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Karen Wang
BY Karen Wang

Successful Morning Routines For Your Child With Special Needs

When I walk my children to school in the morning, we often see other families getting ready for school, too.  Sometimes we hear crying.  Sometimes we hear parents yelling.  Sometimes a neighbor holding a fussy toddler will ask me to walk her third-grader to school.  Sometimes I’m the one carrying or walking with a crying child.

So I asked myself and other parents of children with special needs, “How do you create successful morning routines for your family?”


I do as much as I can before going to bed: laying out clothes, measuring out oatmeal into bowls, prepping cold lunch items, lining up shoes, socks and backpacks by the door.

My kids are my alarm clock, so I tell my older son exactly when we have to wake up.  I make a big breakfast every morning, because the whole day is ruined if I don’t!

While breakfast is being prepared, the kids are allowed to read, play board games, build Legos, write and draw – no screen time before breakfast, because that also gets the day off to a bad start.  I remind my children of the time and how many tasks remain until we have to leave so that we can get everything done.


I prepare all of Noah’s lunches on Sunday so that we can fill the lunchbox nightly and grab ‘n go in the morning.  When we get home from school, I empty his lunchbox, wipe it down and refill it for the next day immediately and put it back in the fridge.

I make sure his backpack is set and lined up by the front door with braces, socks, shoes and coat each night.  Each morning is the same routine.  Noah wakes up at the same time everyday so we don’t have to wake him.

We do have to prepare for variations in the schedule like doctor’s appointments, school appointments, etc. by letting him know each day, a couple of times a day, for a few days leading up to the schedule change.  As he has matured, we can usually do it the day before.  Now, he has a special bag for appointments and he gets to fill it the night before with the toys he’d like to take to the doctor’s office for those long wait times.


A board showing them all the activities they have in each day may can help. When the child wakes up, the parent could help the child read the routine for that day.


I teach my son routines – any routine with sequences of a task. I want to recommend using an iPad application, My Life Skills Box. You have different sequences of general morning organization, specific actions such as brushing teeth, getting dressed act.

A visual learning in my experience always works better than words. Combining visuals, sounds and interactivity can make a big difference.  We all love routine. But it’s important also to put the child in situations that are less comfortable for him, and for both parent and child to learn to accept the change…of course you have to do it carefully.


In reality we can’t always stick to routine. When I interact with parents I teach them to introduce the routine of “checking your schedule.”  What is on the schedule will vary day-to-day, but the routine is to check the schedule.

When teaching this, it is important to vary what is on the schedule (whether it be a visual, written or electronic form). This introduces the concept that things may change, but if it is on the schedule it is a safe activity that will be supported.


We have a word for times we have to go “off schedule.” We call it a drill. That means listen very carefully for instructions, as our morning routine must change today.

I keep the instruction very straightforward and brief.  Hailey feels she is contributing to a good morning by following the instruction. There’s a lot of praise and positive reinforcement once we are in the car headed for our destination. Sometimes, we have practice drills to see how quickly we can change course and still be ready in time.


We’ve got my daughter into the habit of discussing what’s on the agenda for the next day. She goes to bed at night knowing what’s coming tomorrow. Then when she wakes up she is able to write down her own schedule on an erasable whiteboard and she’s fine with that.

Before she could do this herself, I used to write it on the whiteboard and leave it in the kitchen where she could see it. I’ve also taught her to “x” out the days of the week on the monthly calendar. We have the Yoga Dogs one – too cute.


Routine is EVERYTHING for a special needs child, so make sure to stick to whatever plan you devise diligently and don’t waver. Make sure to allow plenty of time. Get them to do a non-preferred activity, like brushing teeth or getting dressed before a preferred one such as watching tv by using the First and Then approach……First we get dressed and then we play with a toy. First we eat breakfast and then we watch t.v..

Also allow them to make decisions that you pick, example “would you like to wear the red jacket or the yellow sweater today? Would you like to eat cereal or oatmeal?”


Sensory-based strategies can support routines as well as changes in routines as they can help the nervous system and teach the individual strategies which help to modulate and be in the ‘just right place’ for accepting changes.


One tip I’d like to share relates to buy-in for the child and/or siblings. Get the kids to take part in developing the visuals. Get them to help draw or color in pictures you want to use. Or encourage the child to choose from a range of digital images or photos.

The development of the tool then becomes an activity, and the child often gives it added value as they were involved. Able siblings often get interested in the visuals when they see things happening and enjoy planning for stuff they like doing.  Visual schedules work well for able kids, teens and adults too.

How does your family start the day?  Please share your successes in the comments below.

Karen Wang

Written on October 25, 2012 by:

Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities"

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