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Potty Training at School

Potty Training at School
Karen Deerwester, EdS
October 11, 2019

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Editor's note: This text-based course is an edited transcript of the webinar, Potty Training at School, presented by Karen Deerwester, MA, EdS.  

Learning Outcomes

After this course, participants will be able to:

  • Identify readiness characteristics and individual strengths for successful potty skill-building.
  • Define and describe school policies for respectful and supportive potty learning.
  • Describe how to communicate effectively with parents for a positive, supportive home-school potty partnership.

Start with Readiness Transparency

  • Developmental skills & skill-building
  • Scaffolding
  • Make learning visible
  • Make trust visible


Potty training begins with developmentally appropriate practice and with readiness transparency. If we are really clear about the skills, behaviors, and learning strengths involved in potty success and mastery, then we can create policies, programs, strategies, and support for teachers, children, and parents to make this the best possible experience.

Where do we want to begin with this readiness transparency? First, let’s talk about developmental skills and skill-building. It is that developmental puzzle, that perfect storm where all the complex, contradictory and crazy parts of development come together for the click. The click that makes potty easy and accessible. As early childhood educators, we know that we are the best resources and support for parents to do this because we start where children are, exactly where they are, not where we want them to be, and we create that scaffold to take them forward to where we know they can go, where they want to go, to full mastery and success. The scaffolding is the bridge that we create, connecting the dots so that we can pull the support away and they can be masterful and successful on their own. In order to do that, we use the best principles of early childhood to make learning visible.

If we are just great teachers holding it in our heads, then we can't model and demonstrate and reflect on all of that learning visibility that we know is so strategic and important to our programming and our policies and practices as great early childhood educators. We also then have to make trust visible. Trust with the child and most importantly, again, trust with the parents. As we know in our new world, nothing we are doing is just with children. It's with children and families. 

Potty Learning Readiness

  • Physical
  • Verbal
  • Social-Emotional
  • Cognitive

When we look at the potty learning puzzle of readiness we are looking at physical skills, verbal skills, social-emotional skills, and cognitive skills. By understanding that every child wants to be masterful, we can see development as a beautiful thing. It's this engine that pushes and propels children and helps them go forward into reading, writing, self-regulation, self-management, and an understanding of themselves in the world. All we have to do is figure out what children are bringing to us and use our best developmental knowledge to help them go forward.

Physical Readiness Behaviors

  • Your child stays dry for at least two hours during the day.
  • Your child wakes up dry from naps.
  • Your child will pee or poop regularly—before bath time, or an hour after breakfast.
  • You see telltale signs when your child is pottying—he stops playing, makes a certain face, etc.
  • Your child can walk to a designated place to accomplish a goal.
  • Your child can remove pieces of clothing to use the potty.

 from The Potty Training Answer Book

Let's start with physical readiness because we know that the cornerstone of potty success is for a child to be able to manage her body and understand her body. First and most important, if a child can't stay dry for some period of time, whether that’s one or two hours, then they're not ready. If they aren't in some ways holding their pee or their poop and then eventually making the decision of where is this going to go, then we will never get to final success. We can still create an immersion environment of potty learning, which we will do, but we also have to know that they have to be able to physically control their bodies and understand that they're the ones that are holding and that big word that comes with potty learning and success, letting go. Because letting go requires a great deal of confidence, safety, and understanding.

Let’s talk about some of the signs that we're going to be looking for. Do they wake up dry from naps? Do they pee and poop regularly? Not all children pee and poop regularly, as you're going to find out shortly. For the children, when you start to see regularity in the body, you’re seeing that they can now begin to self-regulate and self-manage. I want to remind everyone that when I use the words potty training and potty learning, I am thinking about self-regulation and self-mastery. It's not just catching pee and poop. We are potty partners for a significant amount of time, whether that’s a week or a month, as we are guiding, steering, and leading. Inevitably, children need to master their bodies themselves. When parents start to see regularity, it's going to be before bath time or after breakfast. At school, it's going to be before going outside or after a nap. When are the times when you start to see patterns happening?

What are the tell-tale signs that your child is pottying? If your child is communicating physically on their face or holding their body or doing the potty dance, then I have physical cues that I can show the child, because we are always holding up that mirror. What's going on in my brain, in my body, in my life that I can help as a teacher or as a parent to understand. If they start to show signs that they are going potty, we have tools that we can work with to move forward.

