Toilet Learning a Metaphor for Montessori? — By Bart Theriot

Few developmental milestones give rise to more stress and trepidation than the thought of potty training your child. Rationally, we all know that eventually, our child will learn this skill just like everyone else in the world. Still, we hear so many stories running the full gamut from the child who did it all by herself at 16 months to the child who held out until he was four years old. Tales of half naked children destroying the Persian rug in the living room, power struggles, negotiation, rewards and punishment are all over the internet. The difficulties associated with potty training or toilet learning have lead to hundreds of blogs and books each offering its own fool-proof method guaranteeing success.

I won’t say ALL these books are wrong and I certainly won’t say toilet learning can be a stress-free process, but I do have a method that should work every time. I don’t know how this method originated or who is responsible. It is not my method, nor is it Montessori-specific. However, it occurred to me recently that if it is done right, this particular technique of toilet learning represents a solid metaphor for Montessori philosophy.

One flaw in the traditional method of potty training is that preparation for the child starts WAY too late. Many parents will change their child’s diaper lying on his or her back right up until the point that the child is expected to begin using the toilet independently. This creates a situation where, nearly overnight, the child goes from zero percent responsibility to one-hundred percent responsibility. As a result, so many of the methods you’ll find in books begin right at this point. As I said, that’s too late. There must be something in between zero and 100.

Look at it this way, if you knew you were going to run a marathon in 1 year, would you start training the week before? Of course not, because there are all sorts of skills you must develop long before you hit the starting line. Yet, so many of us forget this idea when it comes to preparing our children for the challenges they will face down the road.

So when should you start? This is where the Montessori analogy comes in. Montessori is about helping children to build the skills and learn the concepts they will need to be successful in the challenges that lie ahead (both known and unknown). This applies not only to the challenges that are right in front of them, but also those that may be years away. Math learning begins long before the child even picks up her first math material. A child develops the dexterity to write long before he holds a pencil. In the case of toilet learning, the ideal time to start is when your child begins walking. Most children begin walking between 11 and 17 months. The vast majority of children will not begin using the toilet independently for at least another year. The reason we start when the child begins walking, is because we are going to change the child’s diaper while he or she is standing up.

This very simple but drastic difference from the traditional lying-down method, is the primary reason for the method’s proven success. Before we get into the actual hands-on work, let’s discuss a few items of preparation. It is important to change the child in the bathroom, this introduces the child to the intended use of the room. You will need a low chair or stool placed in your bathroom. A small basket with 2 or 3 diapers in it. Either a stepping stool to the toilet or small toilet the child can sit on with minimal assistance. A trash can and a container of baby wipes -preferably one that allows the child to retrieve the wipe. Toilet paper can also be used, tearing a few sheets off the roll and placing them in a small basket provides even more independence. You will also need another stepping stool which allows for use of the sink to wash hands. Once you have these things in place, you’re ready for action.

    Here’s the full process step-by-step:

When it is time to change the child’s diaper (unless your child is able to tell you when the diaper needs changing, you will choose the time) get down to his eye level, take his hand and say “It’s time to change your diaper. Let’s go to the bathroom.” Then escort the child to the bathroom.
Talking is important so be sure to explain all that you are doing and engage the child throughout the process.
Sit down on the chair/stool and help the child remove his pants by placing his hands/hooking his thumbs in the sides of his elastic waste-band pants and lower them while holding the child’s hands in place. Pants with buttons and zippers should be avoided if possible since a young child’s fingers are not dexterous or strong enough for them.
Explain that you are removing the diaper and help the child place his hands on the velcro straps in front and say “Pinch and pull” as you undo the diaper. If it is a urine diaper, the child may place it in the trash can. If it is a bowel movement, the child may help you pour it into the toilet.
Use a wipe and place it in the child’s hand (if he can get it himself, allow him to do so). Help him wipe his bottom and discard the wipe in the trash.
Invite the child to sit on the toilet. If he refuses, do not insist. At this point, it is an option, not a requirement.
Invite him to retrieve a diaper from the basket and help him put it on -moving his hands as needed.
Help the child put his pants on, again, an elastic waist band should be used. Instead of the child pulling his pants up with a hand on either side, demonstrate and then help him to pull his pants up with one hand in front and the other in the back, palm-side out. This allows him to bend down and pull up his pants without them getting caught on his bottom.
Have the child wash his hands and dry them.
Return to your regularly scheduled programing.

If you have never changed a child standing up before, be prepared for…awkwardness. You might be thinking, how on earth do I change the child this way after a bowel movement? The good news is that children who are walking are also generally eating more solid foods. That means that, without being too graphic, bowel movements are generally more solid than they used to be a few months ago. Everyone has their own technique for this. Whatever works for you is the best choice. Sitting down on a stool or the toilet makes it much easier and also provides a defined staging area in between your knees. You are also down at the child’s eye level which is important for communication and for those times when you encounter a less than willing participant. Even though it may seem difficult at first, the learning curve is high. You’ll be a pro in no time.

I guess it’s easy to say a potty training method “works every time” because just about every child in the world eventually gets there. In the end, it may be difficult to say that one method or another was the actual reason. This plan, however, allows you to take note of the child’s progress toward mastery with each trip to the bathroom. Rather than one moment or a big push over a few days, this is a long-term process which allows for small, incremental growth. This method of assessment is inherent in all Montessori lessons. By following the child’s work step-by-step you are able to hone in on the areas where your child may need the most help and allow greater independence in the areas where progress is noted. As the child begins to take responsibility for more and more, the direct results of your (and the child’s) efforts become more evident. If you pay attention, you’ll know exactly when to start the final phase -underwear.

There really is no magic to this phase. The signs are obvious: Increased maturity and independence, a recognition of the need to go to the bathroom, evidence of muscle control and dry or less wet diapers in the morning. All of these point to the child’s readiness for underwear. There is one important point to be made about this phase. Once you switch to underwear, do not look back. Diapers should no longer be an option for the child. The moment you re-introduce diapers into the situation, you prolong the potty training process significantly. By doing so you send the message to the child that this whole using-the-toilet thing is a temporary arrangement. An experiment. A slight detour leading back to the land of diapers and less responsibility.

There is one caveat. Night time diapers are fine. Many children are able to grasp that diapers are only used for sleeping. But this must be carefully and repeatedly explained to the child. Diapers are only for night. During the day we use underwear.

As is the case with Montessori, consistency is imperative in all phases of this process. To be successful, the parent must meet the child where he is with a well-conceived plan to get him where he needs to be.Changes in the routine or even differences in the language used can create confusion and the opportunity for distraction. Ideally, one parent sets the tone and establishes the routine. Once the finer points are clear, the second parent (or care-giver) can begin work by following the same steps as the first parent. There are extensions to this method allowing for a parent to customize things to suit the child’s individual needs. For more on that, call me at the school or stop by anytime.

Good luck. I’d love to hear your stories of success as well as the struggles.