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Playing House the Grown-up Way: Teaching Teens With LD the Art of Housekeeping

Kids with learning disabilities and AD/HD often struggle with certain aspects of housekeeping. An expert offers training tips for parents.

By Arlyn Roffman, Ph.D.

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.

Arlyn Roffman, Ph.D., an expert on transition issues in special education, is a Professor at Lesley University, where she served as founding director of Threshold, a transition program for young adults with learning disabilities, from 1981 to 1996. She has served on the professional advisory boards of several national LD organizations and maintains a private practice in psychology.