Many adults with learning disabilities (LD) or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) struggle in their efforts to maintain tidy living spaces. They admit to having stacks of papers on their tables and desks, food wrappers and soft drink cans on their car floors, and bathrooms that are not cleaned often or thoroughly enough.
Housekeeping entails a variety of skills, including cleaning, laundering and mending clothes, and — in some cases — general upkeep of the grounds. This article will focus on how the characteristics of LD and AD/HD create challenges for teens who are learning how to manage their living areas. I will also offer strategies for parents to help their teens prepare for this aspect of daily living.
The table below illustrates some of the ways various characteristics of LD and AD/HD can result in challenges to housekeeping.
|Learning or attention problem||Challenges when housekeeping|
|Impulsivity||Tendency to drop belongings “here and there” and to feel overwhelmed by the resulting clutter|
|Disorganization||Problems with losing belongings when their living space gets cluttered; a tendency to forget to separate dark from light clothes when doing laundry|
|Executive function (prioritizing, organizing)||Problems prioritizing and scheduling several housekeeping chores; trouble organizing materials (e.g., cleansers) to perform a task|
|Temporal (sense of time) problems||Trouble allocating enough time to do a household chore completely|
|Visual-motor (eye-hand coordination) problems||Clumsiness when washing dishes or dusting; difficulty threading a needle and sewing|
|Spatial perception||Problems fitting and tucking the sheets while making a bed; difficulty sweeping or vacuuming the floor thoroughly or setting the table with the utensils placed where they belong|
|Distractibility||Tendency to become distracted in the midst of a chore and to fail to complete it within a reasonable time frame|
Tips for teaching your teen housekeeping skills
You can introduce housekeeping skills when your child is very young by having him help with simple chores. As your child with LD or AD/HD matures, you should start asking him to take on additional chores. You may want to create step-by-step checklists for multi-step housekeeping tasks which can be quite stressful for individuals with LD and AD/HD. A checklist will help your child focus on one task at a time and avoid becoming distracted or feeling overwhelmed.
Here are strategies for teaching housekeeping skills during your child’s middle and high school years:
- Have him help in the kitchen. Teach him how to clear dishes from the table; how to wash them by hand or load them in the dishwasher, fill the detergent dispenser, and set the dial to the appropriate cycle; and how to wipe down the stovetop and counters. Later, have him return all washed items to the appropriate shelves and drawers.
- Introduce cleaning products and techniques for tackling the floors, toilet, sinks, and shower or bathtub. Point out the directions for use and read them together, making sure your teen understands any key terms (e.g., “toxic”). Demonstrate and talk your way through one cleaning task at a time, and then have him do as you’ve done. Verbally coach him through each task the next few times until he can complete it without your cues.
- Think aloud as you dust. For example, explain, “I’m being especially careful to hold on tight as I move this vase to dust it because it’s so breakable” or “I’m using this kind of polish because this shelf is wood, but this polish would ruin the chrome table in the den.”
- Model how to methodically sweep or vacuum a small space, thinking aloud as you go (e.g., “I’m starting at each corner and sweeping toward the middle so there’ll be only one pile to pick up, then I’ll know I’ve covered the whole floor.”) Be patient as you observe your child practicing; while these tasks may seem simple to you, they present a very real challenge to those with spatial difficulties.
- Demonstrate how to make a bed, particularly how to handle the corners of a fitted sheet. Have your child follow your demonstration until he can do it on his own. Suggest a schedule for washing the sheets.
Laundry and clothing care
- Use “think alouds” to demonstrate how to do laundry. Model how to read the care tags on clothing for any special instructions, such as “dry clean only” or “lay flat to dry.” Demonstrate how to separate laundry into lights and darks, how to measure and add detergent, and how to load and operate the washing machine and dryer. Explain that laundry wrinkles when it sits for more than a few minutes in the dryer after it completes its cycle. Finally, demonstrate how to remove, sort, and fold (or hang) the laundry and return it to the appropriate drawer or closet.
- Teach your child how to replace a missing button or mend a simple seam. Have him watch you thread a needle and sew until he feels ready to do it on his own. If your child has visual-motor problems, he will benefit from using a threader, available in the notions department of any fabric store or sewing center.
- Demonstrate how to iron clothing. Start with a flat item, such as a cloth napkin or handkerchief, and gradually advance to shirts and other complex articles of clothing. Provide step-by-step instructions about temperature and steam settings. Demonstrate how to maneuver the items as you iron them. Supervise your teen as he irons items of increasing complexity until he’s comfortable with the iron and can use it safely. Keep in mind that individuals with LD or AD/HD with spatial or visual-motor difficulties may require extended practice in this skill area.
- Have your teen go with you to the dry cleaner to observe the process of dropping off and picking up items that should not be washed at home.
- It may seem like a simple skill, but supervise your child as he changes a light bulb. If he has fine-motor coordination or directionality problems, this may be a challenge. Point out that bulbs go in by turning clockwise and come out by turning in the opposite direction. Caution him not turn too tight, as the bulb could break, and that he should look for directions about the maximum wattage that can safely be used in the lamp/light whose bulb is being replaced.
- Teach your child to tend to houseplants. By late elementary school, he should be able to care for a plant of his own. Start by having him water the plant. As it grows, show him how to remove dead leaves, fertilize, and re-pot his plant. If he shows interest, give him responsibility for other house plants.
- Model how to perform yard work. Show him how to mow the lawn, water plants and flowers, rake and dispose of leaves, and (if applicable), how to shovel snow from your walkway, sidewalk, and driveway. Teach him how to use equipment such as snow blowers and power mowers safely. Supervise your child closely until he becomes proficient in the use of any machinery.
Independence begins at home
Housekeeping entails a variety of skills that your teen with LD and/or AD/HD can readily acquire if he is offered explicit instruction and supervised practice in each. Although he may not ask you to teach him to clean, rake, or do the other chores mentioned in this article, he will be much better prepared for adult life when he has learned these practical skills.
- Posthill, S. & Roffman, A. (1991). The impact of a transitional training program for young adults with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 24(3), 619-629.
- Roffman, A. Herzog, J & Wershba, P. (1994). Helping young adults understand their learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 27 (7), 413-4