Try these 7 1/2 Steps to Avoid Challenging Behavior at Clean-Up Time

How do we support children to transition with ease and thereby prevent challenging behavior in toddler and preschool classrooms?

Last week I was coaching teachers in a Head Start program in New York on how to support children who use challenging behavior and help them learn self-regulation skills. Today I spent the morning in a Pre-K in a Seattle public school, watching closely the teachers approach to classroom management. And, I've been learning new great ideas! What's most on my mind? Transitions. Specially, supporting children to transition with ease. 


Well let me tell you I have recently been witness to SEVERAL PRESCHOOL TEACHERS WHO ROCK THEIR CLASSROOM TRANSITIONS.

And today I learned two new things to make transitions go even smoother. So if you are struggling to wrangle your kids to put the toys in the buckets and baskets and put them on the shelf...if the whole thing takes more minutes then you can practice counting on your fingers...if you're seeing a lot of challenging behavior at clean up time and other transitions...or if you are pulling your hair out about how badly your transitions go, then this is for you!

Actually, even if your transitions are going pretty well you may want to add some of these into your challenging behavior prevention toolbox. Let's take clean up time, but do please know you can adapt many of these ideas for other transition times.

Note: anytime you are singing tell ALL adults in the room to sign with you. "Noa's mommy, we need your help singing..." Random volunteers, your director if she's in the room, grandma or babysitter dropping off a late-comer. You can't force them of course. Just invite them joyfully with the expectation that of course who wouldn't want to join in with the singing?

0. Make sure clean up time is featured on your daily schedule (your daily schedule is your friend when it comes to challenging behavior prevention). 

Clean up time is an activity unto itself. Not just something in between activities. Point out clean up time any time you review the picture schedule with your class and say something like, "that's when we hurry up and put the cars and markers and dolls away so we can come back to the rug and sing The Itsy Bity Spider." Or, "that's when we put everything in the baskets so we can go outside and ride bikes". This way you are planting seeds about the behavioral expectations using concrete examples (feel free to reference the preferred toys of your most resistant cleaner-uppers) and you are referencing something on the horizon that will be motivational. You will come back to this issue of using motivational prompts later. Note: maybe you have to do some other things like put coats on before you ride bikes. Maybe you're even going to have a story or songs or bathrooming before you get there. Doesn't matter. Reference the thing that is going to be most motivational to your group and then as you're doing the bathroom or the story or the coats you just keep highlighting that motivating activity on the horizon (outside! bikes!) like its the most exciting thing ever and just around the corner. If they're 2 or younger you might need to modify this a bit because of their understanding of time. or you might not. Also, you can likely use a song or finger play or story as the motivator for the 2 year old and under set. As long as you pick a great book! No non-fction please. Pete the Cat?

1. 10 minutes until clean up - give the whole class a reminder (use a sign and a song!)

 Every day. Every end-of-play-time. Work time, choice time, center time, free choice time, whatever-you-call it. Folks, be consistent with this. It works! Don't skip this. Get your most attention-to-detail-oriented-staff-member in your room to be in charge of this as you get used to it if you are not doing it already. Bonus points: make a sign! I learned this today from Dylan Bosseau, PreK Teacher extraordinaire. This takes it to the next level. Teacher Dylan has a nice red sign with 10 dots for 10 minutes until clean up sign, held by a child and coupled with a song. Holding this sign is right there on the Job Chart. Love it. Color and dot coded for visual recognition (and to distinguish from the 5 minute warning sign) and a child holds it! When you first start this practice how about you get your most resistant cleaner-upper to do it? That's a great idea. You're singing a song or doing a little chant here, right? Great! "10 more minutes till clean up time, clean up time, clean up time, 10 more minutes to clean up time, then we will go outside!" Sorry you can't hear me singing. Then again, you're lucky you can't (tone deaf) - just make up your own.

Give a motivational, individual warning to children who need extra support - in preschool and toddler classroom we can assume at least 1-5 children will need this. 

Show them the 10 minute sign. Or, try without this step and then add it in later if you need to. This is where we need to circle back to mentioning something motivational, based on the child's interests. Listen, most of us don't like to clean up. And, most of us don't like to be told what to do. But, when we are told why we have to do it then cleaning up might become a little more palatable. If we are told what we get to do next? Well now you've got my attention! Especially if I like the thing on the horizon. Think, let's clean up the living room because our friends/family are coming over for a little party trying to do it just because we're laying around binge watching TV. For example, "Antonio, in 10 minutes we're going to put all these cars back in the bucket so we can go play with the big cars and trucks in the sand outside!"

2. 5 minutes until clean up - give the whole class a reminder (use a sign and a song!)

 Do everything you did in #1, except switch out to your nice green 5 minutes until clean up sign with the green dots. Don't forget your song/chant! And your helper to hold the sign.

Give another motivational, individual warning to children who typically present behavioral challenges during the clean up transition.

Show them the 5 minute sign. Antonio didn't seem to care that you mentioned those outdoor trucks even though he was entranced with them yesterday? Hmmm...this still may do the trick. It's hard to say. Just cause he didn't react didn't mean anything. So, on day one maybe stick with it. Tomorrow you can try something else. Maybe he wants to be your helper and carry the bubbles? You know your kiddos. What will do the trick for him? Make sure you're making it sound like the most exciting thing ever! (Unless he responds better to a, "Hmm...I wonder who's going to play with the big trucks outside today.." or "Hmm...I'm going to need some help carrying the bubbles."

3. 1-2 minutes 'till clean up - walk around and give everyone a 1:1 prompt to finish up and get ready to clean. 

