Dear Polly, What is the best way to handle bathroom issues with a young three year old?  She has had several accidents at school and she doesn't seem bothered by it. How do I advise the parents to handle this at home and what should I do about it at school?

Polly:   Toilet training is essentially a matter of wish versus will.  Parents and teachers want children to pee and poop in the potty. Young children are like young puppies with diapers, and when the diapers disappear, there may be puddles and plops wherever. Like the puppy, the child sees nothing wrong with this result. Besides, though they're curious creatures, little kids are basically conservative. They almost always prefer the status quo: in this case, "going" whenever they feel the urge, in a warm, wet (or mushy) diaper. It's a familiar feeling, hence comforting. And, hey, it's followed by the enjoyable personal attention that accompanies diapering. The little girl or boy does not have the will to drastically alter this emotionally comfortable situation. 

As accidents continue to occur, the adults — probably you included — get increasingly frustrated, and the child responds with increasing determination to maintain the habits she's used to. We're all fond of our habits! The adult's wish grows stronger and the child's will to do it his way grows stronger.  Adult and child are on the verge of a tug of war. I hope that you and the child haven't reached that point yet. The adult has a choice: Escalate the problem or back off. I think backing off is the better choice because you can't win by pressuring the child, and you can cause deep resentment, which will spill over from school to home or vice versa and may complicate your relationship in the future.

Here are some tips other teachers and parents have found helpful, all the more so if they've shared them with each other and developed a home/school approach to the problem:

  • At regular intervals, just before snack time, a story, or something else that the child particularly likes is about to happen, say, "First we'll see if any pee pee or poop wants to come in the potty. Here we go."  
  • Hop like a bunny, be a choo-choo train, pick up on what she's playing (pushing the doll carriage), or in some other playful way get a few children to the bathroom.
  • Expect everyone to "listen and find out if anything wants to come out." You may want to avoid saying, "try," as this will be perceived as an order instead of an interesting question.
  • Often the sociable nature of such an expedition expedites matters, but if nothing comes, say, "Here's a book to look at while you wait for something to come out."    
  • If this, too, fails, say cheerfully, "I think it'll come next time," and go on to the anticipated activity without recriminations.

Finally, remember to offer hope and provide an expectation: "Next time you can make the wee wee go in the potty." Phrase your words so that the child feels in control.