The Clean Up Conundrum — We Know That Self-Reg Is The Answer, But What Can We Do?

The Clean Up Conundrum — We Know That Self-Reg Is The Answer, But What Can We Do?

Usually when I contribute a post to The MEHRIT Centre blog, I do so as a way to share reflections, celebrate a success, and discuss some possible next steps. My posts are always about what I know to be trueThis doesn’t mean that I don’t make mistakes along the way, and I even share some of these mistakes in my blogsbut in the end, there always seems to be a positive outlook.

This post is different though. That’s not because it’s about something negative, but instead, about something where I still don’t have all of the answers. My teaching partner Paula and I, are certain though that these answers must lie in Self-Reg.

I love my job, and always look forward to my time in the classroom. It’s honestly where I’m happiest! There’s really only one moment of the day where I consistently struggle, and that’s when it’s time to tidy-up. We always have a big block of uninterrupted play (usually about 3 1/2-4 hours worth of time), and as you can imagine, the mess at the end of this playtime is HUGE! In the past, we’ve tried some different ways to conquer this mess, including:

  • cleaning up one area of the room at a time.
  • tackling the biggest messes before calling for a full class “tidy.”
  • using a Dance Tidy, as a way to feel calmer as we also clean.

In theory, all of these ways should still work, but they don’t. Our kids are different this year, and the tidy-up time seems to be more stressful than it has been in the past. We have a younger group of students — more than half of our JKs were three until November or December — and while we’ve tried to clean up zones of the room first, as soon as we turn around, these students are back in these areas playing again. It’s like a constant battle of mess making and cleaning up, and by the end of the process, Paula and I feel as though we need a nap. 🙂 We’ve tried the Dance Tidy as a way to make us also feel calmer during clean up time, but when we put on the music, all of the kids seem to stop what they’re doing and dance. Even those students that used to tidy, have stopped doing so. This just leads to Paula and I feeling frustrated because the cleaning has stopped, the music continues, but the work has not. Now what?

Paula and I have spent a lot of time discussing this problem, and we truly believe that dysregulation is at the heart of the issue. Here is what we know:

  • It doesn’t help that the lack of cleaning up is making us feel stressed. Are the students responding to our stress, and is this just increasing the issue?
  • When we’re trying to clean up, the class next door to us (with no full wall in between us) is often getting ready for home. This means that it’s really loud, and the noise carries into our room. Does the additional noise, also create additional stress, additional distractions, and a decrease in productive cleaning?
  • Even our students that know how to organize materials well, and can clean up messes with limited instructions, are not doing so. They’re wandering around the room, and as they wander, the other children follow. Soon we have a lot of walking, but not a lot of cleaning, which just increases our stress level, creating a vicious circle of problems.
  • We’re also trying to clean up at the end of a busy day. Our kids have not been outside since 10:30 in the morning, and while they had a big block of time outside then, it’s now four hours since that play happened. They’re tired. They need fresh air and movement. This is not the ideal time to tackle a challenging task, such as cleaning up. If we try to clean up earlier in the day though, we lose the value of the deeper learning, critical thinking, and increased math and literacy skills, that come with this bigger block of play. What’s the answer? 

We’ve tried a few different solutions that seem to be a little more successful. This first option has students cleaning up some areas of the room and then moving to the carpet to read together. Paula and I can then work with a handful of children to finish the tidy-up process, while kids also support each other on the carpet in both literacy and math.

The other solution again involves cleaning up some areas of the room first, but then moving with the kids to a new space. This helps ensure that what children just tidied up doesn’t get messy again. It took us over an hour to clean up the other day using this method, but the clean up process was less stressful than usual. Maybe a slow clean up with some good conversations along the way, is beneficial! Relationships are at the heart of Self-Reg, so is it these connections during tidying up, which helps decrease the stress for everyone involved? (That said, listening to my voice in the song below makes me think that there was still some stress involved, but singing certainly helped. Was it this singing that calmed me, and ultimately, made a difference for the kids? Possibly.)

It was as I continued to think about this cleaning up conundrum that I read Susan Hopkins’ latest post on The MEHRIT Centre blog. Maybe the biggest area of frustration that Paula and I have here is that we know that these kids can clean up, and can do so well. Every single child seems to need support during tidy-up time though, and while we know some of the stressors at play that are likely leading to this need, we’re constantly discussing why our “best cleaners” are wandering instead of cleaning.

