Ease the Morning Rush with a Get-Ready-for-School Checklist


Mark (4 years) is so proud of his new morning checklist

I remember the days when getting ready for school resembled a spoof on a boot-camp exercise. I was the reluctant drill sergeant trying to direct two giggling ornery monkeys.

Virginia was starting kindergarten, and Sofia was beginning first grade in a new school. We had just moved to New York, Mark was still a newborn, and I was adjusting to the noise and cement. Even though raising children in the big city was unusual in many ways, kids still had be at school on time, lined up on the asphalt playground at P.S. 183 when the bell rang at 8:25 a.m.

Since I started writing about unspoiling kids, people have been asking about how we manage our family chores.  Ours started here: getting ready for school.

Asking children to take care of themselves — on schedule — is a perfect way to start teaching responsibility. Once kids can be counted on to do basic self-care tasks, like getting dressed and brushing teeth, they can move on to jobs that help the whole family.

It dawned on me that asking my kids to be responsible for themselves might be a good idea when our mornings were like mutiny in the barracks. “It’s 7:45, you guys should be done with your cereal by now!” I would say, when I realized there were two girls in their pajamas at the breakfast table, laughing and telling elaborate stories involving potty words and dogs jumping off skyscrapers.


Walking to P.S. 183 in the fall of 2008

“Sofia! Did you brush your teeth?” I would yell down the hall as I was changing Mark’s diaper. Besides exhausting myself trying to herd them out at the right time, I would come back to a house strewn with toys, last night’s craft projects, and dirty breakfast dishes.

Maybe it was having a new baby that made me realize I was also babying two competent kids. By not expecting much of them, they didn’t expect anything of themselves. In fact, it seemed that their job was to spend as much time resisting my efforts as possible.

First Kids Learn to Care for Themselves, then For Others

Here is the original checklist that marked the beginning of our journey toward a system of family chores. This simple task list, taped to the girls’ bedroom wall by the door, marked the beginning of expecting my children to start acting their age. By this time Virginia could read, but the same checklist could be made with pictures (as I’m doing for Mark who is starting pre-K in a few weeks, which you can see below).

The girls were expected to complete each task on the list in 45 minutes, without reminding or pushing on my part. A visual timer, like the Time Timer which shows in red how much time is left, helped them understand the passing of time before they learned to read a clock. I allowed a 15-minute cushion, so that if they weren’t ready, they had time to whip into shape and we wouldn’t be late.

Mark checks how much time he has left

Both Rewards and Consequences Work For Us

How did we enforce the system?  First I imposed pretty serious consequences, like no playing after school, or going to bed right after dinner. Inspired by the book Parent Power, a pretty hard-core yet valuable book on discipline and raising responsible kids, I eventually found a policy that worked for me. You may remember the system of rewards and consequences that I explained in Getting Ready for School in Time — Every Day.

In the girls’  preschool years before this, I had experimented with carrots and sticks. At first I thought that kids should not be rewarded for behavior that I felt was normal. But then life became sour and negative, too much about punishments, chores, and frowns. So then I experimented with just giving rewards for good behavior. For example, the girls would drop a marble in a jar every time they got ready for bed by themselves. When the marbles reached a line I drew on the jar, they would get a prize.

But as I explained in The Chores and Allowance Question: Why We Shouldn’t Pay Our Kids to Help, kids aren’t always motivated by the marble, trinket, or coin. So in the end, I found that a system involving both a carrot and a stick works the best. If they do what is expected, they get a sticker or smiley face which add up to prizes. If they don’t do what is expected, they get an X which translates into a same-day consequence.  (If you haven’t already, you can see and print our rewards chart.)

My daughters are now 10 and 8 and even though the types of rewards and consequences change over the years, according to their age and what matters to them, this system is still going strong in our household.

For Preschoolers, Try Charts with Pictures

Here is the chart I just made up for Mark, who is four years old and about to start pre-K at the elementary school. He doesn’t read yet, but I included words so that eventually he might start to associate the images with the language.

It’s not pretty — but it gets the idea across. If my daughters were not at their grandparents’ house now, I would have had them draw the pictures, because I love hand-made stuff much better than anything I can find ready-made.

