Reduce stress by making a get-ready-for school checklist for your kids


Before I made this Morning To-Do checklist for my second-grade daughter, the following things happened on more than one occasion:

1. My daughter would get into the car without shoes or socks (this happens more often in warm weather) and I would drive halfway to school before she told me.

2. I would get all the way to the school and find out she forgot her homework folder, her lunch, or her backpack and I would have to drive back and get the missing item.

3. I would take her to school on a cold day and realize she didn't have a coat or sweater.

4. My wife would ask me if I was crazy for taking our daughter to school with hair that looked like a rat's nest.

I finally made this checklist and printed out a fat stack, clipped them together with a binder clip, and put them on the kitchen cupboard. It took about a week for us to remember to use the checklist every morning, but then it became automatic. Now every morning, the first thing Jane does is grab a fresh checklist and start doing the activities, checking them off as a completes them. It's a game for her and she likes it. We've been doing this for about five months and it's reduced a lot of stress from our morning routine.

evening-list.jpg (I also made an Evening To-Do list but we have not been able to make it a habit like we did with the Morning checklist.)



    1. You could also mount it in a frame behind plastic or have it printed onto a magnetic whiteboard.

  1. A fine idea. Kids also love tearing paper off a pad: mayhap bind them with a little rubber cement.

  2. Other commenters have already spotted my quibble with it. The waste of paper. Come on Mark. You’re a ‘Maker’, I’m sure you can come up with something really neat.

    We’ve already had 2 suggestions. How about something stitched with Velcro ticks to apply, or some sort of pegboard thing. I’m sure there’ll be others.

  3. I think those quibbling with Mark’s use of a renewable resource are missing a key set of three words: “she likes it.” I have to inquire if any of you have kids, because this bit right here means that it works and shouldn’t be changed. Maybe she likes to take it with her in the car and doodle on it. Maybe she likes to use different color pens for different days.

    I mean, we’re talking about approximately 180 sheets of paper a year, I can’t fault him for using that in a system that just works.

    1. It’s a fair cop. I don’t have kids, but I do think it’s a neat idea. I was just suggesting tweaks to the concept.

      1. I concur, but since I had a little widget I take the “they like it, it works” section into account much more than I used to. If the kid doesn’t like it, it won’t work. If he had started with a chalk slate or acetate he’d have a greater fighting chance, but sometimes kids don’t like to change the system when it’s in place as easily as the rest of us. One can likely incorporate something like this at the beginning of the next school year, but not in February.

        I just don’t see 180 pages of a renewable resource a big deal here. It’s not like he’s using a dodo or passenger pigeon every morning for breakfast.

    2. Ah, you’re right. I don’t have sprogs of my own. I also grew up under a military-esque “you don’t like quit your whining do it anyway” parental regime. FUN TIMES.

  4. We’ve been using one for years. It’s better than before, but we still end up invoking consequences for not following it. Ultimately there is no way to force expected behavior. Some kids will just keep taking consequences, because ultimately you reach the point where you’d be punishing yourself more than them. If you take away everything fun and pile on extra work, what’s left to motivate them?

  5. You’ve got me thinking now.

    What about a nice piece of slate in a frame, the list handpainted & a piece of chalk. The evening list could be on the back.

    Cord locks, on pieces of cord attached to a board with the items listed. The cord locks are moved to show ‘done’

    How about turning it into a ‘Make’ for Jane.

    1. “What about a nice piece of slate in a frame”

      Or a flat piece of wood, optionally cut into a fun shape, with spray paint chalkboard on it.

  6. We just got a P.E.G.S. system for a similar purpose. We’re about to implement it, and I think it will be very helpful. The supporting materials they provide go way beyond what Mark is doing (and what we plan on doing), but we plan to keep it very simple at first.

    Find it under Products > The PEGS System

    You could probably make something similar if you wanted to save the $.

    1. This reminds me of a thread I saw elsewhere. It was about kids with progress charts and how that affects them later in life (_my_ interpretation was that it wasn’t good, but I wish I could really find the thread.) The quote that got me was, “I was a progress chart kid- that explains how I am now.”