Could the problem be that they need us to “lend them our calm,” so that they can respond differently? I wonder, how do you find this calm in yourself, when you’re feeling anything but calm? The huge mess, the knowledge that the minutes are ticking by and the day is almost through, the awareness that parents will be here soon, and the knowledge that we have to tackle the snowsuit catastrophe next, does not lend itself to that “calm” feeling. We try to stop everyone, take a deep breath together, find a little silence, and begin cleaning on a happy note, but I think that we need more than that. A great day ending in a stressful tidy makes for a very different feeling when it’s time to get ready for home.

Every day, Paula and I spend close to an hour discussing Self-Reg, cleaning up, and what we can do to change the atmosphere and the results. There has to be something. What do you do to help with these tidying up stressors? What impact might this more positive clean up routine have on your overall view of the day? While we know that stress behaviour is at play, and we’re trying to see the kids (and ourselves) through “soft eyes,” we wonder if there’s more that we could do. This experience has been a good reminder for me that as much as we may know and have already learned about Self-Reg, the learning process doesn’t end. Nobody is perfect. Can you help us as we continue to help our kids?


Aviva Dunsiger has been the Portal Plus Moderator for over a year now and completed the Foundations 1 Certification Program. She has taught everything from Kindergarten to Grade 6 and enjoys blogging about her teaching and learning experiences. She blogs professionally on her blog, Living Avivaloca. Aviva is excited to contribute a monthly post on The MEHRIT Centre Blog.

By | 2019-01-13T12:32:09+00:00 January 15th, 2019|


  1. Bonnie January 15, 2019 at 8:09 pm - Reply

    Here are a few tips that used to help me with the my kids.

    Ask each child to put away 5 things.

    Limit the toys available: Just put some away in another location if it’s too hard to keep track of things. Especially things that get dumped out and scattered like blocks.

    I don’t know if this will fit your context.

    • Aviva Dunsiger January 15, 2019 at 11:59 pm - Reply

      Thanks Bonnie! As the clean up comes to an end, we usually use this “5 things” idea. The problem is that our mess is often beyond five things per child. 🙂 We have considered limiting options, but some of the best learning comes as students transport materials between spaces and have open access to the areas in the room. The slower clean up tends to help with at least less to tidy up in the end, but it’s not perfect either, and does take a while. This is not an easy solution, but it is great to hear what others have tried … and with success!


  2. Lucia January 15, 2019 at 9:30 pm - Reply

    Oh my, Tidy up is always a stressful time for us. We have tried many variations like you but still dont have an answer either. I hope someone does!

    • Aviva Dunsiger January 15, 2019 at 11:57 pm - Reply

      Thanks Lucia! Maybe there isn’t only one possible answer. Sometimes it’s nice to know that you’re not alone though, and like you, I’m certainly hoping for any suggestions. Maybe somebody else has tried something that we haven’t considered yet.


  3. Juliana January 16, 2019 at 7:27 am - Reply

    Have you considered or tried using the CPS (Collaborative and Proactive Solutions) approach to ask the students about clean up time, maybe in the morning before play (or when they are calm, focused and alert)? Example: “We noticed that clean up time is hard at the end of the day…what’s making it so hard to clean up at the end of the day?” Then listen to their thoughts or “concerns”; they may need some prompting at first, so you could offer some of your observations, like, “Is it hard because you’d rather dance when the music is on? Is it hard because there is such a big mess? Is it hard because you’re not ready for play to end, etc…” Perhaps the students will have some insight that will help create a more positive clean up routine; one in which they are also invested in. If you’re not familiar with CPS, the next step would be to state your concerns, e.g. “The thing is, we need everyone’s help to clean up because we know that your parents will be coming to pick you up and we still have to get dressed to leave on time.” Once they’ve acknowledged what your concern is, together you brainstorm and problem solve a solution that will work to address both the student’s concerns and the adult’s concerns. Hard to give an example of this one since I don’t know all the concerns but you would present both concerns equally. It may sound like, “I wonder if there is a way for (children’s concerns) AND we can still clean up and get dressed in time for parents to pick you up. Does anyone have any ideas?” We always offer for them to go first and then we can add our ideas. It has to be a mutually agreeable solution that both parties agree to try. If the solution stops working for one or both parties, it’s back to the brainstorming step to continue to problem solve. Also very important to stay neutral through the whole conversation.

    • Aviva Dunsiger January 18, 2019 at 9:09 am - Reply

      Thanks for the comment, Juliana! We actually started this process with one similar to the CPS model. We highlighted the issue with the kids, and spoke to them about some possible solutions. They had some ideas, including having people in charge of specific areas, starting earlier, and having SK leaders that could support others in the classroom clean up routine. A Dance Tidy was something else that the SKs suggested, as many liked it from last year. We tried different combinations of these suggestions, and they’ve worked to varying degrees, but never consistently. Maybe this means that we haven’t gotten to the root of the problem. Maybe the fact that our Kindergarten kids are so tired at the end of the day means that a perfect solution doesn’t quite exist. And maybe our own stress over the big mess and the lack of cleaning, means that the issue is beyond the kids. It’s hard to know. Possibly we have to go back to the drawing board again. Thanks for giving us more to think about!


