While all children are a bit disorganized and have a hard time remembering to take care of their belongings, some struggle more than others. If you have a child who never puts away pencils, who rarely remembers to place dishes in the sink, or who leaves glasses lying around despite constant reminders, you know how frustrating these children can be.
Items get lost, things get broken, books get misplaced, and chaos quickly takes over. In children with certain neurological issues such as ADHD, ADD, and executive function delays, the frustration is amplified even further.
If you have a child who often gets distracted in the process of cleaning up or who seems to never put things away, action linking may be the answer to making homeschool routines automatic.
1. Identify the Largest Issue
What’s bothering you the most? If you get frustrated because mornings seem overwhelming, pick one or two things that are most stressful. What do you wish your child would remember to do—that one thing which would make your day a little easier? What do you find yourself reminding your child to do repeatedly? Don’t try to address all the issues at once.
2. Set Goals with Your Child
Discuss with your child the things you really wish they would change, and together, come up with a few (no more than two to three) items you can work on first. Let your child have input.
Setting too many goals may cause your child to feel like they are just failing. Instead, focus on a few tasks, and slowly add more as those habits are adjusted.
3. Limit Checklists
- Have you ever gone grocery shopping and left your list behind?
- Ever set goals for the weekend, only to forget to do a few items?
- Did you ever buy curriculum, meaning to add it in at some point, and suddenly remember that you haven’t added it in yet?
It’s natural to forget things, even if they're on a list.
In my house, the problem with checklists is they only work if the child remembers to check the list. I’ll talk about building and linking routines in a moment, but it’s much more helpful to build a checklist into a routine, than to have the checklist be the routine.
If you need to use checklists, that’s fine. They’re a handy tool. Just be sure to teach the child how to frequently refer back to the list and don’t use multiple checklists throughout the day.
Phone reminders and alarms are akin to checklists, but you don't have to check them. They interrupt you. However the more you rely on them, the easier they are to put off, ignore, or forget about. If you do use them and find your children still aren’t getting things done, try linking the reminder to an action.
4. Find a Routine and Link the Tasks
Some children naturally fall into a routine if you remind them enough times and show them how to do it a time or two. However, some children seem to need a lot more help to find and stick with a routine.
An easy way to help your child build routines is to take the goals you created together and add them to a task they already do. This method is called linking.
For example, if you would like your child to take out the trash every day after lunch, you can start building the habit by linking it onto the actions they already do. So you might have your child place their dishes in the sink, rinse them off, and then grab the trash. Find tasks that can be linked together to make it easier to move from one task to the next.
5. Keep Linked Supplies in Sight
I have found it helpful to have the supplies for the linked task in sight when finished with the previous task. For example, if we are doing schoolwork, I will keep the books in a stack on the table in the order we will be reading them. When we finish an assignment from one book, we place it on the finished pile, leaving the next book at the top of the reading pile—a tangible reminder of exactly what our next step is.
If you want your child to put on shoes after they put on their clothes, have the shoes in sight of where they usually get dressed. Or practice putting socks and shoes on the floor right next to them before they begin dressing. The more steps they have to accomplish before they can do the next step, the more time there is for distractions to get them off track.
5. Practice the Linking Actions of the Routine
When I was in high school, I rarely wore my glasses. It’s not that I didn’t need them; I’d forget about them. I was so used to the world being blurry, that I didn’t always notice it was still blurry.
I knew there was a problem, and I tried a few unsuccessful ways to fix it:
- leaving my glasses by the door (I’d forget to look, or I looked at them and thought I would put them on later but didn’t.)
- writing myself notes on the bathroom mirror (I got accustomed to seeing the notes and ignored them.)
- setting an alarm (I’d turn the alarm off, intending to do the task in a minute and then forget.)
My children exhibit these same behaviors. They intend to do something, but forget, even when it’s important. Or I’ll remind them, and they say they are going to, but they forget. It’s easy to have the intention, but follow-through is much more difficult.
With the help of my husband, we’ve developed the routine linking method where we link tasks to other tasks. Then we practice the linking tasks until it becomes so routine we can do them naturally, almost without thinking.
With the glasses example above, I started by linking my getting-ready-to-go-out-routine. I usually start out by brushing my teeth, taking a shower, and getting dressed, all the way to my shoes. I check my purse for my passport, credit card, and driver’s license, and check my work bags to make sure I have everything. Then, I do my hair and, finally, put on my glasses.
To link putting on my glasses to brushing my hair, every time I forgot to put on my glasses I forced myself to do these actions:
- I stopped what I was doing.
- I went back to my room, and picked up my brush.
- I brushed my hair, or went through the motions of brushing my hair.
- I put the brush down on the shelf next to my glasses, picked up my glasses case, opened it, and put them on.
- I took off my glasses, walked out of the room, and paused for the count of three.
- I went back into my room and repeated the routine from the beginning three or four times to help cement the actions in my motor memory banks.
Eventually, doing this series of actions enough times has helped me to always have my glasses on before I leave the house.
If I forget to put my glasses away and leave them lying around somewhere, I make myself walk through these behaviors:
- pick up my glasses
- put them away in my room
- walk out of my room
- perform my last action where I didn’t put my glasses away
- go straight to my room and put them away
- repeat three to four times
This routine helps me to remember to always put them away, regardless of what I’m doing. It’s simpler to put them away the first time than to do the same action several times.
If you want your child to rinse their dishes after eating breakfast, but they keep forgetting, simply have them sit back down to breakfast, pretend to eat, get up, pick up their dishes, and take them to the sink and rinse them. Wait for them to dry a bit, reset the table, and repeat a few times.
Eventually, the actions of standing up, plate in hand, after a meal will be ingrained in their motor memory bank, and they won’t have to think about the action. Don’t treat it as a punishment, but as a task to help improve memory.
8. Grow the Routine
Once you have built your routine so it is becoming automatic, you can reevaluate your goals and add more. If your child is consistently rinsing their dishes immediately after breakfast, you might add sweeping the floor, getting dressed, daily devotions, or any other task you would find helpful. Again, don’t try to build it too quickly or add too many tasks because that increases the risk that the routine will have missed items and make it harder to learn. Just focus on building the routine over time.
Hopefully, building your routine will help you and your children have more peaceful days and to keep better track of supplies. Your routines will grow and change with your children and help them when they move out on their own. Building a routine might not solve all of your child’s executive function issues, or help to improve their focus in other areas, but a smoother day means you have more time and energy to devote to other tasks. That extra peace might make all the difference.