Toilet-Training: The Developmental Approach

by Michael Reisman, M.Ed.

If you are the parent of a toddler or preschool-age child, it is likely you are supporting your child’s transition from diapers to the toilet. As parent, coach, mentor and cheerleader you wear many hats as you search to provide the right support at the right time – prodding yet sympathetic, encouraging while comforting.

As a parent and early childhood professional for many years, I have been through this process, and know many families whom have as well. Do you know what we all have in common? All of our children successfully use the toilet. There’s a great saying you might hear from your pediatrician, preschool teacher or childcare director: He’s not going to walk down the aisle in diapers. It is true. Certainly as you scour the Internet for pointers, you will find there to be different approaches and perspectives on the most healthful ways to support your child’s bathroom transition. My own research and experience in childcare centers and preschools favors the developmental approach.

The developmental approach to toilet training identifies the child’s own readiness as a key component. Signs include:

  • The child seems interested in the toilet.
  • The child understands and follows basic directions.
  • The child displays a sign or “tell” to you or the childcare/preschool teacher that he needs to use the bathroom.
  • The child stays dry for longer periods throughout the day.
  • The child knows when her diaper needs changing, and lets her childcare provider know.
  • The child is beginning to pull pants down or up on his own.
  • The child can sit and rise from a chair without assistance.

Whether your child is in preschool, organized childcare, or stays at home for most of the day, you have a support team around you to help make those next steps positive and consistent. If your child is in preschool, such as our Prime Time Early Learning Center in Paramus, you have the wisdom and experience of childcare professionals on your team. Share your ideas and plan with your Paramus team so that they may reinforce at preschool what you are doing at home. Here are some additional tips that might help you get to finish line:

  • Think of “natural consequences” as a member of your team. Another sign of readiness is when your child begins to show understanding of cause and effect. Potty accidents will encourage this valuable learning in general. Reinforce cause and effect: “If you wet yourself you have to stop playing to change your clothes.” You should speak it as a plain fact, without frustration. You are providing information, not guilty feelings.
  • Reward attempts to use the toilet with descriptive praise, “You sat on the potty! That was brave.” You can also reward attempts with activities, “After you try to go potty we can go to the playground.”
  • Consider avoiding the “pull-ups” phase of toilet training. The idea is that pull-ups are easy for the child to take down and up while they are practicing using the toilet. When you ask in Paramus, providers in childcare and preschools still “help” the child deal with their pull-up like they would a regular diaper. The child is technically still in diapers, allowing him to feel less urgent about “holding it” to get to the toilet. Now that your child is walking and running around a lot more, pull-ups allow him to continue to play without visiting the toilet on his own volition or tell the childcare teacher he had an accident.
  • Consider making the transition directly to underwear. This will make for a lot of laundry at first, but in the long run toileting success will happen in a shorter amount of time. Purchase inexpensive underwear and easily removable pants, such as loose fitting sweatpants. The natural consequence accidents provide in real underwear will provoke your child to tell you or her preschool teacher she has “gone” in her pants. Pack lots of extra clothes for the childcare center or preschool and inform the childcare director and teachers that your plan is to go through lots of clothes while she is training.
  • Set times for the child to visit the toilet at frequent intervals throughout his home or preschool day. You will quickly reduce the number of accidents occurring throughout the day.
  • As your child gets further into the process, encourage her to change her own clothes following accidents. This is putting more consequences into play. You and the teacher can be positive and encouraging, while your child takes responsibility for her own learning and participation in the transition.
  • At nighttime, set an alarm for yourself to wake your child up to go use the toilet. If he has an early bedtime and you go to bed a little later, you can take the child to the bathroom immediately prior to going to bed. This way you do not have to interrupt your own night’s sleep while supporting your child’s success. Win win!

Consult with your pediatrician, childcare director and preschool teacher when determining a toilet training plan. Remember, it takes a village, and you are unlikely to even remember this stage when he or she is walking down the aisle.

MichaelReismanMichael Reisman is Director of Operations for Prime Time Early Learning Centers in New York and New Jersey. He has been a Preschool and Pre-K Teacher as well as Center Director in Early Childhood Education since 2003.