by Christa Melnyk Hines
“What are you doing?!” I say to my son. “I told you five minutes ago to get dressed. We are leaving for your baseball game!” Even in my apparent state of frustration, my 6-year-old refuses to be rushed along as he reluctantly tosses his toy plane onto the floor and slowly begins pulling one sock on and then another.
His inner clock shows no urgency. And no amount of lecturing about dilly-dallying is going to expedite my dawdler. So begins another frantic dash out the door.
Although some of us may be inclined to consider punctuality, or the lack there-of, as a personality trait, experts say that time management is a skill that can be taught and is just as important to academic and long-term success as learning the three Rs.
“Time management skills for children are linked to ‘school survival skills’ when mastered young and become ingrained habits for later in life,” says Dr. Stephanie Mihalas, a nationally certified school psychologist and clinical instructor, department of Psychiatry & Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA. “Starting too young is never too early!”
Time management includes executive functioning skills like organization and planning, reviewing work for quality and accuracy and staying focused.
Schedule weekly family meetings. Use Sunday evenings to discuss the family’s upcoming schedule. Give each child her own calendar that she can fill out. Hang up a master schedule with each person’s activities in a different color of ink.
Use a timer. Build awareness about how long it takes to complete a task. Ask your child to estimate how much time he needs to finish his math assignment and then time him. With practice, he’ll start to realize how long each task actually takes.
“A great tool is TimeTimer (http://www.timetimer.com/) which is like a kitchen timer (either a stand alone tool or an app) that shows time in stopwatch fashion with the time remaining in red,” says Cindy Sullivan, a productivity, time management and professional organization expert. “As the red shrinks you are getting closer to the end time. It works great with homework or when doing a ‘beat the clock’ to tidy up or work on other tasks.”
Timers can also work well to keep parents on track, says Dr. Jane Sosland, clinical assistant professor, department of Behavioral Pediatrics, University of Kansas Medical Center.
“A lot of times we’ll say, ‘I need you to brush your teeth. I’ll be back in five minutes.’ Then we get busy with other children,” Sosland says.
Use your microwave or your phone timer to help remind you when it’s time to check on your child.
Create a chunked to-do schedule. Divide the day into chunks of time on a dry erase board or laminate a task list. For example, the morning routine might say: Get dressed, make bed, eat breakfast and brush teeth. Your child can check off the tasks as she completes them.
Offer incentives. “The more checks can be linked to a natural reward like time with the family, helping to create the meal for the evening or play time with friends,” Mihalas says.
Fewer checks results in natural consequences like less time to play with friends or watch a favorite TV program before school.
Use visuals. For children who aren’t reading yet, photographs or pictures can help cue them.
“I helped my son take responsibility for his morning routine as a kindergartner by drawing pictures on post-it notes of school clothes, eating breakfast, driving to school and stuck them on an analog clock,” says mom of two Sherlyn Pang Luedtke, author of The Mommy Advantage.
Luedtke says that the day her son was still sitting in his pajamas when it was time to go, she calmly put him in the car with his clothes and shoes next to him. “He got dressed while the car was in the driveway with the engine running,” she says.
If at first you don’t succeed, keep trying. Changing old habits can take at least a month, and kids don’t usually share the same sense of urgency as adults do.
“If a morning goes poorly, rather than being furious and upset on the way to school, try and problem solve to decide what to do tomorrow so this doesn’t happen again. Maybe that’s waking up a few minutes earlier,” Sosland says.
Looking for additional resources? Check out Smart but Scattered by Peg Dawson, Ed.D., and Richard Guare, Ph.D.
Poor executive functioning can be a sign of ADD/ADHD. If you are concerned, consult with your family physician.
Freelance journalist, Christa Melnyk Hines, is a mom of two boys and the author of Happy, Healthy & Hyperconnected: Raise a Thoughtful Communicator in a Digital World.