The “Executive Function” Trick That Finally Got My Kids to Not Just Sorta But *Actually* Clean Their Room

published Jun 8, 2023
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My kids are big helpers — they clean their rooms, help with laundry and dishes, and generally try to be involved in the family’s team vibe around the house. At 8, 7, 5, and even 2 years old, they are more involved than I ever was. But often, I’ll ask them to clean something up, and their version of “done” is far different from what I pictured. So, when I heard about a brilliant strategy that an executive function coach came up with, I jumped on it.

Sara Ward, a speech/language pathologist and co-director of Cognitive Connections, LLP, and a professor at Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions, works with schools and families to help adults understand what kids are thinking, how their minds work, and what motivates them, including when it comes to cleaning and organizing. She speaks often about a specific cleaning trick that I couldn’t wait to try with my own family.

The Clean Room Zones

To help kids visualize what a clean space looks like, Ward prints out an image of a clean room with squares for each “zone” mapped out on the image.

For example, the space around the bed might be the sleeping zone, and only objects related to sleeping go in that zone. Or, a child might have a dressing zone, where their clothes should be off the ground, drawers should be shut, and dirty clothes should be in a laundry basket.

Instead of getting overwhelmed by the idea of cleaning a whole room, they focus on these zones and use the picture to understand what “finished” means. 

Why It Works

This is why Ward’s trick works at getting kids to achieve your version of clean vs. their own.

1. It eliminates miscommunication. 

“If you say to your teenager, ‘Before you come upstairs, manage the living room. Don’t leave it a mess,’ your teenager’s version of cleaning the living room might not be the same as yours,” Ward says. “Now, I know exactly what that means [with a visual]. It means the toys go on the shelves, the game controllers go away, the blankets are folded, and there’s no trash on the table.”

For parents, this means a whole lot less reminding (or “nagging,” as your preteen might put it). “Parents are constantly having to cue and prompt, ‘do this and this,’ [but] kids aren’t really getting it independently, and they struggle with initiation,” she says. “Kids aren’t really running that mental movie through their head of what they need to do [next]. Executive function begins with mental imagination — the ability to visualize what something will look like so that even if you get distracted and you are drawn off base, you can come back to what you need to do.”

2. It gets a distracted child back on track.

For my child, I’d find him playing with a Pokemon card he found under his bed just minutes after he started cleaning, derailing his whole process.

Posting a picture of his room with zones helped with that almost immediately. What became too overwhelming to do by himself was instantly smaller and easier to handle in chunks. Even if he got tired or distracted, I’d see him completing at least one zone, such as making sure his sleeping space only had bedding and a book. There were no more miscommunications about what “straighten up” meant — he’d return to the image when he forgot what to do next. Ward explains that this is because people, and especially kids, can only remember so many things on your cleaning to-do list at once, without a tool.

“We know that working memory is seven, plus or minus two items, and for kids, it’s a little less — probably more like four to five for younger kids,” she says. Her method is meant to prevent kids from “zigzagging” around their space and instead move from one zone intentionally to the next.

She also taught me how to try categorizing with my kids. I realized I had never intentionally shown my kids how to pick up one type of item at a time. So, we found all the T-shirts in the dressing zone that were scattered and moved them to the T-shirt drawer. Next, we did all the toys. Ward says sometimes parents miss intentionally teaching this skill, which matters.

Other Must-Try Organizing Tips for Kids

Although her photo trick worked pretty quickly with my kids, she has additional tips if your kid is still struggling with organizing or cleaning almost anything, from a room to a backpack.

  • Get small colored rugs to signify the zones. For example, maybe their dressing rug is the orange rug, which corresponds to the orange rug in the picture. They get dressed there and that shows them the zone when it’s time to clean up.
  • Make a portable picture of what a prepared and organized backpack includes, and put the small picture on a lanyard in their bag. This way, when you tell them to go pack their backpack, they have a visual of what should be in it — no more forgetting that library book or water bottle.
  • Move necessary items where they make sense, not where they look the best. For example, would the laundry hamper make sense in the middle of the room, where kids drop their clothes, instead of a corner or closet?
  • For more tips on helping kids get organized, Ward recommends the book “Organizing from the Inside Out for Teens.”

This post was originally published on Apartment Therapy. Read it there: How This Expert Gets Her Family to Clean Without Saying a Single Word