelty-junkie like my Pokey, schedule a new list in a few weeks to keep it fresh. Chances are, playlist re-creation won’t be painful for you or your child like all other time-management family systems.
Instead, it’ll be fun.