How to Get Kids to Clean Up the Right Way Every Time

This post contains affiliate links. If you click & make a purchase, I receive a commission at no additional cost to you! Thanks! As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Read my full disclosure here.

One of the most difficult things a parent faces is knowing how to get kids to clean up. It seems like there is always a fight starting as soon as you utter the words “Ok! Time to clean up!” As classroom teachers, this situation is amplified because now instead of dealing with one, two, or three children, you are trying to get 20 or more kids to tidy up.

Trust me, it’s not for the faint of heart.

But, you already know all of that and that is exactly why you are here! So, I’m sharing 7 tips to help you encourage kids to clean up at home and in the classroom.

How to Get Kids to Clean Up the Right Way

1. Everything Must Have a Specific Place

This is going to be the number one thing that will guarantee success for your kids as they are learning about tidying up. Every single item needs to have a specific “home” location when not in use.  Then after being used, the item simply goes back to its home.

Truthfully, this is one of the biggest mistakes most of us make. We end up undermining our efforts because we don’t have a designated spot for things. The stuff just gets stuck somewhere out of the way and can’t be found when it’s needed next.

We wonder how to get kids to clean up all of the messiness when in fact, we don’t actually have a place to put anything. So, the first step is deciding where everything will go.

2. Locations Need to be Labeled

Have you ever walked into a friend’s classroom or home office with the intention of getting something and walked out having no idea where that something was? Well, if your friend had been there, she could have pointed you in the right direction because she knows where things are in her space.

Now consider that example for a minute. When your students walk into your classroom or even your homeschool room, do you assume they know where things go? It’s obvious to you because you were the one who put everything in its place. 

But, for everyone else, it might not be so obvious. And let’s be honest, most kids need MULTIPLE reminders when it comes to putting things back.

So, how do you solve this dilemma?

Simply label where everything goes. You can use handwritten labels, printed labels, or any type of label you want. JUST LABEL.

Label where every toy, crayon, and book goes. Then when it’s time to clean up after a project, indoor recess, or play time, the kids have the label as a visual cue to remind them where each item goes.  

Helpful tip: 

For younger kids, include a picture and a word on the label to help them become familiar with the “home” of each item. When it is clean up time, they simply take the item back to its respective home. 

The picture will be a visual cue they will recognize immediately, and the repeated exposure to the written word will increase their vocabulary and language skills.

For older kids, simply create a nicely written label. This will give them the necessary cue and help them find the home location of each thing they are cleaning up. Remember, assuming that older kids automatically know where things go when cleaned up will create nothing but frustration for you and your kids.

3. Give Specific Instructions

Consider this scenario, you go to a mall and ask the attendant at the information desk where the nearest restroom is located.  She says, “up the stairs” and goes back to her task.  

You look up and realize there are 5 levels in the mall, but you have no clue where to go.  The attendant looks busy with her task (an frustrated with you for asking), so you certainly don’t want to ask for clarification.  Instead, you wander aimlessly trying to find your own way. 

The same thing happens to our kiddos when we give them vague instructions.  

Many times, they aren’t being rebellious. They just genuinely don’t know what to do. You cannot tell a four year old to “clean their room” because they don’t understand what that means.  That’s why they disappear into their room until you walk by to discover a bigger mess than before. 

If you want your child to put her shoes in her closet, don’t say, “Put your shoes up.”  That’s too vague.  Say, “Come get your shoes.  Put your shoes in your bedroom closet.”  These instructions are specific and don’t leave any room for confusion.

This same rule applies to the classroom. If you want the math papers put into the math folder, don’t say, “Ok. Put away your math papers.” Only about 1% of your students will put them where they actually belong. The rest will cram them in the nearest book, desk, or trash can.

By simply rephrasing your instructions, “Put your math sheet in the right pocket of your math folder,” your students know exactly what to do without question. 🙂  

4. Break Down Big Tasks into Manageable Parts

Another important part of knowing how to get kids to clean up is realizing that when we ask them to clean up, they are facing the prospect of tackling a major task.

We all face things that seem as big as Mt. Everest. From where we stand, the task looks completely insurmountable. But as adults we know that the only to make progress is to start.

This same rule applies to our kiddos and tidying up. If we say go clean your room, we have pretty much just guaranteed their failure. 

They walk to their room and wonder where on Earth they should start.  Then they either get distracted playing with the nearest set of Legos or melt into a puddle of tears because they don’t know what to do.

Of course, we end up flustered and say, “It’s not that hard.  Just clean it up!”  This ends will a fresh round of tears and arguing.

On the other hand, if we give them specific instructions that are broken into smaller parts, we are setting them up for success. We can tell them to take all of the toys and other things off of the bed and make the bed first. 

Then when they do that, we can tell them to fold any clean clothes and take the dirty clothes to the laundry room.

Yes, this approach will require you to be present and oversee what’s happening along the way, but it will be to everyone’s long-term benefit.

5. Teach Through Modeling

As teachers, what is the first thing we do to introduce a new skill? We model it because our kids learn by watching us do things correctly. The same applies to cleaning up.

If you are teaching a new concept, like sorting Legos into bins by color, simply take a quick minute to show your kids what you want. Then when you are certain they understand the instructions, let them do the task independently.

6. Have Age-Appropriate Expectations

To save yourself and your kids A LOT of frustration, make sure your expectations are in line with the age of your kids.  Remember that if you ask a young preschooler to go to the restroom, flush the toilet, wash their hands with soap and water, and turn out the light, they might do half of that correctly.

They have been given too many instructions. 

Give your toddlers and early preschoolers one instruction at a time. They get overwhelmed when you tell them more than that.  Then, once they finish the task, give them another step or task. This is the only way to guarantee that they will be able to complete the chore successfully.

With older kids, you can give them a set of instructions and they should be able to follow them. But, occasionally, if you see they are not completing the task correctly or completely, show them again how to do the task properly.

Helpful tip:

Whether you are working with kids, be sure to start them with a task they can accomplish relatively quickly. This will give them confidence to keep going, and it will help them get into a better frame of mind if they happen to be grumpy about cleaning up.

7. Make it Fun

Life is too short not to have some fun ways to get your kids to clean up. Consider setting a timer and see how quickly all of the blocks can be put away.

Boys, especially, love any type of competitive element that can be added to a task. (But, just remember that if you need a task to be completely within a very short time limit, it may not be done to your satisfaction.  Their philosophy is “Done is better than perfect!) 

Music is another great way to help your kids as they tidy up. There are tons of clean up songs on YouTube that are perfect for little kiddos. If the kids are older, simply find music that’s upbeat to give them the energy they need to complete their tasks.

How to get kids to clean up is a question parents and teachers have asked for centuries. No one likes the thought of having to tidy up...especially children. But these 7 tips are so simple and completely transformed my approach to having my kids clean up. The third and fourth tips are by far the ones that have made the biggest difference. #kidscleaningup #tidyingup #cleanup

Knowing how to get kids to clean up can be overwhelming. But, it’s also very manageable if you do just one thing at a time. Remember to have a place for everything, and label that place.

Give your kiddos specific instructions and then break down those seemingly insurmountable tasks. Take the necessary time to teach through modeling and set age appropriate expectations. Finally, make it fun.

Now that you know how to get kids to clean up, what is the first thing you are going to try? Hop over to the Happy Teacher Mama Facebook Group and let us know!