Getting Toddlers and Young Kids to School on Time

Updated on December 14, 2010
L.E. asks from Buena Park, CA
13 answers

Hi All,

I am having a lot of trouble getting my two young children (ages 4 and 3) to school on time, especially when my husband is out of town (approximately 50% of the time). Before I had kids I was very organized. Now life feels chaotic. I don't mind getting up at virtually any time--I usually get up by 5:30 a.m. I prepare the things the kids need for school (clothes, lunch, etc.) the night before. I would like the kids to go to bed by 8:00 p.m. My kids would rather stay up until midnight. I usually turn off the lights around 9:00 p.m., but the kids still get out of bed to get water, play, etc., and my younger child often demands milk at night. In the morning, my kids throw tantrums and instead refuse to get dressed (with or without help), brush their teeth, and go to our car. This week, a week when I did not have classes/meetings/etc., my kids and I have not arrived at nursery school until 10:00 a.m. I have to get to my lab or classroom (I work at university) by 8:00 a.m. most days, so this delay is going to cause serious problems once university classes resume. I foresee even bigger problems next year when my elder child has to get to the bus stop by 7:25 a.m. to get to his (future) elementary school. As a result of losing work time in the morning, I am falling behind in my research and home management (paperwork/housework). The resulting inefficiency and lack of control are leading to me feeling depressed.

Ironically, although I am working on a PhD in psychology, read broadly on child development, consulted with a couple of child development experts last summer, and led discussions on infant development this fall, I have no idea of how to get control of this situation. I tried offering little bags of M&Ms to my kids in exchange for going to the car to go to school for a little while this fall, I don't want to continue using candy as an incentive as I think that daily candy consumption is an unhealthy habit.


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answers from Minneapolis on

Yep, I've had this problem. I'm finishing a PhD in Psychology also! When it was time to chose a school, I immediately eliminated all schools that started at 7:25. My daughter's elementary school starts at 9:25 and it works pretty well for us.

Here are my (I'm never gonna win Mom of the Year) ideas: You could put them to bed in their clothes (my daughter will only wear stretchy comfy cotton clothes anyway, much like pjs) and forget brushing their teeth in the morning, do it extra at night (did this until daughter was 7 and she has perfect teeth). Have breakfast in the car (get car professionally cleaned when it gets out of hand). Let go of control and any semblance of perfection and regain a bit of sanity ;-)

2 moms found this helpful

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answers from Chicago on

I think the ownis here needs to fall on you - afterall you're the grown-up.

1. Work on establishing a bedtime routine. Kids that age should go to bed no later than 8pm, pref. 7:30pm. On the weekend, see if you can have them go without naps, run them ragged (to get them good and tired) and then stick with a bedtime routine. After dinner lights should be low, TV and everything should be off, kids should get a bath, snack, brush teeth & potty, read 2 books and that's IT. No more not talk to them. Walk them back into their rooms and put them in bed without any discussion or engagement. Do it over and over and over again, don't break. Eventually they will give up, knowing that you're not going to talk to them or give them a drink, etc. It really does work, just be tougher than them.

2. You're up plenty early and already doing everything right by having their things laid out the night before - good job!

3. In the morning, put breakfast on the table and let them eat for 20 minutes. Whatever they eat, they do, and then they are done. If they finish "in time" give them a sticker. Keep it SIMPLE. Oatmeal, cereal and bananas, etc. It is not their decision, it's yours. Pick something and they both get the same thing.

4. Help them get dressed, brushed, etc. If they do a good job, sticker, if not, get them "done".

5. Get their shoes, jacket, etc. and get them in the car.

Then have some incentives in place they can earn when they have enough stickers. Maybe 10 stickers = an extra story for that child. Then next 10 = you pick the dinner the next night. The next 10 = a new book or "special" alone time with mom or dad (running errands and maybe a sucker).

Make the "incentives" good things - not candy. Your young children are going to associate sweets with feeling good instead of being good to just make you happy and get your TIME.

If you need to, set time limits for yourself to get out of the house on time. I have a digital watch. I set it for 5 minutes BEFORE we need to be out the door for the school bus. That means, the kids need to be getting dressed when it goes off, not brushing teeth, not playing, etc.