Can your child walk to a designated place to accomplish a goal? Again, there are many ways to potty train and I'm not opposed to baby-led potty training, but that's not what I'm talking about when I'm talking about pottying at school. When a child says, I have to go, and you say go to the bathroom. Eventually, they're going to be able to remove parts of clothing. There's also going to be some fine motor skills that are going to be necessary and the patience to manage those obstacles that will eventually come to pottying.

Social-Emotional Readiness Behaviors

  • Your child asks questions about pottying.
  • Your child wants to follow others into the bathroom.
  • Your child tries to imitate adult potty behavior.
  • Your child likes clean diapers—she asks to be changed at appropriate times.
  • Your child cares about the outcomes of her actions—she expresses likes or dislikes after she does something and if reminded will remember those preferences the next time.
  • Your child is willing to sit still to master a task.

from The Potty Training Answer Book

What are social-emotional readiness behaviors? Children are going to ask questions about pottying long before they are potty training. I believe we create a positive potty environment starting at 18 months. We don't start introducing potty training when it's time to potty. We create an immersive culture of potty and body and thinking long before. That's this whole social-emotional soup that brings excitement, interest, and curiosity. Who goes on the potty? Who goes in a diaper? No shame, no blame. Are you wearing a diaper today? Then through those toddler diaper changes, you start saying, “There's pee in here and you made it pee because everyone drinks, everyone eats, everyone pees, everyone poops.” We are creating social-emotional connections to a potty world.

Children want to follow others into the bathroom. We don't have to teach this. We know parents don't get to ever go to the bathroom by themselves. We know that children are very curious about rooms and patterns and routines and behaviors. This is one of our connecting milestones, but also, these are the tools we're going to use when it's time to connect dots to what children have in readiness, and what might be a missing piece of a puzzle.

Preschool boy looking in potty

Figure 1. Boy looking in potty.

They want to imitate potty behavior. In figure 1 you see a little boy who isn’t imitating anybody, but he's curious and experimenting in this picture. All of it is good. All of it is something for us to build on and use as teachers.

If they like clean diapers and they ask to be changed at appropriate times, then we know they're starting to think about it and care about it. They're starting to not like a piece of something that matters for us moving them forward and helping them put the pieces of the puzzle together.

They care about the outcomes of their actions. They express likes and dislikes after they do something. If they're reminded, they will remember those preferences the next time. Remember how fun it was to hear the pee pee going in the potty. Remember how cold it was to sit on the toilet. I can now help you conquer that emotional moment or that stressful moment because you are now interacting with me about this experience.

They have to be willing to sit because pottying requires a little bit of patience. Again, that ultimate word that's going to be so critical for us today, self-regulation.

Verbal Readiness Behaviors

  • Your child knows his body parts.
  • Your child can tell you, first when he’s pottied in his diaper, and then before he’s pottied in his diaper.
  • Your child follows simple directions—“Quick, run to the bathroom!”
  • Your child tells you what he needs.
  • Your child says he wants to “do it myself.”

from The Potty Training Answer Book

We want them to have verbal readiness skills. They have to start to understand that their body parts have names and we can talk about body parts. You also want to make sure parents are really clear on the body part names you'll be using in school so that everybody is communicating well and efficiently.

You want the child to be able to tell you before he's pottied in his diaper and then after he's pottied. Is it a verbal readiness skill that he's already gone and tells you that he has to go potty? It is because now you're making a language-potty connection. It's okay that you missed an opportunity or they haven't gotten to the next step, but once they give you that teaser, then you know there's pee pee in their diaper. I can change it. Next time or one day you'll decide to put the pee pee in the toilet.

They can follow simple directions. They have to be able to have this verbal interaction because pottying is not only a beautiful configuration of developmental skills all in alignment, but it's also at a stage when children may be most resistant to having somebody else tell them what to do or manage their world. 

We always have this power issue that is side by side and a control issue with potty learning, which to me just makes it that much more exciting developmentally. You want to be able to say, “Quick, run to the bathroom,” and have them have ears for it. Then they have to have the emotional readiness to think, hmm, I'm with her on this or with him on this.

