The inevitable preschool potty lesson


In the summer of 2009, I was offered a job helping the City of Tempe, Ariz., open a brand-new preschool. Having just graduated with my degree in child development from Arizona State University, I was given the position of lead teacher of the three-year-old classroom. I was ecstatic and I wanted to be prepared. I spent the summer dedicated to creating a classroom with an enriching environment and spent countless hours on curriculum for the upcoming academic year. While I understood the importance of cognitive development for children at the age of three, I also wanted to make sure to incorporate activities that would help children grow socially and emotionally as well.

But no books could have prepared me -- a first-time teacher -- for one of the most stubborn challenges I would face in the classroom: potty training. 


Although our preschool's policy clearly stated in the parent handbook that all children must be potty trained, all of us teachers quickly learned that this was an unrealistic expectation, especially for three-year-olds. Which is why when I read an article in the Post this weekend about a three-year-old in Arlington who was kicked out of her Montessori preschool for often not making it to the potty on time, I was shocked, as were many parents.


I've dealt with my fair share of wet-panted children. Though many of the three-year-olds in my classroom were mostly or fully potty trained, dealing with the occasional or recurring "accident" was a part of my job. In my opinion, kicking a three year-old out of school who hasn’t mastered the toilet isn’t a failure of the child, but a failure of the teacher.

One child in particular -- we’ll call  him Jose -- was not potty trained at all. His mom would drop him off in pull ups, and pick him up with a dirty bag of clothes and an apology every day. I knew that the normal praise for using the potty wasn’t going to cut it for Jose, as it did the other children. I did as much research as possible, and began to implement any and all ideas I could find. I started off with having his mom get him little boy undies. Then I created a special “potty sticker chart” for Jose, decorated the bathroom with fun themes, and would read him stories or give him his favorite book to look through while on the potty. I even tried setting a timer to go off hourly to remind Jose that he needed to try to use the bathroom.  After what seemed like many, many weeks, Jose went from having several accidents daily, to only one or two a week (a very typical amount for an average three-year-old). 

So what was it that worked for Jose? The stickers? The potty chart? The decorations? In my professional opinion, none of the above. What worked for Jose was the patience that I and my staff had in helping him overcome an emotional battle. I will admit that at times it was frustrating, and often understaffed, it could be difficult to give so much time and attention to Jose. However, something I did learn in college was how important it is to help children overcome such gigantic milestones, such as potty training, in a positive way. Never getting upset or angry -- no matter what -- was extremely important, as was working with his mom to implement my ideas at home, and to be consistent. 


What happened in Arlington Public Schools is more than unfortunate, and the rigid policy on potty training prevents teachers from providing the comprehensive early education that is so critical to children at this age. Lessons on counting and ABC’s are essential, but achieving emotional milestones like how to use the bathroom are just as important as the cognitive goals. They help children become more self-sufficient and build confidence, allowing them to concentrate and focus on learning. As teachers, we know that every child is unique and learns at his or her own pace. We don’t punish those who might be slightly behind -- we need to be relentless in helping them succeed, and that means working closely with parents to find an approach that works.