Finally, get Daddy involved. Have him say things like, "I expect you to be good and listen to your mother while I'm gone." When he calls at night, he should ask them how they are behaving, getting done in the morning, getting out the door, listening to mom, etc. Then when Dad comes home from his trip, the best helper should earn some Daddy Alone Time. This is in addition to the stickers. Stickers are for them. Daddy is rewarding the best helper for helping Mommy while he's gone. My husband always makes sure the kids know that they are expected to pitch in whenever he's gone.

Don't make "staying up late" a reward. That only teaches them that going to bed on time is a punishment of sorts. If you have a late night due to the holidays or a special occasion make sure your kids know it's an exception and that they may need to nap or rest-time (like reading or playing quietly in their rooms) the next day.

We've told our kids they only grow when they sleep. That your body is so busy all day playing and learning that it CAN'T grow. So good sleepers grow at nighttime because their bodies are getting the much needed rest they need. Our kids will actually wake up some mornings saying, "Mom, my pajamas are too small! I must've grown last night since I slept so good."

Best wishes Mama. I'll look forward to your update.

7 moms found this helpful


answers from Portland on

Hi Lynne,

I will give you some of the advice I give to my preschool families:

First, bedtime needs to be earlier. There's a wonderful book called "The Seven O'Clock Bedtime". Kids need between 10-12 hours of sleep at your childrens ages. Parents often have reasons for keeping the kids up that feel important, but the morning afterward is a disservice to everyone. A neighbor of mine keeps her little ones up to see their dad at the end of the day. Each school morning, as she's getting the kids out the door, I just want to put earplugs in. In short: good intention in theory, but terrible in practice. It sounds to me like your kids are overtired, which will manifest in the "running-around, can't get settled" antics, so earlier bed is better.

My 3.5 year old son is in bed at seven. What we do: at 6:20pm, we are putting toys away. At 6:30 we begin the bedtime routine (changing into pajamas, go potty, brush teeth). Lately, Kiddo has been stalling, not getting his pjs on. Now, we use a timer: he has 5 minutes to dress. If it's not done, he 'loses' a story (we do three each night). If I have to help him (because he's feeling goofy and incapable), he is 'trading' me a story for the job of doing pjs. Likewise with brushing teeth. Uncooperative? Lose a story. And then, in bed reading stories: burrowing under the bedcovers to the foot of the bed, climbing on us, drooling, licking his hands (grosss.) *anything other than listening in a way appropriate for a 3.5 year old* means "Lights out, now." We offer a cup of water (you can offer a water bottle), and one snuggly toy, but no other toys or books. Bedtime is bedtime, period.

And then, as Mom on the GO suggested, a firm hand is necessary. Me personally, I don't reward good/right behavior. It is expected. What I will do however, is just start the clock earlier. Taking forever to get ready for school? Well, we have to start getting ready earlier then! I don't do sticker charts, either. I just try to adjust the routine. The other thing I will do with uncooperative children is to give them a chair to sit on until they are ready to do what's asked of them, and then "Do not get off that chair until you are ready to..." . And absolutely NO TV until things are right as rain. Not in the evenings, because tv can overstimulate the brain, causing both children and adults to have a harder time winding down, and not in the morning, because it's too distracting. Not at breakfast. Maybe just on weekends. Taking a break on tv can help. (As a nanny, I found that tv confounded a lot of these transition times, so if your really do need to use the TV babysitter, before 5 pm is best.)

Lastly, and this might sound radical, but YOU *do* have serious morning commitments-- if you've made other adjustments and they are still not ready on time, just take them to school in their pjs with cold toast and milk. Bring their clothes for the day, and their breakfasts, and if they choose not to brush their teeth, then no sweets for that day,outside of what is served at school. (Yes, I'm tough, but I nannied too long to put up with a bunch of nonsense.) This may sound harsh, but when you have no cooperation, just carry them out to the car in their jammies and go. They will have to do all those tasks before going to play at school, and they will know that mama means business. You have to take back your authority as a parent.