You want the child to be able to tell you what he needs in a very simple way when they are early in the language stages, and then more down the road. Early on they just need to say, “Oh, pee pee.” You just want the child to tell you if he has to go and what he needs. The child needs to know, I'm here to assist you and I'm on your side. Then when you get to the big struggles, such as “I don't want to let it out because it's going to splash me when it poops in the toilet” or “I don't want to go because I have to know how to ask for help.” I have to know how to communicate fears and anxieties in a verbal and behavioral way. I want them to be able to say they want to do it themselves because I want them to take on the responsibility. We’ve now discussed the verbal and social-emotional readiness behaviors.

Cognitive Readiness Behaviors

  • Your child is curious about how his body works.
  • Your child sees the connection between his body and the potty.
  • Your child understands sequencing – before, during, and after.
  • Your child lines up his toys – understands order – things in “right” places.
  • Your child thinks ahead – he can stop doing something if he needs to potty.
  • Your child comprehends that potty books and videos are relevant to his actions at this time.
  • Your child understands the “big picture” – “so, this is how things work.”
  • from The Potty Training Answer Book

We know that in development we have to experience things as objects before we experience them with their true purpose. Babies experience books to eat, to throw, and to stand on before they understand that books have a message and you turn pages. It’s the same thing with potties. That potty has to become my friend before I am ready to sit on it and do something appropriate. We will help him know that potty seats don’t go on his head. But in the beginning, before he's peeing in it, it's okay to not know that this has a specific use in the world.

I want children to be curious about how their body works because it's cognitive. With potty training, we have all these external behavioral things and expectations, but it's got to click in the brain, which is oh my body is making pee and poop. My body has muscles that close and open and relax and let it out. My body plays tricks on me. I need this brain connection to be there and that's why I love Everyone Poops as the first book that I will ever read to a child at 18 months or 20 months. Since it's not about an agenda, I always start with how children understand what pee and poop are all about. They will see the connection between their bodies and this potty.

I need them to understand the sequencing of before, during, and after because I have to know before it's coming, when it's coming, and what to do after and make choices along the way. I do believe that children who line up their toys are way more comfortable with the order, sequence and right place of going potty. They have this understanding of how everything goes in its place. That makes it a little easier. That's cognitive as well as emotional.

They have to be able to think ahead and stop doing something if they need to potty. They have to be able to realize - oh, I feel it coming. I have to interrupt what I’m doing. This is self-regulation at its best. I have to put this on hold while I go do something else. Then I have to understand time in order to understand I can return to that thing and trust that it'll still be there for me.

I have to understand that those potty books and videos are relevant to my actions. We know somewhere right before that second birthday, toddlers internalize the message of books, whether they are the No David books, How Dinosaurs Say Goodnight, How Dinosaurs Eat Their Food, or Everyone Poops. When I'm reading Everyone Poops to a table of nearly twos, I can see in their eyes if they're connecting with the message and if it's about them or if it's just another cute book I'm reading. I want them to make that connection because now I have the power to use books, stories, and games to support their learning. I need them to understand the big picture. This is not just a sometimes skill. Eventually, this is going to be how we say goodbye to diapers. I want them to be able to hold the thought that there’s a big expectation in the making here and I want to make sure that you’re up for it.

As I said before, it is this big puzzle. All the readiness factors don’t arrive on their own. Our role as parents and as teachers is to see where children are, see where the missing pieces are, and use our best practices to scaffold them forward into success and mastery. 

Positive Potty Environment

  • Potty training should be fun because children learn through play.
  • Potty gear should be helpful rather than overly complicated.
  • Bathrooms should be child-friendly.
  • Routines should be stable and predictable.
  • Schedules should be relaxed.
  • Expectations should be opportunities for success.
  • Choose easy-to-clean clothes and surfaces.

from The Potty Training Answer Book

What's the positive potty environment? As I said, it starts long before we have an agenda or an expectation. Just as we introduce language before we expect children to speak, we introduce pottying long before. I want potty training to be fun because children learn through play. It is vital that we have a positive attitude and we convey the information the way children love to learn.

I want the potty gear to be helpful rather than complicated. I don't want there to be anything intimidating or scary. It's different enough from their homes. I want them to understand that this is a place for them, supporting them and their success.

