Household Organization & Your Child’s Behavior
Lisa walks through her house, devastated by the mess. Jimmy is playing video games, with action figures, trains, and building blocks scattered around him. His habit of dumping all his toys to find one item results in piles of toys in various locations. Jimmy’s older sister, Annie, has left books, papers, and shoes in a trail from the front door and is now surfing the internet in her room. Navigating the house can be downright dangerous because of items left on the floor. Lisa knows she should tell Jimmy and Annie to pick up their belongings and start their homework, but anticipates a battle. Jimmy will have a meltdown because picking up so many items is such a daunting task. Annie will continue playing on her phone, resulting in yet another hassle between them. Lisa decides that it is just easier to pick up the house when the children go to bed – worried that the same cycle will occur again the next day.
This example illustrates the importance of organization in supporting our children’s behavior, something we tend to underestimate. By attending to our surroundings, we can minimize problems and create more positive, productive behavior. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to organize a household; what is important is making it work for the family.
Arranging Our Homes
Homes can be organized to support appropriate behavior and minimize problems. A good starting point is to consider the organization as a whole – in what areas do things tend to go smoothly and where do conflicts or disruptions arise. The successful areas are probably structured in a way that works; those where problems occur need our attention. For example, we might find that our children tend play nicely in the family room, but have hassles in the doorway and bedrooms, leading us to problem-solve regarding those areas.
Safety and Supervision
A priority for all parents is the health and well-being of our children. Depending on our children’s ages and needs, we may need to provide different levels of supervision and child-proofing. Supervision, for example, maybe improved by establishing play areas that are in sight or requiring that doors remain open. We may need to remove potentially dangerous items (e.g., medications, sharp objects, car keys) or age-inappropriate material (e.g., sexually-explicit media, car keys) to locked or inaccessible areas.
Children (and parents) have different levels of tolerance for cluttered surroundings – some of us perform well, while others are distracted and irritated when things are in disarray. If clutter is interfering with family functioning, we need to develop ways to contain or eliminate it. This can be done by creating decision rules and timelines for sorting and clearing duplicate or unused items and to limit purchasing of new things. Creating lists of things to do and places to file or store items not currently in use can be helpful as well.
Developing systems for organizing belongings to create functional space and make needed items more accessible may also be helpful. Functional space means organizing materials based on where they are needed. Then we consider how to keep them where they belong. Receptacles can be very helpful: bins for toys, drawers for clothing or supplies, dividers to separate craft items, crates near the door for shoes, or hooks for backpacks and coats. These may be labeled with words or pictures as necessary to define what goes where.
Cues for Independence
We can also organize our homes to provide reminders of expectations, improving children’s independence. This might mean lining up the items a child needs to complete a hygiene routine, creating a picture schedule of chores required, storing plastic dishes for snacks in a low-lying cabinet, or using placemats with outlines of each part of the place setting. Another example is posting a picture of the final product of a task (e.g., showing what the room looks like when it is completely cleaned up). Setting up the environment can help children be more independent cleaning up, as well as completing other daily tasks.
Providing Personal Space
Although certain supplies and toys need to be shared, everyone needs space and places to store their belongings. If children have their own rooms, it is typically clear that it is their own domain. If space is more limited, personal areas can be defined by rugs. Some children like to have a “treasure box” for their special toys and other items they would prefer not to share (e.g., a flat bin they can tuck under their bed).
Access to Rewarding Items
A final consideration in organizing our household is to determine how to manage children’s access to highly preferred items or activities such as television, video games, and other electronics, as well as special snacks and toys. If these are available all or most of the time, children tend to be less cooperative with tasks. Managing access may mean placing items on high shelves or using parental controls. If their availability is within our control (instead of our children’s), we can ask that certain activities be accomplished first.
Now back to Lisa, Jimmy, and Annie.
Lisa did pick up the house, but made the following changes:
- Purchased a toy chest for Jimmy’s bedroom and a hassock to store toys in the family room
- Arranged hooks for backpacks and jackets and a basket for shoes next to the front door
- Established a written daily schedule – snack…then homework…then electronics
- Set up a homework area with all the needed supplies and trays for the children’s assignments
- Password protected the computer, set limits on video games, and withheld remote controls
When the children returned from school, Lisa explained the new routines and rules, including that phones would no longer be allowed in bedrooms. She asked Jimmy and Lisa to help create a list of items and activities they would want as rewards each evening for keeping the house in order. Finally, she talked with them about establishing a “Make Room for New Stuff” tradition to occur right before gift-giving holidays. During this time, they would all sort their belongings into boxes labeled “keep”, “discard”, and “sell/donate”, with the children getting the money for sold items and participating in contributing items to charity.
Simply organizing our home environments is not sufficient. We need to establish clear expectations and teach our children how to use the organizational system (e.g., put toys away when finished and before beginning a new activity). We also need to provide praise and encouragement, remaining vigilant over time.
Meme Hieneman, has a Ph.D. in Special Education and is nationally certified as a behavior analyst. She has published a variety of articles, chapters, and books including “Parenting with Positive Behavior Support: A Practical Guide to Resolving Your Child’s Difficult Behavior.” In her professional career, Meme has worked with children with severe behavior problems for more than 20 years.
image courtesy www.emilyaclark.com
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This post originally appeared on our January/February 2015 Magazine