There are plenty of chore charts out there, and neat magnetic tables and beautiful printable posters. But because every family has unique habits, I have found that using pre-made systems never works just right. In the rare case that your child needs to do the same things Mark does (or you want to customize our chart for your purposes), you can download them here:

Get Ready for School Checklist for Preschoolers | Word-processing doc

Get Ready for School Checklist for Preschoolers | PDF file

How to Make Your Own Morning Routine Checklist

Mark coloring in his checklist today

If you want to make your own, you could do it with pencil and paper, or with images cut and pasted from magazines, or you could have your child draw pictures and write the steps. Since I was feeling particularly uncreative today, I made mine on the computer with clip art and then had Mark color it in (which he loved so much that I had to print one for Luke).

Setting up systems that work for your family take a little time and thought.  But the relatively small amount of effort (Mark’s chart took me 45 minutes to create) leads to enormous benefits.  Not only do we parents get a smoother morning, a neater house, and a peaceful trip to school, but we give our kids the chance to prove themselves, to earn their self-confidence, and to learn some of the basics of being a successful adult.

Have you already started school yet? How are you managing the morning rush?

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  • Emily Goodchild April 23, 2014, 7:57 am

    This is great, thanks for providing them so we can mix and match, you’ve made my life a lot easier.

    • Amy April 23, 2014, 10:22 am

      Glad to be of help, Emily!


  • Sarah April 1, 2014, 4:43 pm

    Hi Amy,
    A practical question – did your preschooler perform the act of checking off the tasks daily? Was it an “interactive” chart, or simply a stationary reference chart? We are about to create one, thanks to your helpful tips. I can’t decide whether to make this something he “checks” off (colors, magnets, velcro, etc) or not. Doing that might be rewarding for him, but time-consuming? Love to know from a more experienced parent what may or may not have worked. Thanks!

    • Amy April 1, 2014, 9:45 pm

      Hi Sarah,

      Yes, this was just a stationary reference chart. I agree that the checking off might be fun, but it could take more time if he has to keep running back and forth to the chart. Maybe just one movable part when he has completed all tasks?

      Hope this helps,

  • Eliza February 10, 2014, 1:34 pm

    Thanks for all the helpful books you recommend on your blog, Amy. I plan to check out Parent Power because the current consequence for not completing chores punishes the wrong party: me! ;( Family harmony is a worthy goal, but it ain’t easy!

    • Amy February 15, 2014, 10:52 pm

      Hi Eliza,

      I know what you mean about some consequences being hard on the parent too (like no screen time). I hope you find some inspiration in that book.


  • Molly January 11, 2014, 9:54 pm

    Hi Amy,

    I’ve found your site a few times over the years, and I’ve always loved the pace of your writing which helps me slow down a little even as I read it :).

    I know you said above that you try to stay away from electronics, but I thought I’d try sharing my website with you anyway :). Like you, I wanted to create a checklist for my kids, but I’m a very tech oriented person, and hand-crafting a chart was hard for me. So I created a website that lets you use drag and drop to make a morning routine checklist with pictures, or an after school routine, or a bedtime routine. We have our list posted on the wall by the kitchen, and my kids use their list every morning. It’s made getting out the door for school in the morning so much easier, and I my customers really like the variety of clipart I have and how easy it is to create a customized list. I’d love it if you would be willing to take a look and tell me what you think! http://thetripclip.com.


  • Alison @ L is for Latte October 17, 2012, 9:57 am

    After today, which was the most frustrating and exasperating morning ever and left no one happy, I finally made my own version of this chart. Here’s to smoother mornings and evenings–starting NOW.

    • Amy October 17, 2012, 1:02 pm

      Oh dear, I’m sorry to hear about your exasperating morning, Alison! Sometimes desperation is the mother of creation, right? Wishing you much smoother mornings,

  • Sara Tetreault August 17, 2012, 3:14 pm

    This is great, Amy! When my kids were younger, we had a check off chart that worked for this. Now that they’re older, I keep a quick list by the front door to jog their oh-so-smart-teenage minds :) Honestly, they could benefit from the little pictures!!

  • Courtney August 17, 2012, 1:44 pm

    Wow, a system that works, tweaked to fit the family’s need. Great.
    Reminds me of our family trip to China when my sons were around 10 and 12. The two of them stayed in our hotels, but in different rooms. I announced that there would be no room check and that they needed to be responsible for their clothes and other traveling “stuff” and there would not be any parent “checking”.
    Couldn’t believe that it “worked”!!
    So assuming that kids can be responsible, seems to help make them responsible!

