Can Daycares and Schools Have Potty Training Policies?

Policies differ across preschools, daycares, and states. Here's what parents of toddlers who aren't toilet trained need to know.

girl on potty
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Given how stressful potty training can be for parents and kids. So the last thing either need is to contend with discrimination from a daycare or preschool that refuses to accept a child who isn't yet trained. And yet, now and then, families face this very ordeal.

In 2011, a child was told not to return to her Arlington, Virginia, preschool until she stopped wetting her pants. Five years later, in 2016, the New Jersey Attorney General's office filed a discrimination suit against a preschool that allegedly expelled a toddler with the disorder for failing to toilet train.

Not only are "potty training deadlines" harmful, but they're ill-advised by most education and pediatric experts. Here's what parents of potty-training toddlers need to know.

Childcare Potty Training Policies

Policies differ across daycares and schools, making this a challenging area for parents to navigate. For example, some daycares and preschools require kids to be out of diapers and relatively accident-free before they're allowed to attend. Others don't require a child to be potty trained beforehand, like the federally-funded Head Start program.

"Typically, I note at age three and up, the daycare or preschool may ask for a potty-trained child to enroll in their program," says Lisa Lewis, M.D., a board-certified pediatrician in Fort Worth, Texas, and author of Feed the Baby Hummus: Pediatrician-Backed Secrets from Cultures Around the World. "I have met many parents in the clinic who had to search for 'potty training friendly' daycares or preschools for their children over three."

By state

Some states have their own regulations in place. Some may have statewide policies established by their departments of child and family services that require toilet training for certain childcare programs. These often apply to preschool programs and older children.

The state of Illinois, for example, says that teachers may ask for parents' cooperation to begin potty training but that no special measure will be imposed on parents or children.

Tomitra Latimer, M.D., medical director at Lurie Children's Pediatrics at Clark-Deming in Chicago, explains that daycares in Illinois, for example, do not require children to be toilet trained. That's because they have not yet acquired those developmental skills at such a young age. "Furthermore, children with special needs do not need to be toilet trained in order to enroll."

By childcare centers

On the national scale, KinderCare, a child care and early childhood education center with 1,700 locations nationwide, steers clear of potty training deadlines.

"At KinderCare, we would never reject a child because they're not potty trained," says Hattie Mae Covington, a toddler teacher at the Providence Road KinderCare Learning Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. "Every child develops at their own pace, and some may have medical reasons for potty training later than their friends or not at all. We try to meet each child where they are and work with their family to figure out what we can do to best support their child."

That said, parents must investigate their state, preschool, or daycare's individual policy before enrolling a child who is not yet potty trained.

When to Start Potty Training

Laura Jana, M.D., FAAP, a pediatrician, author, and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), says that the best time to start training depends on parents' expectations and how they define potty training.

"That's because if someone's expectations are that when you start training your child, they need to quickly master the concept, it's a very different discussion from the one I recommend having, which starts by considering potty training to be potty learning," Dr. Jana says. "This importantly suggests that potty training is a learning process that can be done over time."

Offer early exposure

Dr. Jana advocates starting as soon as a toddler can accompany you to the bathroom. At this young age, she suggests toddlers can gain exposure to using the toilet, even if they aren't yet ready to take their clothes off or use the toilet. For example, try letting them sit on a potty seat alongside you or their siblings and letting them flush the toilet for you.

"A lot of this early exposure and potty learning is based on preventing later struggles and fears, such as fear of flushing and not sitting still," explains Dr. Jana.

Ellen Lestz, M.D., a pediatrician with White Plains Hospital Medical & Wellness in Armonk, New York, generally asks parents about it their child's 2-year visit. Dr. Lestz explains that toilet learning initially involves more of an introduction by doing things like:

"I find more of an average age of success closer to three, although some are younger and many are older. I really try to let the child figure out when they're ready, and most will let the parents know, either by asking to use the toilet, to wear underwear, or waking up dry in the morning."

Avoid pressure

But if a child isn't ready and a parent tries too hard to "train" them, they might be more likely to resist, Dr. Lestz points out.

The AAP echoes Dr. Lestz's advice, noting that, in the U.S., the average age to begin potty training is between 2 and 3 years. However, most kids aren't bladder trained until closer to 4.

When to Hit Pause on Potty Training

If you're fighting tooth and nail with your child, you might wonder when it's time to give up on potty training. Taking a break is an option, Dr. Jana says. "It's always good to pick your battles, and trying to force children to pee or poop in the potty rarely ends well if you are engaged in battle rather than working on the same team," she says.

Other times it may be time to take a step back, according to Dr. Jana:

This is a great subject to discuss with a pediatrician, says Dr. Jana. That's because your efforts are most likely to be successful when you work as a team to figure out what your 'teammate' (child) needs most to be successful. Sometimes that's more routine, positive encouragement, more 'education' about the process, or maybe a break.

How to Handle Looming Deadlines

Dr. Latimer acknowledges that parents whose children aren't yet toilet trained might become stressed, anxious, and fearful as the school year approaches. That's especially true if the school requires them to be ready to go sans diapers.

Use the deadline as an opportunity

But this moment might provide an opportunity for parents and kids to get to the finish line, according to Alex Ryan, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at Academic General Pediatrics at Lurie Children's. She found that all three of her kids seemed to wait until the "last minute" before toilet training was achieved. So she used scheduled bathroom breaks, potty charts, reward stickers, plus effusive praise to navigate this challenge.

Dr. Latimer reassures parents that some kids are able to achieve toilet training very quickly. "Since many preschools are only half days, most children can remain dry for the two to three hours they are in preschool."

Of course, that presumes a child is ready to potty train. According to UC Davis Health Children's Hospital, the average time it takes most children to potty train is six months. So, if your child isn't ready, no amount of additional pressure will make them ready.

Work with your daycare or school

If possible, parents should try to work with their child's daycare or preschool on their goals. As Dr. Jana shares, "Having owned an educational child care center for nearly 10 years, with 200 kids mostly under the age of 6, I can tell you that partnering with child care providers in a collaborative, positive approach gives children the consistency and support they need—and, conversely, can really throw off your efforts when you're not working in sync."

What's more, a child's daycare or school environment may actually serve to expedite the process. According to Dr. Lewis, "Attending daycare or preschool is one of the best ways to potty train a toddler. Toddlers love to learn from other children, and 'follow the leader' to the potty is a great facilitator for potty training success."

Major early learning organizations agree that partnerships between families and schools are critical when it comes to toilet learning. For example, the National Association for the Education of Young Children's description of a high-quality program includes support with toileting.

Look for a supportive school

The National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education (NRC) maintains and develops national standards for childcare. Their Caring for Our Children section on toilet training advocates that teachers and childcare providers assist young children with toilet training. They specifically suggest deferring toilet training until a child shows the following potty training readiness signs:

  1. Understanding cause and effect
  2. Ability to communicate
  3. Ability to remain dry for up to two hours
  4. Ability to sit on the toilet
  5. Ability to feel the sense of elimination
  6. Expressing an interest in autonomous behavior

If your child isn't ready to potty train, your final option is to seek out a school or daycare that is flexible and supportive of children who aren't potty trained. Chances are this will be a short stretch, and by next school year, your options will likely have opened up!

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