This is the second thing I learned from teacher Dylan today and let me tell you that group was CLEANING today and not a person got hurt or tantrummed or fussed. I don't think it's something in the water so why not add this step? Never thought of it before but it's simple yet brilliant. Are you doing it too and I'm the last to know? Walk around the room and tell each child that it's almost time to clean up. This class uses a High Scope curriculum (Plan Do Review) so he embeds that language and says, "make your plan for clean up". Use language that works for you and again you might want to use a motivational prompt, highlighting something great you all get to do " soon as we clean up."

4. Announce (by which I mean sing) clean up time. 

I know most of you are singing a song for this. I refer to this as a "Song with Directions Embedded" (it's a great strategy for other times of day too - everything from hand-washing to putting marker caps on until they click closed to jackets in the cubby). But I ask you: do you like your clean up song? Is it working? Do you want to try a new one? Sadly signing the song does not get the toys in the baskets. Maybe you want to stick with yours or maybe you want a new one. If you are not getting a great response or a lot of singers you might want to practice the song at circle time. Get out the "Lakeshore people" or the dinosaurs and then some manipulatives. Make a little mess with the manips, tell the children the dinosaurs made a mess and ask what they should do. Have the children sing the clean up song with you to give directions to the dinosaurs (or people) while you maneuver them around and have them put those toys in the basket. This way the children learn the words and get in the habit of singing with you. They get to tell somebody else what to do! many of them will love that. Then tomorrow at clean up time remind them that we all need to sign the song "...just like we sang to the dinosaurs." That's fun, right? 

5. Acknowledge children's clean up contributions as they're cleaning. 

"Patricio, thank you for holding the scissors so safely and putting them away for us." "Xavier and Mia I see you're working together to get all our toy food in the fridge!" You can also let children who were engaged in pretend play stay in role during clean up time or build on children's interests in some way as you encourage them to clean up. For example, "kitty, hurry up and put all your food in the bucket so you can play outside, little kittie." For preschoolers pretend play is seriously where its at so why not use this to motivate them during a transition and prevent a power struggle? Or, say something motivational like, "Belle, as soon as we get these clothes cleaned up we can go dance at the outdoor ball (credit: a workshop participant at WAEYC yesterday, sorry I didn't get your name!). Hand children toys, ask one child to to remind another to clean up, find creative ways to prompting them all to stay on task (I"m sure you're already doing a lot of this).

6. Have fun! Keep it upbeat even if it's taking forever. Dance to you clean up song. Be silly or playful. 

Focus on the children who are cleaning not the ones who aren't. Some aren't doing their fair share. I know. STOP FOCUSING ON THAT. Can you? I mean, you don't have to. It's your choice. I'm not the boss of you! But that's my suggestion. Keep it fun, upbeat and playful and as long as no one's losing and eye let it go about the slackers - at least for now, its the beginning of the year. Keep your attention on those who are cleaning. Keep your eyes on the prize (what's next on the schedule that we can all look forward to? mention that if you haven't for awhile) and trust that you're classroom will get cleaned and in the long run the reluctant-cleaner-uppers will develop an intrinsic motivation to join you all because cleaning up is where the attention goes, its fun, and there are great things to hurry up and clean up for. Remember, play is a huge motivator for toddlers and preschoolers so use it to prevent behavioral challenges whenever you can!

7. Acknowledge how your class worked together to get the classroom cleaned up! Focus on the children who behaved the way you wanted them to. 

Now, some programs don't want to use "rewards" even of the verbal praise kind. Honestly I'm not a big one on rewards at all but I don't have a problem with praise for a job well done. You think I don't derive a little bit of satisfaction from post-training evals with mostly 5s? (That's on a 1-5 scale of course not 1-10 ;) But beyond this I am not sure I really conceptualize this as praise/rewarding per se. It's more helping children see the impact of their actions. We're celebrating how we are taking care of our classroom and community. I think that's worth mentioning. I think it's supportive of everyone to highlight contributions of both the individual and the group. I don't recommend framing it as good/bad or even saying " we did a great job cleaning up". You can if that fits with your philosophy of course but I think its even more effective to offer more nuanced feedback. "Ramona and Rakele were being so helpful they cleaned up some of the makers even though they only played in the block corner this morning - thank you Ramona and Rakele!" It's easy to get into the habit of giving attention to the children who don't behave as you want them to. Try to self-consciously and intentionally give attention to those that do cooperate and who follow the rules and the routines of the classroom. Doing this consistently will really reduce the amount of challenging behavior you see because some of it is for attention seeking purposes, right? 

Need another 1/2 Step? Bonus suggestion: use visual schedules for individual children, if needed. 

Okay I'm calling it a "1/2 step" to be cute but it is a little bit of work to get started with this but so worth it. If you've done everything above and are still having trouble with 1-2 specific children (and especially if these same children are also resisting other transitions) then you may want to make them an individual visual schedule. They can take off the picture of Clean Up Time (and other times of day) when it's over and it helps them to know what's coming up next.

Guess what? If you're clean up time has not been going that well: it's not you. It's also not them!

We relate to clean up time as something that should be easy to make happen for a large group of children 2-5 years old but its not! No reason to think its going to go smoothly. No reason to think they're going to want to cooperate. Unless you really get a system in place for PREVENTING challenging behavior you will run into trouble. 

But maybe they will if you follow the steps outlined above (and I'm sure some of you have other great things you do too!). So give some or all of these a try. Use them consistently.

And please, as always - report back! Let me know how it goes by emailing me at

I love your stories of success.

And, your challenging behavior questions.