      1. More of a check list or “to do” list than a progress chart. The PEGS System is basically the same thing Mark is doing, but on a peg board with icons to represent the stuff that needs doing. That’s all.

  7. You could use one of those “Magic Slate” things. The kind with a wax backing and an acetate sheep on top. Print and print the list on the acetate.

  8. I agree with the comment on lamination. Laminate a page at Staples or Kinkos. Then use a marker to check off the boxes. Dry or Wet erase are best.

    Over time, the laminate may become a bit smudged, to solve that, use a little Vim or Ajax cleaner and the laminate is as good as new. Will probably last a few years at least.

  9. Is that original Otto artwork on the top?

    Yeah, a silk-screened chalkboard version of this would be cool.

    You could add a box to the morning board, “erase last night’s checklist,” and a box on the evening board, “erase this morning’s checklist.”

  10. Another helpful tip for cleaning up: the 15 minute all-family cleanup (after dinner is usually a good time).

  11. I grew up in the Deep South (AL) and was in elementary school in the late 70s and early to mid 80s. Every morning I remember my single working mom asking most of the same questions. Big difference: early emphasis on personal responsibility. She would NEVER drive home to pick up a forgotten item. It was my fault I forgot it and I had to suffer the consequences. That taught me very quickly to be independent in the morning!

    Flash-forward to today: if I have to take something with me in the morning that’s not part of my daily routine, I leave notes to myself everywhere!

  12. As a former single mother with a now grown up son I’m with #22 – personal responsibility is the way to go.
    Driving back and forth is not an option – how do parents get to work on time?
    But if the kids want to write & use a check list let them.

  13. I made up a similar checklist several years ago for my photographer boyfriend after the second or third time I drove out to the middle of nowhere to deliver a forgotten tripod or other piece of equipment.

    It should be noted, however, that he was always super appreciative and on one of those jaunts introduced me to a baby wild burro (tripping adorably over its overly-long legs as it followed us around) he was photographing, before buying me lunch at a little honky tonk. What a boring day working I would have had otherwise!


  14. Anon beat me to it. How about don’t go back for anything, and go through a day without socks, homework, or whatever. The well-learned lesson is worth the price you pay in convenience or comfort. I can remember just a few occasions where this has happened: a ballet lesson with no shoes, a school day with no lunch until they got home at 2:30, a trip to the toy store without their money. But for the most part it happens once and somehow they pay attention next time.

  15. We have much the same issues in the morning, and I’ve been meaning to do a little something this for, well, months. This was a good shot of motivation. Thanks.

    1. Try this one: ☐

      There’s a bunch of other possibilities, like â–¡, â–¢, â—» or ⬜, but the one above is the “ballot box”, so probably the best.

  16. laminate? you mean with the blood of a thousand future generations of iraqis processed oil into plastic?

    how about tanning the skin of roadkill, stiffening it up by keeping it in the freezer overnight and having her carve out a hash mark until she runs out of room. Ultimate recycled use for dead possums (make sure they’re dead, wouldn’t want one to ‘play possum’ and disrupt the morning routine…). By the time the hashmarks take up too much space it’s probably time to get a new ‘skin’. The joy of discovery, what will it be next? Skunk? Squirrel?

  17. @trent1492: if you’re on Windows then you should be able to use the standard ascii shortcuts and the Wingdings font.

    Specifically: Hold ALT and type 111 on your numeric pad (yeah, i know the number by heart, too many years making checklists…) then highlight the character that appears and change it’s font to Wingdings.

  18. This is a good approach.

    We are raising a wonderful, creative, bright space cadet – not entirely unlike his parents – so I know where Mark is coming from here.

    What we do now (third grade) is to have him rely on a mental checklist. We’ll ask him a little while before we need to leave – or when we see him start to settle down with a book – “Have you run through your morning checklist?” He’ll stare into space for a moment, going through it mentally, and then either tell us “Yes, I did everything” or say “Whoops!” and hurry off to take care of something. Same thing come bedtime – “Did you do everything you need to do?”