I want bathrooms to be child-friendly. What does child-friendly mean? It's mine and it's about me and I can access it on my terms, in my way. I want routines to be stable and predictable. No coercion, no stress, no intimidation, and of course no shame.

I want schedules to be relaxed. This is very relevant for parents. You may be having grandparents or adults of a different generation are asking, “Why is it taking this generation so long to potty train these littles?” Children are just as smart as ever, but diapers, of course, interfere with children's awareness of their body because they are made to have children feel dry and the same all the time. Diaper companies would love children to be in them forever. Parents are on the go. Parents are in cars. Weekends are busy and full of activities. It's okay that we take a break when we need to make this a priority.

Expectations should be only opportunities for success, not anything that is off-putting for a child or for a parent. We need to choose easy to clean clothes and surfaces. We do that in school, but parents need the understanding that they are the partners in this and that we want them to know that accidents will absolutely be a part of the struggle when the struggle arrives.

Positive Potty Role Model – Parent

  • How’s your stress level?
  • Do you believe each child will be successful in his or her own time?
  • Is potty training a genuine priority or do you fit it in when it’s convenient for you?
  • Do you talk about a child’s potty abilities to other adults in front of the child?
  • Do you talk about dirty diapers or soiled clothes as “icky,” “yucky,” or “nasty”?
  • Can you appreciate potty training through each child’s experience to prevent your own boredom and burn-out?

Adapted from The Potty Training Answer Book

This part is mostly for parents, but we are the positive potty role models that anchor this for everyone. How's your stress level? As teachers, I think you're really great at saying, “I'm great at this. I understand children. I've done this a thousand times.” But each classroom has a different stress barometer. I want you to know if you're even stressed that a particular parent is coming or a particular child, that's going to challenge your success and your assumptions.

Do you believe that each child will be successful in his or her own time? The thing that I know is all children don't read at the same time. All children don't write letters in the right direction at the same time. Why do we think that there is a specific age that children should have that skill for managing their bodies? I do think we should be actively engaged in potty guidance and support, but I don't want us to think that we control the when, because if we believe that there is a timetable, children will feel that and be pretty sure to create obstacles and hurdles and detours for us.

Is it a genuine priority or do you just fit it in when it's convenient? Or are Mondays easier for potty training than Fridays? We really need to consider our emotions, the emotional barometer of our classrooms, of our school, and of course of our parents' school communication.

Do you talk about children's potty abilities to other adults in front of the child? We know that children are listening and watching. Those right brains are reading our right brains, so they are picking up on all of the emotions. If we're going to talk about relationships in our classrooms with children and relationships with our parents, I just need to make sure that all of them are respectful as they can be. That's not to say I haven't talked about a child learning a skill in front of the child with the parent, but I'm very aware that the child is listening to me. They aren't invisible, that's just my opinion on that.

Do you talk about dirty diapers or soiled clothes as icky, yucky, and nasty? I think we're bigger and better than that, but parents are done with diapers. We want to manage those hidden messages because as always, our children are listening to all of our messages, not just the ones we want to portray, but the ones that we're really portraying.

Can you appreciate potty training through each child's experience so that you prevent your own boredom and burnout? What I mean by that is, if you've done this a long time, sometimes you forget the relationship with the child that's present, and as we work towards making learning visible and making trust visible, it means that you need to be connecting to each developmental story and value in this experience. Take a deep breath, take care of yourselves, and make sure that you're as fresh as you can be. 

Temperament Matters!

  • Easy
  • Slow-to-Warm-Up
  • Difficult

Temperament is essential because the readiness by itself makes us think that we can control those factors without meeting each child as an individual where they are. We know that each child brings their own personality. This teaches us how we take those readiness puzzle pieces and help fit them to each situation, each child, and the reality of what's happening in our classrooms any given year. No two years are the same. Even though we might have had everybody graduate with potty success last year from our two-year-old program, that might not happen next year. How do children learn and appreciate change or how do they resist it? Think of this always with parents as well.

There are three temperament styles. In this course, we’re just going to look at temperament from a potty training point of view. The three styles are easy, slow to warm up, and difficult.