One last suggestion: the book "Taking Charge" by Joanne Nordling. I think it would help a lot in this situation, and will appeal to your academic interest. (Much of it is grounded in observation.) This was the book that liberated the "late to school" parents who dropped their kids off in their jammies. I highly recommend it. Empathy+clear guidelines+ no excuses= happier kids and parents.

6 moms found this helpful


answers from Dallas on

your problem is that you are allowing the kids to be in charge... take charge, be firm and consistant, barring mental health or medical issues, they WILL snap into shape. but it sounds like they just kinda get to do as they please, so they're going to continue to do that....

bedtime is when YOU say it is. put them in their beds, tell them they are NOT to get out of bed, and i'd have a field day with a 3yo that "demanded" a glass of milk late at night! yep, it's gonna be unpleasant, and there's gonna be tears - but better now than in a year or two or three.

as with hazel, i do not reward expected behavior. i expect my children to do what they are told to do. i will often praise them for doing as they are told, but i certainly don't give candy/toys for brushing their teeth or getting dressed. i've truly never been in the situation of running late for school(and i have three small children), but i'd absolutely drag them out with hair umkempt and in their pjs if it meant i was gonna be late to a committment i had.

this is all up to you - put them in their place and teach them that it's important to be places ON TIME, if not early.

5 moms found this helpful


answers from Chicago on

Who's in charge here? When the kids get out of bed, walk them back. If they play, put them back in bed and say, "No play, time for bed." Establish a bedtime routine and stick with it. Start by limiting activity one hour before bed time - so start baths at 7pm. Last snack at 7:30pm and then a book and song at 8pm.

If they fight you on the clothes in the morning, send them to school in their pjs. Put their regular clothes in their backpacks and tell them they can change at school. If they fight you some more, tell them that they'll go to bed 15 minutes early - and stick to it! Start the bedtime routine at 6:45pm and have them in bed by 7:45pm.

Be consistent and be firm. Good luck.

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Honolulu on

You GOTTA get them to bed much earlier.
In the morning, they are still tired, didn't get enough sleep... and this creates FUSSY tantrum and uncooperative kids in the next morning.

It is YOU, that has to create a bedtime TIME... and make it earlier. Kids also need time to wind-down first, give them verbal cuing, "In 15 minutes get ready for bed..." the COAX them. Get stern. Make EVERYTHING dark, not AT bedtime, but PRIOR to bedtime. Otherwise, you loose time and everything gets later and later. Turn off everything, put away, brush teeth, change into jammies, then do QUIET getting ready... and make it boring. Don't let them decide what time to go to bed. You decide.

Also emphasize, "TEAMWORK".... among them all. You sit them down, explain the routines, and what will happen the next morning.... and then prep everything the night before. Also have back up clothes/shoes/jackets in the car too.
Or you kids leave with whatever they are wearing.

Do NOT do 'treats'.... or they will want that, and STILL not cooperate.
You have to be the Alpha-Adult. The LEADER in all of this.
They are too young, to be asking them to manage themselves. YOU have to manage them.

all the best,

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Phoenix on

Ditto Mom on the Go...way to write a great response....

My biggest tip for getting every one out of the house on time, as I used to work, not anymore, and I wonder how I did it....but I used:


If Pre School starts at 9:00am, you need to be in the parking lot at 8:50-55?
Leave the driveway at 8:?? how far away are you?
Leave the house 5-10 minutes before, b/c there are always last minute items forgotten, spills to wipe, bathroom necessities, can't find a shoe, bra strap breaks, etc.

My new mindset, b/c I grew up with a big family that was late to everything and I hated it, is that early is the 'new' on time for me.

I backwards plan for everything.

Bedtime has got be strictly adhered to. There is no more getting up and playing and asking for milk. Nothing. No requests will be filled after lights out. They can go quietly to the bathroom alone only. Or come get you if they are very sick.

Plan or think out your breakfasts also the night before. Leave a good 20 minutes for eating. When time is up, plates/utensils go to the sink.

So backwards plan, leaving an hour to get up, get ready and eat....probably means having your kiddos up by 7:30-7:45 am to be out the door by 8:45.