    We do have him check off his daily chores, giving the cats water in the morning and feeding them in the evening, on a calendar. If he misses a checkmark either because he forgot to do it or forgot to record it, we get to circle that day. That’s all the motivation he needs to keep track of it.

  19. My son has Autism. My wife is a Communication Disorders Assistant. (They work with Speech Therapists and do the therapy with the kids). We have these lists EVERYWHERE. They are called “Visual Schedules” and are used with kids with disabilities, and elderly folks with dementia and alzheimers. There’s even a program for making Visual Schedules called BoardMaker.

    Having the lists around isn’t pretty, but it can keep kids on task, help them remember steps, and it’s certainly reduced the number of calls from the school “Uhm….Jeff’s not wearing any underwear again today….”

  20. What a smart idea.

    Unfortunately, in our family the child who would most appreciate this system is the organized one who never forgets anything, and the child who *needs* this system is the one who would roll her eyes and give me THE LOOK if I suggested it.

  21. Interesting you would assume that these events were painless to me. They were not, but I’d rather suffer through them once suffer the alternative. Isn’t the action of forgetting a thing naturally coupled with the consequence of not having that thing? Why separate the two? Your characterizing this as “pain” is pretty melodramatic, but these minor inconveniences are much cheaper at 6 years old than at 26.

    The mindset that says an entire family should turn around the vehicle and drive home anytime a kid forgot something so the kid doesn’t “suffer” is the same one that leads to risk free playgrounds, criminalization of happy meals, and community college full of kids who can’t read or do math. My priority as a parent is not to block my children from feeling the negative consequence of their choices, but rather to help them accept and learn from the negative consequences and move on to take pleasure in the rest of the day without getting too excited. Love, safety and moral support? Sure. A pain-free existence? Not so much.

    By the way, I like the idea. I forget things about as much as they do. Look forward to trying it out.

  22. I am 34 years old, and I have a list similar to this in RememberTheMilk that I use every day. I’d forget to brush my teeth, take my prescriptions, and feed the cats if I didn’t.

  23. I’m with Clifton and jonw. My first grader knows exactly what she needs every morning because of that ‘mental checklist’ she’s learned. If she forgets something she has to deal with the consequences. My preschooler is learning this right now; I didn’t like watching my him cry because I forgot his apple juice, but it’s not like he’s being sent to the desert, there is, in fact, water at school!

    I think a lot of kids are learning from their parents that it’s acceptable to not take responsibility for yourself and your things because someone else (usually the ‘helicopter mom’) will jump in and make it all better. Sure, walk and play your DS at the same time, Mom will maneuver you through people and say “I’m sorry” for you. (One of my pet peeves!). Next thing you know the kids are in college and totally clueless as to how to be independent.

  24. my son is only three but I know with his personality he will benefit from a terse list like this when he goes to grade school.
    Although, it helps to make a game out of it such as each page being a tile of a larger picture, the check list would have a low profile on the page. once each check list is complete, before heading out the door to school it is posted. at week’s or month’s end the check lists create an image or picture composed of the check lists that have become puzzle pieces. The unknown or a mystery is a motivator for a human of any age. Or for the parents who adore capitalism make the completed lists a form of currency that can be used as leverage around the house.

  25. I still do this. as an adult it has helped me get stuff done. It came from worrying about stuff as a kid before bed that i was going to forget to do in the morning. so my mom said “before bed make a list and then you wont forget”
    now every morning I set at the table eat my breakfast and write down everything that needs to be done that day. now if i had a cool checklist with a cat on it :)

  26. I like the flip white board morning/evening checklist idea. I’m not a parent yet but I like to read about hacks or neat stuff that parents do to make their family’s life more efficient. Is it terrible that I kinda agree with the whole “let them deal with the consequences of their actions” argument? Must be hard though to intentionally put your kid through that even if you know it’s better for them in the long run. Although… now that I really think about it… if you forgot an important document for a client or presentation material wouldn’t you circle around back to your house to go get it? Maybe I wouldn’t circle around for small things like apple juice or a pencil or something but I would for homework or science projects.

    1. Ah, but a forgotten homework is not of the same importance as an important document for a client or presentation material.