Potty Training Strengths: Easy Temperament

  1. She is less frenetic and able to sit for short lengths of time.
  2. She adapts well to schedules. Feeding schedules and nap schedules are predictable, which also leads to a predictable pottying schedule.
  3. She isn’t easily distracted from a task. So, if she sees a new toy on her way to the bathroom, she will remember to come back to it after she goes potty.
  4. She can listen to verbal encouragement and support without a strong emotional reaction.
  5. The sensory experience of sitting on a cold potty or of a naked bottom is not overwhelming.
  6. She will respond easily to pottying in a variety of situations under a variety of conditions. She is more likely to pause one activity if she needs to take a potty break.
  7. Her frustration may be expressed more mildly. Mistakes and setbacks will be small blips to success rather than major pitfalls.
  8. She may be eager to embrace new potty expectations.
  9. Overall, the potty process is more likely to be light-hearted.

The easy temperament children are going to be more relaxed and casual about how they potty learn. That doesn't mean they're going to be the quickest. So just take that deep breath and remember this is not something to rush. This is about how we connect the experience, the learning strengths, and the change. They are less frenetic and they're able to sit for greater lengths of time. Just know that that's a great advantage, but also keep in mind that not all temperament styles have this ability, so don't have that expectation for every temperament style. They adapt well to schedules and are relaxed. You're changing the routine today, fine, I'll go with the flow. This makes your life easier as you're introducing potty routines to your classroom and you're asking children to be flexible. Their feeding schedules and their nap schedules are more predictable, which leads to more predictable potty schedules. They are going to understand the routine and regulation in their body because their body is their friend and doesn't play tricks on them. There's another temperament that's going to have a body that's going to play tricks on them on a regular basis. It's not going to be predictable.

Also, they are not easily distracted from a task. If you're on the way to the bathroom with them and they see a new toy, you can say, “Oh we'll come back and get that” and they will also remember it and be able to relax with a flexibility that not all temperament styles have. They will be able to listen to verbal encouragement and support without a strong emotional reaction. I love this idea of temperament because those strong resistance reactions such as no, mine, not doing it your way no matter what, are not about you. It's not personal. It's not about a parent who's done something wrong. It's about a difference in temperament style. Appreciate those children that take your messages with ease.

The sensory experience of sitting on that cold potty or of a naked bottom is not overwhelming to the child with an easy temperament. Think about the comfort of being held by a diaper physically. It could be startling to some children to have a naked bottom, but with that easy temperament, the child will likely be comfortable being naked. They might love it a little bit too much even. They will respond easily to pottying in a variety of situations under a variety of conditions. They can pause one activity if they need to go take a potty break because they have that ease and flexibility. There's are a lot of factors of generalizing this skill that's going to throw children with other temperaments off.

The easy temperament child still needs the explanation and the support, but they're going to take that information with ease. They're going to be eager to embrace new potty expectations. The only thing I find with the easy temperament is sometimes, and this is a half-joke, that those very precocious easy temperament girls will be like, oh I'm ready to potty train and I'm only 22 months and I can walk myself to the bathroom. I'll tell you all about it. They want to do the new thing. They have this first month or two of success, and then they have this complete retreat that was like, I showed you what I could do, but now I'm going to hit resistance stage and backtrack. 

Easy temperament children might be eager for a new experience, but they may not have the emotional commitment to the long-term picture or they might not have the physical ability to hold it. They're just like yeah, give me underwear. Be careful though. Just because they say they can do it doesn't mean they can do it. Overall, the potty training process will be more lighthearted.


Potty Training Strengths: Slow-to-Warm-Up Temperament

  1. The child with a slow-to-warm-up temperament is often described as watchful. She likes to be prepared before taking action.
  2. This child’s mild disposition complements the predictability of a potty training routine.
  3. The child with a slow-to-warm-up temperament is the classic tortoise moving steadfastly toward a goal.
  4. You won’t have loud power struggles with a child who has a slow-to-warm-up temperament.
  5. The child with a slow-to-warm-up temperament may seem very sensitive to the physical sensations of potty training.
  6. The slow-to-warm-up child likes learning new skills.
  7. The slow-to-warm-up child may need a hand to hold along the way as she learns.
  8. This child tends to linger on the sidelines rather than jump forward with both feet (until you really get to know her, that is).
  9. Her mood is cautious more than negative or positive.

