Routine inspection

Hannah Dickson spends an hour with Diane Levy

I love stationery. I love the potential of blank books, the look of stacks of coloured paper and the smell of freshly-sharpened pencils. So when Diane Levy tells me that a couple of packs of Post-it notes, a clipboard and a mini whiteboard are helpful additions to any parent’s toolkit, I listen up.

Perhaps it is my love of stationery that helps me start the new school year with a bang. I really enjoy filling out the stationary lists and triumphing over rolls of cover seal. And those first few days back the lunchboxes were incredible – homemade cookies, muffins packed with fruit and loads of fruit and vegetables enticingly sliced and packed into little containers.

There doesn’t seem to be a morning rush in those first few weeks back. The children seem to naturally wake early, and before formal learning gets underway, it doesn’t matter what they pack into their bags. But by mid-March things are beginning to catch up on us. Sport and other after-school activities are in full swing and life is very busy for everyone in our household – which equates to less baked goods and more stress. There’s just too much happening to rely on memory alone – children’s or parents’. The mornings can easily descend into mild panic and shouts of, “Have you remembered…? Have you done…? Where are my…? Hurry up!”

This is where routines and systems come into it, says Diane. The benefits are twofold. Firstly, they make parents’ lives far easier, especially in the mornings and that period between 3.30pm and bedtime. Secondly, they are a way of building your children’s planning abilities so they can develop good time management skills and become responsible for beginning and completing their own tasks. And the really good news? It’s never too late to start.

Diane says by the time her third child came along she was too tired to pack schoolbags herself and remember what needed to go in them. So she devised a weekly planner with two lists. One had what needed to go in the schoolbag every day, the other had a list of what needed to be remembered on specific days. “Then all I had to remember was what day of the week it was,” she laughs.

Whether it’s a list for schoolbags, or a list of what jobs need to be done, how you introduce systems in your household will depend largely on the personalities of your children. Some will love a routine and find a real joy in being competent and ticking everything off their list, others will need more support and/or supervision. The most effective way to get your children on board is to sit down and explain what’s happening. If this can be done over a snack to make it friendly, so much the better. Try saying, ”I’ve got some ideas of how we can make our mornings and afternoons simpler with less yelling and less growling.” Start by listing everything that needs to be done at this busy time of day.

Diane says her approach to helping families establish routines was influenced by attending Andrew Smith’s Accelerated Planning Technique seminar and learning how even big projects can be broken down into manageable bites – ideally no more than can fit on a Post-it note. So while telling a child to, “Get ready for school” may be so overwhelming you don’t get any response or cooperation, listing tasks such as – get dressed, make bed, have breakfast, load dishwasher, do teeth, pack lunch, check list for bag (with a box beside them to be ticked when completed) is likely to be more successful.

“The morning list will be all about ‘getting ready’ tasks,” says Diane. “But in the afternoon you can include time for downtime as well as homework and household jobs.” Some children will be happy with a laminated list that is the same for every day. With others it will be more effective to sit down with them and create the lists for that day. They can keep it on a clipboard and carry it around with them as they work through their list. “It only takes five minutes, and making the list for the next day quickly becomes part of the routine. A list on the wall can easily become wallpaper, but there’s something about a personal one that makes a huge difference,” says Diane.

Of course, this system is not a magic wand and it does require parental supervision. “Some children need your support and recognition every step of the way. Being involved every 10 minutes and being lavish in your admiration for what has been achieved is a small price to pay for diligence. “Other children like to do everything and then show it to you. It is an equally valid way, but stay alert to the child who says, ‘Everything’s done, Mum, I’m just going next door to play’. Smile brightly and say, ‘That’s lovely, darling. Now take me on an inspection tour.’ You will be amazed at how often this leads to, ‘Oh, just wait a minute, I’ll just …’ And off he vanishes to complete something – several somethings.”

To make mornings run more smoothly, Diane highly recommends structuring things so that you are the first one up and dressed and able to supervise the morning routine. “It is a pain but it makes all the difference. If you come in dressed in a soap flake and a small towel you’ll have very little authority!”

Introducing a routine doesn’t mean the children are on their own with a list and a time limit. Diane recommends plenty of support and supervision in the early stages, until the routine has turned into a habit. “Try saying, ‘Here’s your morning list, what to do you need help with?’ Or even, ‘What task is so awful that you would like me to do it for you?’ Chances are it will be hanging up the clothes, but doing something for them creates a lovely connection.”

Like any system, a morning and afternoon routine takes time and effort to set up. But it will save lots of shouting, threats and arguing. The serenity in the morning – and time for a second cup of tea – makes it all worthwhile!