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Extension educator teaches families how to deal with clutter

by Kim Colavito Markesich - January 22, 2007

What happens when a family is so overwhelmed by clutter in the home that common tasks become challenging?

When the situation affects a child, the state Department of Children and Families (DCF) is often called in to the situation.

Two years ago, extension educator Mary Ellen Welch received a call from a DCF social worker, asking whether she could offer assistance.

This effort developed into a program called "House Smart: Solutions for Managing Clutter," to assist families with chronic disorganization.

In some instances, one or both parents may be suffering from a psychological illness, such as depression.

Or the problem arises when the family suffers multiple challenges, like unemployment, health, legal, or transportation issues.

For some families, the clutter is multigenerational in origin.

The families Welch serves are not those where a home is just untidy.

"These are homes where literally accessing one side of the room from the other requires skill," she says.

As the problem worsens, the parent may feel like the house is out of control, and the children are left searching for a designated place to eat, complete their homework, keep their belongings, or even relax.

Once on board, Welch meets with the social worker, the family members, and sometimes related community agencies. At least one parent must be a willing participant and sign a form giving her permission to work with the family.

This becomes part of the DCF treatment plan.

"I want to help parents create a safe environment where children can thrive," Welch says. "What I do first is meet with the parents and listen. I obtain historical information about the disorganization and ask them what bothers them most and what they would most like to change."

From the start, Welch encourages the parent to practice making decisions about their home, since this will be critical to their success.

Children must also learn to organize their belongings, since parents have not modeled this behavior.

Typically, families have been approached by many well-meaning social workers, friends, neighbors, and relatives determined to rid the home of clutter.

Some people express concern that their possessions will be disposed of without their consent.

This is usually the case when people have developed strong emotional attachments to their belongings.

Welch takes a different approach.

"People cannot change their entire lifestyle overnight," she says.

"I have to be flexible and gain their trust. I assure them that they will be the decision makers on what will stay or go. This requires a long-term commitment on their part."

Welch sits down and discusses the situation in a gentle manner. She develops a rapport with the parent.

The first goal is to help them identify one small problem area - a zone in the home, as she calls it. It may be the kitchen table top or one drawer.

"When families have success from the very start, you can see individuals go from feeling negative and overwhelmed, to feeling pleased," she says.

"That's key. Success is a motivator. By focusing on small, visual changes I help people see that they can accomplish realistic goals and make their homes and their lives more manageable."

Welch looks at safety issues as well.

"Clearing hallways, stairwells, and entrances of hazards is a priority."

In one instance, Welch was called in when a child was truant.

The mother was so overwhelmed with the home situation that she had difficulty getting the child up for school in the morning.

Welch suggested that the mother concentrate first on getting the child to the bus stop and not worry about the house.

That would come in time.

The mother worked hard to accomplish her goal, and within three months the child earned a school attendance award and was eligible for promotion to the next grade.

The parent completely reorganized the house, and that made it easier for the family to spend quality time together.

"I was extremely pleased to see results in three months," Welch says.

Once the families are able to make some minor changes, they often report that life is much easier.

In some instances, the home atmosphere improves because the parents spend less time scolding their children.

"I always show families that they have options," Welch says. "With a few simple suggestions, families realize they can make visible changes."

Periodically, she takes photographs, so the families can compare the progress being made over time.

"It is very satisfying to see families be successful," she says. "I want to see families stay safe, healthy, and intact."

This article is reprinted from the College of Agriculture & Natural Resources Journal.

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