What about those slow-to-warm-up, watchful temperament children? They want to be prepared before taking action. These might be the children that do potty train in a weekend, but they might have been rehearsing it in their head or watching for months. The research says that potty training takes four to six months. That's not four to six months of active potty training. That could be a weekend or a week or two weeks of active potty training. It's that whole immersion process, filling in the readiness and then managing the hurdles, mistakes, and setbacks that come after, which is part of the generalizing of the skill.

Slow-to-warm-up children like to be prepared. They have a mild disposition that complements a slow and repetitive routine that we are so good at as early childhood teachers. They also are the classic tortoise moving steadfastly towards a goal. You might be the teacher that is the easy, impatient person that wants things done faster. This means you need to create that allowance to respect them as exactly who they are.

You won't have loud power struggles with a slow-to-warm-up child, but you might have cautious resistance. Once again, you might try to storm them through it. My advice is to stay with a slow tortoise pace, even though that's not your natural setting.

The child with a slow-to-warm-up temperament may seem very sensitive to the physical experiences. Figure out how to let them approach skills in tiny little pieces, rather than all in. They love learning new skills, so if you're connecting the dots they're with you because they will be able to have that reassurance going forward. They do need a hand to hold through that process, so have patience.

This child tends to linger on the sidelines before jumping in, but once they've got the skill, they're all in and confident. Again, do not misunderstand caution for positive or negative. It's just their way. 


Potty Training Strengths: Difficult Temperament

  1. Potty training is a physical activity. This child may not love sitting still but she may love running to the potty or pulling the toilet paper when she’s finished.
  2. The child with a difficult temperament can be unpredictable in her schedule.
  3. All children believe adult attention is the raison d’etre, especially the child with a difficult temperament.
  4. The child with a difficult temperament likes to do things in “a big way.”
  5. The child with a difficult temperament will experience every nuance of the potty training experience.
  6. The child with a difficult temperament likes to feel in control.
  7. The child with a difficult temperament hates to give up.
  8. The child with a difficult temperament will vehemently protest change.
  9. This child may say “NO!” when she really means “maybe.”

Last is the difficult temperament child. I love this temperament style because it is the one that engages me in my natural setting. Potty training is a physical activity. Intensity can go well with it, but they're not going to love sitting still. You have to find other ways to engage them in big action, such as running or hopping to the potty. Pulling toilet paper is always magical, but we have to introduce that with boundaries. Even if they're only taking a little bit, they still have power. Intense difficult temperament children love power and they love things their way.

This is the temperament style that has unpredictable body awareness. You have to know that their potty behavior yesterday isn't going to be like their potty behavior tomorrow. You have to be ready to help them read body signals and adapt.

They like to do things in a very big way so your teaching strategies and your encouragement for parents have to match the child's temperament. They will experience every nuance of the potty experience. Be ready to explain it all, but remember that they are more black and white than the easy or slow to warm up child. This means, I have all the pieces, but I'm going to keep you moving forward. I like to think of moving forward like bowling when you put the bumpers in the gutters so that we are steering and guiding without letting kids or success fall off the rails.

They do not like to give up so they will be intensely driven and motivated, but they also have a singular focus. They may not stop playing with that toy to go potty. You may have to be the invisible hand that moves them forward. They will protest vehemently, but they're used to that because that's how they are reacting to all learning and change and skill-building.

We love them and we are ready to let them express their big voices. When they say no, my response is, “I love the word no. It feels strong and powerful.” It might just mean maybe, so get it out, validate it and still let them know, we all still sit on the potty before going to the playground.

Never, ever ask a yes or no question of a child, and especially a potty training question, unless you are comfortable and prepared to accept no as an answer. Otherwise, you're just playing a trick on them. It wasn't really a question.

Potty training is not one size fits all, but that's what we do best as educators. We know how to individualize, but how do we individualize and still keep our sanity and classroom harmony and patience? Also, remember that there is no one age at which children will absolutely manage and master this. There is an age range that children should be engaged in potty learning.

Learning Strengths:  Meet Each Child Where They Are

What are the strengths? How do we adapt our classrooms to meet the learning strengths where children are? What's really important about this is this is what we do. This is play. This is why we love teaching. Potty training isn't something we do on the side. Potty training is interwoven into all of the things that we do in a whole child, whole potty culture classroom. It is for every learning style and it works for everyone. It's just finding our teaching strategies. As we know from learning styles, the best teachers teach to all the learning strengths. Let's make sure that we are broad and inclusive in how we teach.