  4. Marilyn Barros January 16, 2019 at 12:04 pm - Reply

    Hi Aviva,
    Such a thought provoking post, thank you for this!
    I am not a teacher or an ECE teacher but I was an EA for 12 years. My thoughts on this may seem bizarre to you and Paula but thought I’d throw them out there having had classroom experience and some very much appreciated Self-Reg education through TMC.
    If we think about where the kids go when they are stressed and we follow them, it seems to me that it is you and your teaching partner that bear the most stress around clean up time. What if you or Paula were to do what you like to do when you are under a lot of stress but visible to the kids. Maybe this looks like you crawling up with a pillow under the table. The kids will certainly notice this (I think). Could you have a conversation with a few of them, perhaps the 5 year olds or more mature kiddos on how this clean up routine stresses you out and makes you very tired? Am I crazy?
    One other idea – could you leave an area of the class not cleaned up and have kids help in the morning when hopefully folks have had a good night sleep – acknowledging we just ran out of time to do this yesterday but we need a clean area to be able to play today?
    Let me know if you think I’m crazy!

    • Aviva Dunsiger January 18, 2019 at 9:13 am - Reply

      Thanks Marilyn for your comment! While we will talk to kids about being stressed, maybe we need to show our restore strategies more visibly to kids. Will this make a difference? It’s hard to know. The timing constraints of clean up time seem to make these conversations another stressor, as they just prolong the process more. Maybe they’re necessary though. The solution may continue to rest in giving more time for cleaning up.

      As for your second suggestion, this is a harder one, as the caretaker cleans our room at night, so we can’t leave the mess as it is. Settling into play also rests on a degree of set-up of the environment, and this is harder to do with a mess. The visual look of the mess may also cause stress for some kids (and adults) before the day begins, which could lead to a dysregulated play to start. We also have the Before Care Program in our room, so their routine rests on our classroom being organized to start.

      Thanks for getting me to think more about this, and giving me some new ideas to consider!

  5. Tina Bergman January 18, 2019 at 9:26 pm - Reply

    Having many different classrooms and two very active sons along the way – I feel your constraint wth what is tidy and with what is ‘Not so tidy.’
    I can Reframe with with you – the Play seems to be unfinished. Many students feel that the dancing in the moment is more important than tidying up. I am wondering if the students feel that they need to leave the play ‘as it is.’
    Is it possible to leave the centres as they are so that the students arrive the next day to complete the play? I’m recognizing that what each child is constructing that the play has not quite been finished. What if you were to recognIe that the play isn’t finished? Could you leave it as it is and organize it as the students arrive the next morning they could enter the play as it was left the night before? I’m wondering . . .

    • Aviva Dunsiger January 18, 2019 at 10:37 pm - Reply

      Thanks for your comment, Tina! I can see what you’re saying here. We do actually let kids save a lot of their work, with saved signs and building/creating in empty shelf spaces. I’m not sure that the scrap papers on the floor and the garbage under the table is necessarily indicative of “not being finished,” but I could be wrong. I see it more as them being tired at the end of a busy day, somewhat overwhelmed by the mess to clean, and lacking interest in going about this daunting task. The other issue is that we have Before Care in our classroom, so somebody else is using the space. This makes some clean up necessary. Our wonderful caretaker appreciates it too. 🙂

      Thanks for chiming in here, Tina, and making me think about what parts of the mess might be what kids want to save!

  6. Julie Smith January 19, 2019 at 12:15 am - Reply

    I keep thinking about the critical adults in the room and their Self-Reg during clean up. We can only lend our calm if we have it to lend as you’ve stated in your post. So is there a way to prioritize what you and your teaching partner need in those moments to stay calm and energized?
    If it is the noise and too many inefficient bodies that increase your stress in those moments, can you reduce the number of students cleaning up with you? Can one of you take out some kiddos to another space to do something quietly while a group stays behind with the other teacher? The cleaning team could be switched up for the next day etc. so everyone can have a chance to be super dooper cleaner uppers during the week. It would also give you an opportunity to carefully choose your cleaning teams. This may also be a chance for you and your teaching partner to tag team the clean up process and in turn get a break from it every other day.

