How Can I Get My Child to Clean Up After Themselves?

Sometimes it might feel like your child is a little tornado blowing through your home; uprooting organization systems and leaving crumbs in its path. Whether you have a typically-developing child or not, all children need a little guidance in tidying up. When the clean up song doesn’t work, here are some tools you can use to encourage cleaning up.

Specific Verbal Praise

Whether you encourage the cleaning up with the clean up song or another tool below, or your child initiates it on their own, an important tactic to employ is specific verbal praise. Instead of just saying “good job,” praise the specific action they’re doing that you like.

For example, you might say, “I love when you put all your bears back in the basket.” Then, your child knows exactly what is expected when you say “time to clean up”. They may even remember that praise and do that action in the future.

First, Then

“First we clean up, then ______.” Children thrive on structure and predictability. When your child is having trouble picking up after themselves, you can remind them of their upcoming schedule. This does not always have to be a written out schedule with added pictures. Sometimes, a short “first, then” verbal reminder is enough. If your child is more visually-oriented, you can write it in this format on a mini-white board. You could also draw symbols instead of writing words.

Ideally, you’ll help the child clean up the space and use some of that specific verbal praise from above. You can remind them they are almost done and what will happen when they finish. The “then” might include a physical, tangible reward or a desired activity. Try to make the reward exciting based on their specific interests and daily routine.

Examples include:

  • First we clean up, then we get to watch tv.
  • First we clean up your room together, then I’ll give you a piece of gum.
Timer Count-Down

Remember the old days of, “I’m going to count down from 10 and that room better be clean by the time I get to 0”? This count-down is definitely less threatening. This timer count-down strategy is for children who can only sustain cleaning for a short period of time, or need some kind of indicator of the activity being done beyond a caregiver’s verbal indicator of “okay- all clean”. Clean can be subjective and cleaning can feel endless, so this strategy provides a concrete end to this activity.

The Timer-Count Down pairs well with the First, Then strategy and works well for children with autism. If a digital timer and the concept of time is too abstract, you can get a visual timer to represent time remaining.

An example might look like this:

  • Parent: “Okay Sandy, we’re going to clean for 5 minutes and then we’re going to have iPad time. Will you help me set the timer?”
  • Timer is going, parent is guiding the child to clean up by modeling and pointing. They provide brief, specific praise for specific cleaning activities.
  • Timer rings
  • Parent: “You put away so many toys, great job! Now you can go on your iPad. First you can have the iPad for 10 minutes and then we will clean again. Let’s set your iPad timer.”
  • The routine repeats until everything is cleaned up
Completion Visual (Token Board)

For children who can’t conceptualize a digital or visual timer and need concrete reinforcement beyond verbal praise to be successful, they might benefit from a token board. Please read more about a token board by searching our articles page. Token boards are frequently used with children with autism, intellectual disabilities, and behavior disorders.

In a cleaning up situation, a child may be given a token every time they pick up a toy or about every 10 seconds they’re engaged in cleaning, depending on their specific needs. They may be able to only sustain picking up 5 toys at a time until they need a break. Over time with a consistent cleaning routine, you can scale back the reinforcement and try for a break every 10 toys, with token reminders each time they pick up 2.

An example routine might look like this:

  • Visual is presented, tokens are on velcro strip on the “to do” spot while prompting with simple language
  • Caregiver: “First, put away 5 toys, then Youtube Arthur”
  • Child puts away first toy
  • Caregiver: moves velcro from top to bottom so the child can see and says, “Nice work putting away your toy.”
  • Child puts away the last toy. Last checkmark is moved to the bottom and the caregiver draws the child’s attention to 5 checkmarks = reward by pointing. Then, “Youtube Arthur” is presented immediately.

If your child requires this level of support in cleaning up, you may want to consult with a pediatric psychologist or ABA therapist to make sure your token board system is appropriate for your child’s needs. If you are looking for services in the Chicagoland area, please contact The Goldman Center for psychological services and Chicago ABA Therapy for applied behavior analysis support.