  • Verbal - Stories, songs, rhymes, games
  • Physical - Movement, action, games
  • Imagination - Themes, characters, rituals, games
  • Social - Peers, the “club,” partners, games
  • Cognitive - Peers, the “club,” partners, games

Verbal reinforcement for potty skills are stories, songs, rhymes, and books. I can sing, ♪ Happy potty to me ♪ when I'm washing my hands so that I wash my hands long enough. I can use all of that potty literature from Everyone Poops on, but I'm going to use the books then to create the imagination games about the characters. Then I'm going to use the books to build questions. When I read Everyone Poops, the first question is, is your poop big or little? Let's make it about all that learning. This is the starting point for pottying and potty culture. The books, stories, songs, and rhymes give us content.

With physical movement, as with all teaching, it's not literal because we're early childhood. Yes, we want to do the fine motor for getting the clothes on and off. Yes, we want to be able to run to the bathroom or walk backwards to the bathroom if we're trying to slow down an experience. It's just like all the transition games we know. But then think about up, down, turn around. What about sitting and standing. In my school, we often as questions such as, do you sit when you pee, do you stand when you pee? If you want to go there. I have parents in my classrooms so I have a lot more freedom in terms of what I'm brave enough to talk about. Allow the games to be supportive of the skills that you're looking for for potty success. 

As I said, with imagination, I want it to be potty power stories. When the parent tells you the child can't go into a public bathroom with an auto flush toilet or the parent tells you that your school classroom isn't like home, make sure you have strategies that use imagination and games.

For social strengths, make sure that we are talking about our friend's success and our friend's struggles without shame or comparison. Make sure that there's a pride in being part of a potty parade, to hanging underwear on our sticks and marching around, or to wearing our potty crowns.

Finally, I love sequencing games to help learn before, during, after. Even if it's just the bathroom experience. For example, after we sit on the potty, we get our toilet paper. How much toilet paper, this much. Then we wipe and then we wash hands.

Accidents, Mistakes & Fears: Generalizing skills takes time!

Now how are we going to generalize that? We're going to let parents know and children know that we are a culture of mistake making. What did you make today? I made mistakes. We want parents and children to know that my classroom and my school celebrates mistakes.


School Policy


How are we going to define school policy? What we want to do is let parents know that this is a process because we are process learners and that's developmentally appropriate. When we come up with our school policy, we want to make sure that it is general and that we start it long before the one on one begins with active potty training. We want to be clear, transparent, consistent, flexible and problem-solving. We have intention and we do have expectations, but they are developmental expectations. Let's find out how to use this developmentally and in our communication.

School Policy Issues

As I interviewed everyone, I found there's a ton of stuff that is happening in the parent/school communication and in our personal reflections of how we are creating our values and our choices around potty learning and toddler and two-year-old experiences. 

  1. List of developmental signs/behaviors
  2. Child leads
  3. Potty vocabulary
  4. Parent readiness and child readiness - eagerness and resistance
  5. Address non-readiness factors – convenience, peer pressure or parent stress
  6. Food rewards – rewards in general
  7. Diaper free weekends at home – first?
  8. Routines – Reminders - Frequency
  9. Accidents are ok – how many?
  10. Back-up plans – what-ifs
  11. Last word? Can teachers say “not ready”?

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karen deerwester

Karen Deerwester, EdS

Owner of Family Time, Inc.

Karen Deerwester is the owner of Family Time Coaching & Consulting, the director at Family Time classes at B’nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton and the host of the weekly podcast See Me Hear Me Love Me. Karen is the author of three parenting books: The Entitlement-Free Child (Sourcebooks 2009), The Playskool Guide to Potty Training (Sourcebooks 2008), and The Potty Training Answer Book (Sourcebooks 2007) which won the 2008 NAPPA Gold Award for parenting resources. Karen has also appeared on numerous TV and radio programs including MSNBC, NBC, and NPR, as well as contributed parenting/early childhood advice to Parents Magazine, Parenting Magazine, Real Simple, Women’s Day, and Essence Magazine.

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