Cleaning Up, and Other Challenges

askateacherHow do you encourage certain behaviors? When should you expect certain behaviors? For example, we’ve been trying to encourage the boy to put away his blocks when he’s done with them so that we don’t step on them. I’ve asked directly and he doesn’t respond. I try to make it a prerequisite for something he wants—”Let’s put the blocks away so we have space for the trains”—and get mildly positive to wildly negative reactions. I’ve tried to make it a game and he gets a little wild. I am I asking too much of a two year old? —Jeff

Great question! The issue of “how do we get children to behave the way we want them to” is, really, the most important and most complicated issue in child development and education. There are a lot of techniques that different people recommend for different issues, and as you’ve noted, they don’t always work. There is no such thing as a solution that always works—different things will work for different children and different families. And the same thing won’t necessarily work as a child gets older, or in different environments. At preschool I’ve had any number of parents say, “He never [puts toys away/eats his vegetables/shares/etc.] at home!” That’s partly because preschool teachers have a particular expertise, but more because preschool is a very different environment from home, with different rules and expectations and routines and culture. That said, I can tell you how I personally approach clean-up time at preschool, and hope that it’s a useful perspective.

Right off the bat I will say that developmentally speaking it’s not unreasonable to expect a two-year-old to participate in clean-up (of toys, or of meals, or of spills and accidents). In my years of teaching two’s, I’ve always put a lot of emphasis on social routines, and things like cleaning up and table manners and taking care of injured children are a big part of my curriculum. Two’s can do those things—but they can’t do them on their own, and they can’t do them consistently, and they can’t do them without supervision, and they probably can’t do them especially quickly or efficiently. To me, an appropriate goal for two-year-olds for clean-up would be, “Usually actively participates.” Anything more than that is asking for a tougher learning curve than any of us wants to deal with.

My second thought is to think of it as a learning curve, or a teaching task. It’s something kids aren’t born knowing how to do, and it’s something most of them don’t want to learn to do. (I didn’t, you probably didn’t either.) But cleaning up a skill and a habit, and skills and habits need to be taught. So think of the individual lessons involved in participating in clean up, and ask if your child knows them. Does he know where things go? Does he know why clean up is important, to you and to his own needs? Does he know how to carry big toys? Does he know how to put little ones in containers? Does he know how to properly sort toys? Each of those is a lesson I’ve actively taught in preschool classrooms—with circle-time discussions, or puppet shows, or reading relevant picture books, or one-on-one conversations.

If you’re pretty sure your child knows how to clean up and just doesn’t usually want to, you’re into a problem of transitions. Transitions are always the hardest part of the day for any child and any caregiver. Whether it’s cleaning up, or washing hands for dinner, or getting out the door in the morning, or getting ready for bed—those are the times when everyone’s motives crash into everyone else’s, and there are higher stakes than usual for getting things done, and the caregivers have less flexibility because things just have to happen. Transitions are easiest when there’s clarity, consistency, and routines.

Clarity: Do the children know when clean-up time is starting? I’ve seen teachers quietly mention clean-up time to a few kids, and then get angry when the whole class doesn’t notice. Do the children know clean-up time is coming soon? When children are taken off guard by the end of play time, you’re asking for trouble. Do they know what their job is at clean-up time? I’ve seen kids try to help, but literally not know what to do. So some things you can do: Give a five minute warning before clean up starts. And maybe a one minute warning too. Announce clean up time loudly and clearly when it starts—ideally with a song or a bell or something distinctive. And give children clear jobs or choices. “Zach, put the trucks you were playing with on the shelf. Amelia, would you like to clean up the books or the stuffed animals?”

Consistency: When you say it’s clean-up time, do you really mean it? I’ve seen teachers announce clean-up time, then walk away to do another task for five minutes. When you say it’s clean-up time, you have to mean it! If the children learn that sometimes they don’t really have to, or that sometimes if they whine you’ll change your mind, you’re sunk. Don’t call clean-up time unless you’re prepared to follow through.

Routines: Routines are the secret weapon of the preschool teacher. Ever notice how we have a song for every damn thing? It’s because singing the same song every time you clean up helps the kids clean up every time. Do it the same way every day, with the same thing before and the same thing after. You may get sick of things being the same every day, but children thrive in familiar routines—they are comforted and confident in the face of fulfilled expectations.

My favorite tool for all of this—which am I in no way compensated for endorsing—is the Time Timer. It’s like a miracle machine for transitions. It counts down time in a visual way, so that children can better understand it. Time is so abstract for children—but when you set five minutes on this baby (the 8″ model is the best), they can see what five minutes looks like and watch as it reduces to zero. It’s the best $25 I ever spent for my classroom. I announce five minutes til clean up and set the Time Timer, and the kids come to tell me when it’s clean up time. It’s clear, it’s consistent, and it becomes part of the routine. Any time you want kids to know how much time is left, it’s fantastic.

Some other thoughts: make sure you’re giving ample time for play. Play has a natural rhythm and flow, and asking children to clean up when they’re in the middle of something is a recipe for disaster. If your child’s projects are going longer, try to schedule more time for play. At preschool we frequently reorganize our schedule to accommodate the children’s agenda: pushing snack ten minutes later here, going outside fifteen minutes earlier there. Ideally, clean up time happens when kids are naturally finishing up a part of their play and are getting ready to move on to something else anyway.

It helps to get a group vibe going on. In some ways it’s easier to get ten kids to clean up than just one. That probably doesn’t help much at home, but it’s great at school. Peer pressure is a powerful force for good!

With younger children—say, 20–28 months—I’ll sometimes do hand-over-hand clean-up if they’re refusing. Some children think that if they simply stop, there’s nothing you can do. In that case, sometimes I’ll take a child’s hand and wrap it around a toy and have their hand put the toy on the shelf. After two times of that, often if I just move their hand to the toy they pick it up, and then I move their hand to the shelf and they put it on the shelf. And then I just point to the next toy and they pick it up. And then they’re cleaning up. It doesn’t work on all kids, and on some kids it backfires (especially children three and up), and it feels weird to some adults. But I find sometimes it gets a child over the “passive resistance” hump.

At the other end of the spectrum, with older kids—say, 3½ years and up—you can have a real conversation about why clean up is important, and have them decide how to solve the problem. Give them the option of not cleaning up at all for awhile, and see if they find the consequences acceptable. It’s a bit of a nuclear option, and you’ve got to be prepared to ride it out for a little while. But generally (I’m told by teachers who’ve done it) after a week or so kids will say, of their own accord, “We don’t like this! There’s no space, and we can find the toys we want!” But it takes some real guts to go through with this one.

Overall, it’s a tricky one, and there’s no obvious right answer. But some of these strategies should help.

* * *

For more on clean-up time at preschool, read this piece by Teacher Tom.

For my related thoughts on discipline and reinforcement and such, look here and here and here.

If you’re having trouble with clean up and other challenging transitions at home, I can help!

And please submit a question for the “Ask a Preschool Teacher” column!

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