Cultivating Cooperation

“Our Morning Routine is Not What My Child Has in Mind”

It’s almost time to go out the door and head off to school.  The last time you checked, your four-year-old was taking off her pj’s and was on the verge of getting dressed. Ah, you think to yourself, “It will be a good day.” Now, five minutes later, not only is she still in her pj’s, but she has slipped her sweater on, backwards, over the pj’s. You gently remind her that it is time to get dressed to get ready for school and help her take off the tangled sweater. Instead of getting dressed, she starts to play with a puzzle. Exasperated, and concerned about the time, you pull off her pajamas and put her clothes on, even though she has successfully dressed herself many times before. You sigh. So much for the day starting off smoothly.

Most of us have struggled, at some point, with trying to persuade a preschooler to get ready or finish eating on time. And it is so easy to become annoyed when they don’t comply. We try to stay calm but the more she does her own thing and acts “contrary”, the more we find ourselves feeling frustrated, anxious, and even angry. And on top of that, we start feeling stressed about being late. The more we try to “force” the child, the more resistant she may become and the situation can easily escalate.

Avoid Power Struggles by Engaging Children

Sometimes a shift in our approach can be helpful.  As adults we often find ourselves telling young children what to do and how to do it.  When they don’t comply, we often blame the child for “not listening.”  This can quickly become a power struggle and ultimately no one really “wins.”  Rather than telling young children what to do, we can periodically try a different approach – we can engage them in the process. Young children crave – and NEED – independence.  They want to assert themselves and be in control of themselves. Don’t we all want that? So one of the keys to having children cooperate is to give them some control, while still maintaining expectations.

Strategies to Encourage Children’s Cooperation 

Some tried and true strategies to encourage children’s cooperation:

  • Be proactive. Talk ahead of time about expectations like being ready for school on time. For example, over the weekend, when you and your child are both calm and relaxed, talk together about the steps of the morning routine. Be sure to include your child in coming up with ideas for what she needs to do to get ready (i.e. wash hands and face, brush teeth, get dressed, eat breakfast).
  • Use visuals to help guide and remind your child. For example, create a chart together using pictures for each step. Or write each step on a tongue depressor, and include a picture of it to serve as a cue. Place the tongue depressors in a red cup. As your child completes each step she places them in a green cup. Once all the tongue depressors are in the green cup, it signals to your child that she is finished and ready to go.  And gives her a feeling of accomplishment.

  • Make the task into a quick game. For example, challenge your child to see if she can put her pants and shirt on before you reach 1 when you count backwards from 10. Or incorporate the task into a nursery rhyme: challenge her to finish brushing her teeth before you get to six in the “Buckle My Shoe” nursery rhyme of “one, two, buckle my shoe, three, four, shut the door, five, six, pick up sticks.”

Note: Expect to change up the game every so often – if it’s no longer working, it’s time to try something new.

  • Recognize when your child does cooperate – thumbs up, high fives, specific verbal comments like “nice job putting the toys back on the shelf.”

When Children Feel Empowered

This phase does not last forever.  At the time they are going through it, it can certainly pluck our every nerve.  While it is important for children to learn to follow instructions, we can help them navigate this struggle for independence by giving up some control, allowing them to gain some control. By finding creative ways to involve them, we promote their independence and they gain a sense of accomplishment. Making daily tasks into fun challenges can help motivate children and they often will rise to the occasion and cooperate on their own.  Rather than resulting in a power struggle, it ends up being a “win-win.”

For more tips, check out the Cooperation tab on “In a Nutshell” and
download Take Five: Countdown to Cooperation.