    • Aviva Dunsiger January 19, 2019 at 10:35 am - Reply

      Thanks Julie! I do think that the adults in the room might be key here. Sometimes, I think that this is why the Dance Tidy works, as the music and the dancing make us feel calmer.

      Unfortunately, there isn’t a consistent place that one of us can go with the students (due to lack of space in the school and a shared coatroom, where other kids are getting ready for home at the time). That said, I wonder if we need to keep trying smaller tidies over a longer period of time. In these cases, less kids are cleaning with us, and maybe this is why it feels calmer. It does take longer, but maybe that’s okay.

      Thanks for giving me more to think about!

  7. Heather Hazlett January 19, 2019 at 10:47 am - Reply

    Hi Aviva,
    Is it possible to flip your day? Have your large, uninterrupted indoor play earlier in the day? This may reduce a lot of the stressors you have noted. The students may not be as tired, there will be less stress about time constraints, and some of their unfinished play can be left out to possibly revisit later if time permits before the end of day.
    I’m not sure if this is a feasible solution for you as I recognize there are other factors at play with timetabling in a school.
    I feel “tidy up time” is a common problem in most Kindergarten classrooms and often takes some trial and error to find what works for that particular group. I feel your stress and wish you the best of luck on your continued journey of discovery into this stressful problem.

    • Aviva Dunsiger January 19, 2019 at 4:12 pm - Reply

      Thanks Heather! I appreciate you chiming in here with a suggestion. I think that a part of our problem this year is that most of my preps are earlier in the day. This makes it harder to flip our day, and often has children tidying up as they are most tired. We looked at trying to head outside at the end of the day, but the other Kindergarten class does so, which makes this option less feasible. A combination of some of our approaches seem to be working, but I do wonder if there might be something better. These suggestions continue to have me thinking.


  8. Kristen January 20, 2019 at 1:57 pm - Reply

    Hi Aviva!

    Is it possible to restructure your flow of the day to have two blocks of learning centres instead of such a big block? In our classroom, we have two blocks of learning centres that are about 1 – 2 hours each and that is plenty of time for deep, connected learning.

    I would also suggest ending the day outside for at least 30 minutes. The outdoors is a great motivation to get children moving and doing what needs to get done.

    • Aviva Dunsiger January 20, 2019 at 8:30 pm - Reply

      Thanks for your comment, Kristen! We have a funny prep schedule this year, which is impacting on our flow of the day. We initially tried to break the day into two blocks of play, but with the prep schedule, the one block wasn’t quite long enough, and the transition from one block to another is really hard for a few of our kids. This one longer block, with smaller changes throughout the time, seems to work better. It’s highly reduced some of the behaviours that we were noticing in the classroom, which is great! The only hard part is the clean up time. The smaller tidying up throughout the afternoon, followed by a Dance Tidy, seems to help. It’s not perfect, and we continue to look at ways to make it better, but maybe it’s as good as it’s going to get right now.

      As for ending our day outside, this becomes a bit problematic because we share our outdoor space and our coatroom, and the other class goes outside then. Having almost 60 kids getting ready in the same area at the same time produces a whole new kind of stressor, so we stagger the dressing time. This has us with a very long outdoor block in the morning (usually around 1 1/2 hours), but no outdoor block in the afternoon. Thanks for continuing to give me more to think about! These kinds of changes are never easy.


  9. Bri January 20, 2019 at 10:22 pm - Reply

    A student teacher of mine once implemented the “magic piece”, which I’m sure you’ve already heard of! Choose something that needs to be put away as the “magic piece”, but keep it a secret from the kids. As they’re cleaning up (with more excitement than you’ve ever seen!), they will probably even show you the things they’re putting away and ask if it’s the magic piece. Don’t tell them what the “magic piece” was until everything is put away- once the room is back together, announce the magic piece and the person who put it away. Perhaps this child gets to do a preferred activity the next day during clean up time as a mental break? Truthfully, you can either watch for that magic piece to be put away and note who did it, or you can select a child who was working hard to tidy up a praise them for their work when you announce that they were also ironically the friend who found the magic piece.
    It sounds complicated, and it may not work forever, but it might just be fun enough to get the kids to enjoy tidying up! Good luck 🙂

    • Aviva Dunsiger January 21, 2019 at 6:54 am - Reply

      Thanks Bri! I used to do the “mystery mess” many years ago. The thinking is similar. I hadn’t thought of this one for a while, and I’m not sure if the competition side of things might cause additional stress, but maybe something new to at least try. Thank you for the reminder!


