“Brush your teeth!”

“Where are your socks?”

“Don’t forget to bring a sweatshirt!”

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“Where’s the homework you finished last night?”

Too often, weekday mornings can seem like a race against the clock. When your alarm goes off, you start out with the best of intentions (serenity now!). But, by the time the bus arrives, you are frustrated, frazzled, and screaming at your kids—again. 

Not only is nagging and yelling a horrible, upsetting way to start your morning, it is also generally ineffective. If it happens over and over again, it sets up a bad parent-child relationship that can result in continued noncompliance by kids and distress in parents. 

In fact, in the long run, persistent negative interactions between parents and children can lead children to avoid their parents and make tasks even more unpleasant for them, and cause parents to give up on making requests. At the most extreme levels, persistent parental criticism can increase the risk for depression in children and teens.

So, what is a parent to do? Deficits in organizational skills are an important problem. Many kids need help learning to get organized in order to more effectively carry out tasks related to their morning routines and school responsibilities. Their problems with organization can hinder school performance and lead to high levels of family conflict. 

In our new book, The Organized Child: An Effective Program to Maximize Your Kid’s Potential—in School and in Life, Elana Spira, Jennifer Rosenblatt, and I guide parents through research-based ways to improve kids’ organization, time management, and planning skills, while also preserving positive parent-child relationships.

An alternative to nagging

First, we recommend that parents work hard to avoid yelling at kids or nagging them, because this only works temporarily—while using firm but pleasant requests helps kids to be more cooperative immediately and in the future. Rather than catching kids’ mistakes and providing harsh requests, we recommend changing directives into “positive prompts.”

What are positive prompts?  A positive prompt is simply a pleasant request with some honest encouragement. Children are really no different from other people—they like to be treated with respect and good manners. A request starting with “please” and followed by “thank you” when the task is completed makes children more willing to do as they are asked.

This may sound Pollyannish, but respecting children and praising their efforts does lead to improved behavior, as noted in the work of experts such as Russell Barkley, an expert on ADHD, and Alan Kazdin, the former president of the American Psychological Association. My research team has found that parents using positive prompts, and teaching children new skills in managing their lives at home and at school, can help children to grow into more responsive, responsible kids. 

Our studies show that even the kids who struggle the most can improve. In fact, children with the greatest deficits in organization, time management, and planning made large improvements that contributed to two wonderful outcomes: Their school work advanced, and the parents and children experienced significantly less conflict. Critically, in one large study, the benefits lasted into the next school year.

How can you start building improved organizational skills with positive prompting? It’s quite simple. Here are some of the guidelines we recommend.

This essay is adapted from The Organized Child: An Effective Program to Maximize Your Kid's Potential—in School and in Life (The Guilford Press, 2018, 206 pages).

1. Move close to your child. Don’t yell a prompt from the bathroom to your kid’s bedroom. If you do, your child is more likely to ignore you, making this a wasted reminder.

2. Get your child’s attention. Make eye contact! If they are texting or playing Minecraft, they won’t hear you.

3. Ask for one thing at a time. If you give your child multiple reminders at once, odds are that she will forget at least one of them. Focus on what’s most important for that day.

4. Be clear. “Please put your homework folder in your backpack” (vs. “pack up”).

5. Use a positive, encouraging voice. It’s difficult, we know! But try your best to keep the frustration out of your voice. Try taking three deep breaths (and a slow sip of coffee) before speaking.

6. Don’t nag! When you nag your child, especially about something you’ve nagged him about before, it is quite likely that all your child hears after the fifth or sixth time is “blah, blah, blah.”

7. Stick with the present; forget about the past. “Please pack your lunchbox” (vs. “Let’s see if you can remember your lunch today, unlike yesterday”).

As your child becomes more comfortable with a specific behavior, fewer prompts will be needed. But don’t taper them off until you notice a change in your child’s behavior. Prompts and praise are useful until the behaviors become habitual. Too often, parents expect kids to get it right the first time, but waiting until the behavior is ingrained is key to success.

After you become skilled in using positive prompts and praise for simple tasks, you can learn to encourage higher-level organizational skills in your kids, too. After determining what they need to manage their routines and handle the organizational demands at school—such as writing down assignments, getting the right materials and books home and back to school, and improving time management—you can use positive prompts and careful guided instruction here, as well. Parent-child interactions are critical to teaching lessons that stick with children, putting them on a path to success. 

We all want to help our children be more organized—and we want to maintain our close bonds. Using positive prompts is one of the ways to do that. By understanding how to prompt positive behavior in our kids, we can preserve our peace of mind and theirs.

The tools for turning rough mornings into pleasant ones are in our hands.

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