    • Amy August 17, 2012, 1:45 pm

      Hi Courtney,

      I’m amazed that your system worked so quickly. A great lesson there too.

      Thanks for sharing your story,

  • Dan August 16, 2012, 2:28 pm

    If you want to set-up repeatable checklists you can use this application:


    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, and a calendar.
    Syncs with Evernote and Google Calendar, and also comes with mobile version, and Android and iPhone apps.

    • Amy August 17, 2012, 1:46 pm

      Thanks for the tip, Dan. I like to stay off electronics as much as possible, but I appreciate your advice.


  • Fab August 16, 2012, 3:26 am

    Love the checklist idea for school mornings!!! My preschooler can’t read yet, so I’m going to try the list with pictures! Great post!

  • Juanita August 15, 2012, 10:25 pm

    I just posted this list without the potty reminder next to the door in my girls room 3 days ago in preparation for school starting. I just added evening chores in reverse. It is going very well. And, what pleasant mornings we are having….!

    • Amy August 15, 2012, 10:28 pm

      Hi Juanita,

      That’s wonderful that your checklist is already making your mornings go so smoothly! And that you have one going for the evening too. I totally know what you mean — it makes a huge difference in the peace of the household!


  • Clare@doingitsimply August 15, 2012, 9:45 pm

    This is exactly what I needed to read today Amy! Thank you for your marvelous ideas!
    We have used (overly-complicated) job charts before, but because they are complicated we end up stopping using them :) My littlest has been at school for 4 weeks now and we are starting to hit the ‘I’m really tired and I couldn’t possibly do anything for myself’ stage. He is very motivated by completing tasks though, so I think a SIMPLE list of things he needs to do to be ready for school would be just brilliant. Thank you!!!
    (And you have no idea how happy I am that primary school classes don’t start here until 8.55am. If it was 8.25am I doubt we’d ever get there!!)

    • Amy August 15, 2012, 9:52 pm

      Hi Clare,

      I’m so glad this idea hit the spot! My Mark loves his new chart. He even looks over it when it’s not time to get ready for school. He is so thrilled to have his own checklist that he didn’t blink an eye when I added no. 6 to his list of tasks: clean up the playroom!

      p.s. 8:55 is so civilized!


  • Alison @ L is for Latte August 15, 2012, 3:47 pm

    This is pure genius. Thank you for sharing.

    • Amy August 15, 2012, 8:02 pm

      You’re so easy to please, Alison! Thanks for writing me, Amy

  • Lina August 15, 2012, 11:51 am

    Thanks for the printables and the advice! I love the simplicity of it all; sometimes I make things like this overly complicated and it’s a bust.

    Do you have a similar printable for your bedtime routine?

    We used a sticker rewards chart to encourage my daughter (4) to sleep in her bed all night. It worked like a charm and we don’t need the chart anymore, but I think she misses getting stickers. The chore chart is a great next step for us.

    • Amy August 15, 2012, 1:46 pm

      Hi Lina,

      I know, I often make things too complicated too. In fact, I wanted to spend much more time on this chart and make it prettier and better, especially since I was posting it here. But I had to fight off my perfectionist tendencies in the name of balance. And I also wanted to show people that you don’t have to be a graphic designer or a parenting expert to make something that does the job.

      I don’t have a preschooler printable for bedtime — maybe because there are fewer steps. But it might be a good idea, so that I don’t have to keep asking Mark: So did you brush your teeth? Did you wash your hands? etc.

      Take care,

  • Rebecca August 15, 2012, 11:27 am

    Great tips! I love the picture chart, I think I will try that out with my own toddler. He still needs help with most of this stuff, but it will be good to get him in a good routine. Thanks!

    • Amy August 15, 2012, 1:43 pm

      Sure, Rebecca, getting the routine down is already a big step, even if kids need help with some of the tasks. Thanks for writing in, Amy

  • KS August 15, 2012, 9:45 am

    When my son was younger, he used to get himself all ready for school then come downstairs really quietly to hide (always in the same spot, crouched near the couch)–then I would need to pretend to look for him and he would pop out and “scare” me :)

    • Amy August 15, 2012, 1:42 pm

      Hi KS, What a cute image! I love how he picked the same spot every time. -Amy