  10. Dawnette Hoard January 21, 2019 at 5:09 pm - Reply

    Hi Aviva;
    Oh the troubles of four and five years olds… 🙂 . I don’t think that I have heard of a classroom that doesn’t struggle with this. I can hear you mention the stress of the educators in the space and the lack of energy with the children. Have you thought of stopping the play as a group a few minutes sooner, coming together and finding the calm for everyone, then moving into the clean up with clear expectations and the ability of the children to hear what you are saying. It sounds like even the exterior noise may play a factor. We also tried stopping the children in the middle of long blocks of play to remind them of ways we can be respectful of the items in the room. If they were stepping on things or just pushing them to the side were they using them? If not how can we put them away to move on….. I also found that singing tidy up songs and engaging the children in the song helped to calm and focus everyone on the task at hand.
    Hope this offers some thought for you as it seems you have tried so may great ideas. Even going back to some of the things you have tried and seeing if they would work now as you have identified some of your stressors.


    • Aviva Dunsiger January 21, 2019 at 10:22 pm - Reply

      Thanks for your comment, Dawnette! We usually take a few deep breaths when we first stop to clean up, but maybe we need to do more than that. Hmmm … The thing is our kids are very respectful of materials. It’s just a mess in the end. We’ve had some recent success with tidying up the big messes first before doing a full clean up. The Dance Tidy is also working now. Maybe it is about going back to some of the ideas from before. Thanks for the reminder!


  11. […] in the afternoon, and we were slowly tidying up areas of the classroom with our students. Since my last blog post, this has been our preferred method of clean up, and the longer tidy up seems to be working. A […]

  12. Connie May 30, 2019 at 12:42 pm - Reply

    Hey Aviva,

    I like the idea of smaller tidy ups during the day. I have worked with teachers where, if we noticed children transporting materials, one of us would speak with the group/individual explaining that we were okay with it as long as they kept things tidy and put everything back. We also tried to keep track of when children abandoned materials and redirected them back to tidy up, using a first/then or honouring that we understood they were exploring/having fun, but did they remember to put their materials away before moving on?

    During a group tidy, we would insist that if you were using the materials, you would be the one putting the materials away while encouraging children to help each other. Those that chose not to help, would be asked to read a book on the carpet (for example).

    End of day, we would slowly close areas that were tidy, redirecting children to play on the other side of the room/in other areas. I supplied for a centre that had painter’s cloths tied to all of their shelves and would flip them over if the area was unavailable. I have also worked with teachers who would limit open areas to materials they found more “calming:” like puzzles, playdoh, drawing, etc. These were childcare centres though.

    Like mentioned above, consistency was an issue and sometimes you would run into resistance or even a meltdown. Although now I am wondering if the lack of interest could be limbic braking? Thoughts?

    • Aviva Dunsiger June 4, 2019 at 7:33 am - Reply

      Thanks for your comment, Connie! I think that your question about limbic breaking is an interesting one. It does make sense. Sometimes at the end of the day, as much as I want kids that helped make the mess to also clean it up, I know of those children that are done at this point. Does it make sense to fight over the cleaning? Instead, we try to look at some clean up possibilities as leadership roles, which make many of our kids happy. Then the mess gets cleaned, and we don’t spent the time in the midst of a power struggle. I do really like some smaller cleans first, so that even when we have more to tidy up, we’re not looking upon a whole classroom that’s a disaster. Thank you for sharing your experiences and continuing this important conversation!


  13. penelope February 8, 2020 at 2:30 am - Reply

    “Maybe the fact that our Kindergarten kids are so tired at the end of the day means that a perfect solution doesn’t quite exist.” What about breaking the afternoon into two sections and having a tidy break (and a self-reg break) in the middle and maybe some less equipment-intensive play in the last section so when everyone is the tiredest they don’t have much to do? I’m just new to self reg but I know alot about managing my energy (with chronic illness) and also organising adults and all their stuff. It sounds like the last hour of the day kids are going beyond their energy reserves and so cleaning up when most tired is counter productive. Slowly the kids will start to notice their own shifts in energy and you will have shown them how to do more quiet things when getting tired and more energetic things when they have energy.

    • Aviva Dunsiger February 8, 2020 at 1:33 pm - Reply

      Thanks for your comment, Penelope! With the help of the kids, we often switch out many of our learning areas in the afternoon, putting out more sensory options (calming for many of our kids), Perler beads, and even colouring, which are all good Self-Reg options for our kids. Maybe this is why cleaning up continues to be so stressful, as even after this switch up (and what should produce less of a mess), putting away anything seems overwhelming. We have tried tidying up some messier areas first, which helps, but cleaning up is not quite perfect yet. A work in progress, I guess.


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