When you registered your child for preschool months ago, you thought she'd have mastered the potty by now. But the first day of school is not that far off, and she's still having accidents -- or using diapers. Since children learn to use the toilet anywhere between 1 1/2 and 4 years old, even schools with potty-training requirements often have to be flexible. Help your little one get on the right track with this guide to timely potty prep.
It's important to remember that there is no universal timeline for when a child should be potty trained, so pushing your child to master the potty before he's ready can drag out the whole process for both of you. "Any time a child is pressured to accomplish something that he's just not developmentally ready to do, it has the potential to have a negative effect on his self-esteem," says Linda Whitehead, Ph.D., vice president of education and development at Bright Horizons Children's Centers, in Wilmington, Delaware.
Here's what you can do, explains Dr. Whitehead: Ask your child regularly if he has to go to the potty. As long as he's developed the physical control required for potty training, prompts will help him notice on his own when he needs to go and, eventually, he won't even need your gentle reminders.
Rather than worrying about the issue alone, call your child's school directly to see how its policy defines "potty trained" and whether there is some flexibility. "We don't have diaper-changing facilities in our 3-year-old classroom, so we ask that students be potty trained when they enter that room," says Daelyn Dillahunty, vice president of franchise operations for Children's Lighthouse Learning Centers, in Fort Worth. "But we usually have two or three students every year who need a little extra help, so we work together with the parents to come up with strategies for both home and school." The teachers may encourage using disposable training pants in school for now or keep a log of potty attempts to share with parents, who can then praise their kiddo for trying.
While you may hesitate to speak up, be honest with the administrators, recommends Dr. Whitehead: "Let them know you thought you'd be further along in the training process by now and, while your child is making progress, she's still having some challenges." Ask whether their teachers can work with you to devise a plan for boosting your child's skills, even if it's just asking her periodically whether she needs to use the toilet.
Even if your child's been taking his time to train, he might surprise you with quicker progress at school. Preschoolers might not want to seem babyish to their friends who use the bathroom, and simply seeing his classroom buddies using the potty can give your child's skills a boost.
Hanging out with some slightly older kids can help too. Mark Aselstine's son, Jake, was not potty trained a month before entering his preschool, which required students to be out of diapers. "We were sweating bullets," says the Berkeley, California, dad. Then Jake noticed that his older cousins use the restroom. After that realization, he was potty trained in three days.
Even kids who are considered fully potty trained have occasional accidents. "Going to preschool is a big transition, so children may regress a bit during this time because of the stress," says Dillahunty. But a few slipups certainly don't mean that you're back to the beginning. Once your child gets used to her new setting and routine, there's a good chance she'll rebound and use the toilet again.
Even if she seems to be going backwards, don't resort to using diapers, advises Dillahunty. If your child is truly worried about going to a new school, she might prefer to regress to that familiar baby stage and put off the potty even longer. Stick with big-kid underwear, and congratulate her when she's successful. When she's not, stay positive. Offer encouraging statements like, "Don't worry, you'll make it to the toilet next time." Punishing, scolding, or reminding her about the preschool requirement could add to her anxiety. (Just to be safe, make sure you send a few changes of clothes and socks to school, along with plastic bags to hold any soiled items, advises Dr. Whitehead.)
Originally published in the July 2014 issue of Parents magazine.