S2E18 – Choices, Consequences, and Catching the Bus: A Play Therapy Approach to School Morning Power Struggles

Jun 27, 2024

In this episode, I address a question from Noel about managing morning routines and getting kids ready for school on time. As many parents can relate, the struggle to get children dressed, fed, and out the door for the bus is a common challenge. I share insights from a child-centered play therapy approach to make mornings easier and less stressful for everyone involved.

I emphasize the importance of providing choices to children, especially the night before, to create buy-in and ownership. This approach helps reduce power struggles and nagging in the morning. I also share a personal story from my childhood to illustrate the power of natural consequences. The key takeaway is the concept of “ultimate choice-giving,” where children are given clear options and allowed to experience the results of their decisions. This method encourages self-regulation and intrinsic motivation.

Throughout the episode, I provide practical examples of how to implement these strategies, including specific language to use with children. I stress the importance of remaining calm and neutral while acknowledging children’s choices and feelings. By consistently applying these techniques, parents can create more peaceful mornings and help their children develop self-regulation.

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Transforming Morning Chaos: A Play Therapy Approach to Getting Ready for School Struggles

As parents, we’ve all been there – the daily challenge of getting our kids out the door and onto the school bus on time. The constant reminders, the pleas to get dressed, brush teeth, eat breakfast, and put on shoes can turn mornings into a stressful battle. But what if there was a better way? In this post, we’ll explore how child-centered play therapy techniques can revolutionize your morning routine and bring peace to your household.

The Power of Choices

One of the key principles in managing challenging behaviors is to set yourself up for success by strategically providing choices. This is especially effective when dealing with anticipated behavior struggles, such as the daily morning routine.

Why Choices Work

  • Buy-in and Ownership: When children are given choices, they feel a sense of ownership over the decision. This eliminates the need for constant nagging and reminding.
  • Reduced Stress: By offering choices the night before, you’re addressing potential issues during a calm, neutral time rather than in the heat of a stressful morning.
  • Empowerment: Consistently providing choices reduces power struggles by giving children a sense of control.

Implementing Choices in Your Routine

Here are some practical ways to incorporate choices into your morning preparation:

  • Clothing: “Do you choose to wear this shirt or this shirt tomorrow?”
  • Shoes: “Which shoes do you choose to wear tomorrow?”
  • Breakfast: “For breakfast tomorrow, do you choose cereal or pancakes?”

By allowing your child to make these decisions in advance, you’re setting the stage for a smoother morning with less resistance.

The Ultimate Choice: A Game-Changing Approach

When consistent difficulties persist, it’s time to implement what I call the “ultimate choice.” This approach involves clearly communicating expectations and allowing natural consequences to unfold.

Setting the Stage

Start by having a conversation with your child. Explain that there will be new expectations regarding the morning routine. Use language that conveys the importance of what you’re about to say.

The Ultimate Choice Framework

Present the choice to your child in this format:

“If you choose to be ready by [specific time], you choose to have everything you need for your day at school. If you choose not to be ready by [specific time], you choose to get on the bus in whatever state you find yourself.”

Enforcing Natural Consequences

This is often the hardest part for parents, but it’s crucial. If your child chooses not to be ready, allow them to experience the natural consequence of that choice. This might mean:

  • Going to school without breakfast
  • Getting on the bus with messy hair
  • Wearing pajamas to school

While it may be difficult to watch your child face these consequences, remember that these experiences are powerful teachers. Most children will only need to experience these outcomes once to make different choices in the future.

Implementing the Strategy

When putting this approach into practice, remember these key points:

  1. Stay Calm: Remain emotionally neutral when enforcing consequences.
  2. Use the word “Choose” five times: Any other word than the word “choose” is a threat.
  3. Acknowledge Choices: Simply state what choice your child made without judgment.
  4. Reflect Feelings: If your child is upset, acknowledge their feelings without changing the consequence.
  5. Remind of Future Opportunities: Always remind your child that tomorrow is a new day to make different choices.

The Power of Natural Consequences: A Personal Story

To illustrate the effectiveness of natural consequences, let me share a personal story from my childhood. I was often not ready when my mother wanted to leave, leading to a pattern where she would start driving down the street while I chased after the car.

One day, for an important all-day practice two hours from home, I forgot my shoes in the rush to catch up with my mother. I spent the entire day barefoot at practice. This experience was so impactful that it was the last time I was unprepared or chasing my mother down the road. The natural consequence of my choice taught me a powerful lesson about being ready on time.

Embracing Peaceful Mornings

By implementing these child-centered play therapy techniques, you can transform your mornings from chaotic battles into peaceful, productive times. Remember, the goal is to foster self-control, self-regulation, and intrinsic motivation in your children.

It may take time and consistency, but soon you’ll find that your children are making self-enhancing choices, your mornings are calmer, and everyone starts the day on a more positive note. Embrace the power of choices and natural consequences, and watch as your family’s morning routine transforms.

Cochran, N., Nordling, W., & Cochran, J. (2010). Child-Centered Play Therapy (1st ed.). Wiley.
VanFleet, R., Sywulak, A. E., & Sniscak, C. C. (2010). Child-centered play therapy. Guilford Press.
Landreth, G. L. (2002). Play therapy: The art of the relationship (2nd ed.). Brunner-Routledge.
Bratton, S. C., Landreth, G. L., Kellam, T., & Blackard, S. R. (2006). Child parent relationship therapy (CPRT) treatment manual: A 10-session filial therapy model for training parents. Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.
Benedict, Helen. Themes in Play Therapy. Used with permission to Heartland Play Therapy Institute.

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