      Forgetting it – at least at this age – should generate a reprimand by the teacher or a bad grade, allowing the kid to learn about keeping track of such things.

    2. It’s not terrible, but I do think you’re going to have to meet the kid before you find out what system will work. Someone above mentions one child who is staggeringly organized who would love this list (but doesn’t need it) and their sibling, who would have nothing to do with it but needs one desperately.

      I can’t tell you how my kid is going to roll when they get to be bigger than they are now, we’ll have to work it out together, but I’m certainly going to keep this in mind until the day when she can have her own mental list. It may be a list, it may be “suck it up, don’t forget next time!” But I suspect a mix of both styles will be what happens, you don’t just have to choose one or the other.

  27. I like the idea, we actually have a similar checklist on the fridge, but by days of the week, as everyday is different (monday stuff for swim class, fridays P.E.)

    It got me thinking now to create something similar for each day, also maybe encourage to write the date (our’s is a first grader, I guess Jane has mastered that already)

    Oh, and the pack is not in the car today :D

  28. At the risk of adding to an already overlong set of comments, I think the laminated, white-board style list would be an improvement. If I used a new page in our house, I would be stuck picking up the old pages every day. Or my child would pick up an old page and follow it instead of a new one. We have a list like this and we post it on the door to the garage so she can see it on her way out.

  29. We did something similar to this when I was in middle school or so, but it was a recited mnemonic: Teeth-Hair-Bed-Lights (the latter two being “make your bed, and turn off the lights in your bedroom). Probably could have expanded it, but forgetting my schoolbooks or some such was never an issue.

  30. Speaking as a former kid (with then-undiagnosed inattentive-type ADD), morning and evening checklists would have been the greatest thing ever. EVER.

    I can’t remember actually forgetting shoes or clothing — but I do remember the vast majority of mornings involving a frantic search for shoes, coat, homework, or backpack. And if homework wasn’t frantically searched for, I usually forgot it. Ditto for anything my parents were supposed to sign, like report cards or permission slips.

    Despite taking the natural consequences (missing the bus, bad grades, teacher scolding me, not getting to go on field trips) over and over again, I never figured out how to remember to do/bring everything. I’m still like this. I can’t do a mental checklist — I’m guaranteed to just completely space on one or more things. This is why OmniFocus and pop-up calendar reminders are a godsend for me as an adult. As a kid, using a written checklist would have really helped me learn how to systematically deal with my responsibilities.

    And about using the paper. Here are some of the problems I (as a kid) would have had with a single laminated checklist: forgetting to erase yesterday’s checkmarks; losing the dry erase marker (this would have happened every morning); someone accidentally using a Sharpie and thereby ruining the whole thing. It’s worth using the paper if that makes it a reliable system.

  31. I’m a chronically forgetful guy, but since I really came to hate my own lateness (and forgetting needed items, which often caused the tardiness), I made a habit of using an informal mental checklist. One of the most important parts of my half-assed system, however, is the placement of certain key items. My keys, wallet, money, cellphone, etc., only get placed on one particular side table if they’re not actually in my pockets. My wife has lost more phones, keys, and glasses than anyone I know, and is often scrambling around the house wondering where she last put these items. I used to be like that, too, and I try to convince her to adopt my system (such as it is), but her own habits prove difficult to break. On some rare occasions, I can’t find my own keys or phone, and that’s because one of the kids moved them, because I only ever put them in that one place. So as long as I use the far corner of the table where the kids can’t reach, I never lose those things.

    We’ve tried to get the kids to adopt this habit as well: coats go on the hooks near the door, shoes go in a specific shoe-basket, etc. But the kids are still quite young (the oldest isn’t quite four), so it’s still a work in progress. But when we’re late for preschool, it’s usually because we can’t find shoes or a jacket or some other thing that should have been replaced in its designated spot, but somehow migrated under a bed instead.

  32. My father recorded an audio tape with a verbal checklist of morning tasks. Since it was hilarious (“Look down. How many toes do you see? If there are ten toes, you need to put on socks”), my sister and I listened to it enough that we could remember the items.

    Works great if one of you is funny!

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