I recommend working WITH them the first few weeks is critical to helping them become successful at being independent with the morning routine. So I would recommend you have yourself ready to go out the door before waking them up, or it will be a constant circle of who needs what...

And congrats on your Phd in Psychology...what specific area are you focusing on?

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Detroit on

Okay take a deep breath and then take back control. I know it seems like it is the kids causing it but really you decide how much you tolerate. so if it bugs you enough then only you can change it. do you want bedtime to be 8 or 9, pick one and stick to it. After bedtime no getting out of bed. justgive them milk,water before the planned bedtime and then thats it.. they are both old enough to understand that, no negotiation. It is not being mean, its being a loving and caring parent. If they get out a bed, either take away something, stuffed animal or turn off all nightlights whatever.

Have you looked into the love and logic books. In the morning, I think it may be expecting to much if you expect them to get ready on their own. If you try to help them and they "refuse" then sit them in a time out, if you don't like that option set a timer for them, give them 10 minutes to get their clothes on. if they don't get dressed, scoop up their clothes, and when it times to go just go out the door with clothes in tow. they will catch on to get dressed at home. Same with eating, set a timer when timer goes off breakfast is over. bring food to the nursery if need be.

Really it sounds like you haven't decided that it is a priority to get to school early. sounds like you are getting their 2 hours late, which means things are really going very slow in the morning.

I really think the love and logic book would help, maybe you can check it out at the library. Hope you figure out something that works for your family.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Salt Lake City on

To be honest here is what i see wrong with this statement in general,
Your youngest "demands milk".. say NO
They refuse to get ready.. are they actually given an option?

Here is how it works in my house- Bedtime is 9pm for younger 10 for older any request made after this time is strictly refused.
They are informed at bed time that I will be waking them up so wake up time is 6:45 for the older 7:45 for the younger you have one hour to get ready for school we dont discuss it I make your breakfast you come dowstairs and eat or go without, your ride leaves in a hour if you are not ready you walk.
There really arent any options, fits, request,"demands" are not discussed.
be the parent

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answers from Dayton on

I would say the biggest thing you can do is put them to bed earlier. I have kids in that age range and for them to wake up at 6:30ish I have to have them asleep before 7. That means we're doing bedtime stuff at 6:15, but they wake up well rested and cooperative in the morning. Other than that, you need to set firm guidelines and expectations - and stick to them. Like the other posters have said, take charge and mean it.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Memphis on

I don't have a great solution but wanted to say that I completely understand. I have a 4 y.o. and an 18 month old and we are always late in the mornings. The only idea I have is maybe instead of candy use a sticker chart or something that builds up to a bigger reward. Good luck!

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answers from Dallas on

I have an 8 year old and a 20 month old. I am up between 5:30-6am every day and out of the house by no later than 7:15am. My 8 year old has to leave for the bus stop at 6:45am. Although I am married, I pretty much do the morning routine myself. Your children are too young for them to be deciding and/or negotiating their bedtimes. YOU are the parent. My 8 year old would love to stay up until midnight too, but his bedtime is 8:30-8:45 EVERY night and my 20 month old is in bed by 7:30pm. We only make exceptions on some weekends. Children, especially that young NEED structure and ROUTINE. Make sure you establish a good bedtime routine with them...bath/brush teeth, read book, etc by a certain time. With them going to bed past 9 or 10 pm, it sounds like they could be overtired. Kids 3-4 yrs old need 10-12 hours of sleep per night, and if they aren't getting close to that then that could be part of the problem in the mornings. Yes both my boys can wake up grumpy some mornings but are still compliant. You as the parent just need to be firm about their bedtime and morning routines. They should not have the option to say are the parent and what you say goes!

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answers from Sacramento on

Thanks for posting this question. I don't have nighttime problems, but boy do we have trouble getting out the door with my kinder and 1st grader. Dilly dallying and playing, distracted with every little thing... drives me crazy. It's gotten bad recently and I think the kids are ready for holiday break.

Just wanted to let you know you are not alone!! Hang in there!!

1 mom found this helpful
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