How to set up a daily routine for your child with ADHD

This article has been medically-reviewed by:

Should you set a routine for ADHD kids?

The daily routines of our children with ADHD can sometimes seem novel, even though they have been a part of their schedule on a daily basis, week after week and month after month. And yet, sometimes my child with ADHD looks at me with bewilderment and confusion about getting ready for school or bed. How can that be?

Our children with ADHD do not prefer or enjoy routines. They find them to be boring and mundane. They prefer novelty which catches their attention and can keep them engaged for the moment. Our children, teens, and young adults with ADHD aren’t interested in the details of daily routines, the details of a story, or the details of much else other than their areas of interest. Those are the moments that surprise us as parents when our children hyper-focus and learn every detail about every part of a video game or science concept or whatever area of interest they have. Instead, they understand the big picture and the details can pretty much mind their own business!

However, routines are necessary for all children, but especially for our children with ADHD because of the struggle with a natural ability to create consistency. Although routines are not preferred, they are needed so that our children may learn the skills needed to function on a daily basis and ultimately become competent and productive teens, young adults, and adults.

In the meantime, as a parent, how can you keep your routines moving along each day without the chaos, frustration, and possible yelling that takes place on too much of a regular basis?

Note: If you want to help your child set a daily routine they will follow, try Joon app. Joon is a game designed for ADHD children and their parents. The game combines real-world tasks (assigned by the parents) with missions and goals inside the video game. Many parents have seen their ADHD child be more autonomous, motivated and build a better daily routine. Try a 7-day free trial.

Setting up routines for kids with ADHD

1) Make It Visual

Many of our children with ADHD prefer visual presentation of information in pictures, color, and movement. With that said, lists are often a big turn-off.  Together with your child, create a visual depiction of your child’s morning, after school, and/or bedtime routine. Take pictures of your child “in action” so that when your child is referencing the list, they see the pictures and know exactly what they need to do. Accompany the picture with a word or phrase (e.g., “Get dressed”) that is presented in different colors. For example, check out this visual schedule for young children, and this visual schedule for teens.

For teens and young adults, color code school materials such as folders, notebooks, and binders. This makes it easier for them to find their belongings when they are looking for their red math folder rather than sorting through the many folders and trying to find the letters, “M-A-T-H.”

Set aside a bucket in your home or in their room (depending on age and preference) where your child can drop their backpack, shoes, and coat for the next day. This will take away the dilemma of “Where is my left sneaker?” or “I can’t find my backpack.”  It’s in the same visual spot each day which will make it easier to find and make movement during routines.

Another helpful visual for your child may be setting up clothes for school on a hanging shelf in his or her closet. Label the shelves Monday through Friday and on Sunday night, select the clothes, and set them up, including socks, underwear, hair ties, and other accessories.  This makes it super easy for your child to open the closet and avoid having to make any decisions it the moment. Just reach and dress, no thinking and no making decisions in the moment about what to wear, which can be laborious and painful in the morning. Discover the perfect ADHD child's checklist for a morning routine.

2) Set a Timer and…. Go!

Time management with ADHD (or the idea of how much time has passed) is oftentimes not a strength. Your child may estimate that a homework assignment or task will require “5 minutes”, but in reality, it’s more like 25minutes. It happens often that our children, teens, and young adults with ADHD will underestimate how much time is needed to complete their math homework, for example.  When your child estimates that his math homework can be done in 5 minutes, set a timer and let the time pass. When the alarm rings, ask your child how much work he was able to accomplish in 5 minutes and ask how many more minutes are needed. This will begin to give your child an accurate sense of how much time is really needed to complete an assignment or task.

Some children, teens, and young adults enjoy working against the timer and treat it as a competition. Our kids are also encouraged to work quickly to complete an assignment or task during the time limit or to beat it! For example, “Let’s see how much of your toys you can put away in 3 minutes –go!” is far more exciting than “Put away your toys.”  Setting the timer also naturally creates an end time for tasks that are not preferred or enjoyable.  Many of our kids feel like these mundane tasks are going to take, “forever,” and don’t want to get them started. Setting a timer and working against it creates a finite time for a task and makes it more likely that your child will start it.

Other times to work against a timer could be.

·      How many minutes do you think you need to get dressed?

·      How many minutes for your shower?

·      How long do you need to make your bed?

·      Let’s set a 2-minute timer for you to brush your teeth

There are a ton of timer and routine apps for ADHD available.

Need help motivating your child?

Try the new to-do app for kids with ADHD called Joon. Joon is a new type of video game that makes routine tasks fun for kids (ages 6 - 12). Motivate your child with ADHD to focus and stay on top of their daily tasks with a game that turns routines into actual fun!

Try for Free

3) Set Alarms

As the timekeeper in my house, I often advise my children of the time of their extracurricular activity or of the time when we need to leave the house to visit grandma, for example. However, they inherently aren’t’ keeping track of the time and 3:00 p.m. isn’t necessarily registering as the end time for whatever they’re doing and when they need to get ready to leave.

I’m a big fan of setting an alarm on my cell phone or a voice-enabled device on my cell phone of the time that we need to leave the house with a 5-minute buffer to put on shoes and walk out of the house. Set an alarm with your child and when it makes a sound, cue your child to begin making a move towards the goal.  Set alarms to wake up, get ready for bed, start homework, get ready for hockey (for example).  This will begin to help your child to disengage from what she is doing and begin to transition to the next activity. It also keeps your child in motion without a lot of reminding or nagging on your end, as the parent.

Recommended reading: What's The Best Calendar App For ADHD? Child-Friendly Options

Closing Thoughts

Daily routines for our children are often so very boring making them difficult for you to enforce as the parent. Our children with ADHD aren’t always wired with a sense of the routine even if it’s been in action for months or even years.  Remember to keep things novel and fun as much as you can!