Back-to-School Routines for Kids with ADHD

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

Did you know that routines are an essential tool for managing ADHD?  Routines help create daily habits that allow us to shift into “autopilot mode” so we can get things done without having to repeatedly plan each step and focus intently on every detail. For kids with ADHD who are getting ready to head back to school, developing a powerful and effective autopilot mode can be invaluable. Routines make it much easier for kids to remember everything they need to bring to school each day. They also build independence so they can get up and ready in the morning without repeated reminders from their parents. As a result, routines lead to less frustration and family conflict over things like leaving the house late in the morning or forgetting to bring completed homework back to school the next day.

While kids with ADHD do much better when they follow routines, they actually struggle to create and manage these routines on their own. Planning out a series of steps and sticking to the same order each time requires executive functioning skills that they are often lacking. In addition, without support from parents, kids with ADHD typically do not have the motivation required to initiate and follow a new routine. While ADHD definitely makes starting a new routine more challenging, as a parent there are steps you can take to get a back-to-school routine up and running successfully. Here 5 key components to creating a successful back-to-school routine for your child:

  1. Start the first day of school bedtime and wake time at least one week in advance. Kids with ADHD are prone to sleep problems and often have a difficult time adapting to changes in their sleep schedule. Transition to an earlier bedtime gradually by moving the time up by 15 minutes each night during the week before school starts. On average kids need about 10-11 hours of sleep each night. So, bedtime should be no later than 8:30 or 9:00 if your child has a 7:00 wake-up time.
  2. Design a morning checklist together with your child. Create a checklist of the steps your child needs to take every morning. Keep the list limited to no more than 6 or 7 items. Help your child become invested in the routine by involving him or her in the process of coming up with the checklist steps. Make the process fun by allowing your child to decorate the checklist once it’s been printed.
  3. Create excitement. Kids with ADHD are most engaged when they are excited about what they are doing. Have a rehearsal where your child runs through all of the steps in the routine while you playfully use a timer to see how fast he or she can go. You can repeat the activity and challenge your child to beat his or her fastest time. Also, allow your child to earn a small reward on mornings when he or she completes the routine successfully.
  4. Avoid screen time. Tablets, phones, and TVs can derail even the most well-planned morning routine, especially for kids with ADHD. Kids sit down in front of the screen intending to watch for only a minute, but then quickly lose track of time. So, don’t allow any screen time until after all of the morning routine steps have been completed. If your child struggles to turn off the screen when it’s time to leave the house, then it’s best not to allow any morning screen time at all.
  5. Supervise your child during his or her routine. The ultimate goal with any routine is to have your child complete all of the steps independently. While every child can reach this goal eventually, many will need some assistance and prompting when they are starting off. So, check-in regularly with your child, and provide as much help and supervision he or she needs. Over time, the routine will become a habit your child will be able to go through all of the steps without any help or prompting.

Creating a strong back-to-school routine will go a long way in helping your child’s school year get off to a great start. Before you know it your child be following his or her routine every morning, and will be well on his or her way to developing an autopilot mode that will help him or her all year long!



Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


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This website does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The material on this site is provided for educational purposes only.

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