Girl’s sus­pen­sion a sign of the times for potty train­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY BRIGID SCHULTE

Zoe Rosso, who is 3 years old, likes to bake brown­ies with her mom, go to tum­bling class, and make up elab­o­rate worlds with tiny plas­tic an­i­mals and dolls. Like many chil­dren her age, she some­times has dif­fi­culty mak­ing it to the toi­let on time.

That’s why she was sus­pended from her preschool. For a month.

Ar­ling­ton Pub­lic Schools’ Montes­sori preschool at Clare­mont Ele­men­tary “re­moved” Zoe in De­cem­ber, ask­ing her par­ents not to bring her back to school for a month or un­til the child learned not to have any more “ac­ci­dents.”

The prin­ci­pal es­corted Zoe and her mother, Betsy Rosen­blatt Rosso, from the build­ing Dec. 3. “ The prin­ci­pal told me that Zoe had had enough chances,” Rosso said. “ That seemed ab­surd to me. It came as a to­tal shock.”

Now, Rosso — who had to ef­fec­tively shut down her busi­ness for a month while she scram­bled to find child care and still had to pay the preschool’s $835 monthly tu­ition — is push­ing the county and School Board to change its potty pol­icy. She calls it her “Potty Man­i­festo.”

“We would like Ar­ling­ton County to re­vise its pol­icy so that other kids and other fam­i­lies won’t have their lives dis­rupted like this for some­thing that’s to­tally de­vel­op­men­tally nor­mal,” Rosso said. “If a kid is emo­tion­ally and in­tel­lec­tu­ally

ready for school . . . then they should have the abil­ity to go, re­gard­less of whether their blad­der has caught up with their brain.”

Rosso finds her­self at the cen­ter of an emo­tion­ally charged par­ent­ing is­sue. As schools push higher aca­demic ex­pec­ta­tions down to ever-younger chil­dren, par­ents feel pres­sure to com­pete for open­ings at preschools that em­pha­size aca­demic chal­lenge. Some schools want to max­i­mize their fo­cus on aca­demics by re­strict­ing classes to the fully toi­let-trained.

Small bod­ies with tiny blad­ders strug­gle to keep up. El­iz­a­beth Page, a nearly child­hood spe­cial­ist and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Falls Church-McLean Chil­dren’s Cen­ter, called the county’s re­moval pol­icy “ridicu­lous.”

“Potty train­ing is very, very in­di­vid­ual, just like learn­ing to walk and learn­ing to read,” she said. “You can try to force a child to be potty-trained, but it’s like ask­ing a pig to fly. It frus­trates you and ir­ri­tates the pig.”

Char­maine Ciardi, a Bethesda child devel­op­ment psy­chol­o­gist, said preschool potty poli­cies vary widely be­cause of state li­cens­ing re­quire­ments for hy­giene, fi­nanc­ing for staff or sim­ply staff pref­er­ences. “In this time when peo­ple are more sen­si­tive with is­sues of nu­dity and sex­u­al­ity and chil­dren, some peo­ple are more re­luc­tant to change a child,” she said.

But poli­cies that push chil­dren to­ward toi­let-train­ing at a uni­form age put “ too much stress on ev­ery­body,” said Penny Glass, di­rec­tor of the Child Devel­op­ment Cen­ter at Chil­dren’s Na­tional Med­i­cal Cen­ter. “ To be suc­cess­ful with toi­let train­ing, it’s much bet­ter not to force.”

Fast-track toi­let train­ing

Rosso’s fight comes as a new move­ment, called “elim­i­na­tion com­mu­ni­ca­tion,” is push­ing to have in­fants as young as three months be­gin potty train­ing. “Fast track,” an­other con­tro­ver­sial early train­ing method in which a child is sat­u­rated with drinks and then placed on the pot, is also grow­ing in pop­u­lar­ity.

Rosso wants the county to ac­knowl­edge that 3-year-olds, even when they use the toi­let fre­quently, as Zoe has since July, can and do still have fre­quent ac­ci­dents. She wants schools to help kids, not pun­ish or shame them.

“In our view, Zoe is potty-trained,” the mother said. “But she’s not per­fect.”

Ar­ling­ton’s Of­fice of Early Child­hood is re­view­ing Rosso’s request, but spokes­woman Linda Er­dos said re­quir­ing 3-year-olds to be toi­let-trained has been county pol­icy for decades. “ The ap­pli­ca­tion for these preschool pro­grams states very clearly that chil­dren must be toi­let-trained, that we can’t ac­cept kids in Pull-Ups,” she said. “We un­der­stand kids have ac­ci­dents, but we’re not staffed like a day-care or child­care cen­ter and can’t ad­dress a child that needs help be­ing potty-trained.”

Er­dos said county prac­tice is to re­move a child who has eight ac­ci­dents in a month. “Once it gets to that point,” she said, “it disrupts the class.”

Rosso, who runs a com­mu­ni­ca­tions con­sult­ing busi­ness, said she was not made aware of the county’s ac­ci­dent limit un­til late Novem­ber, when Clare­mont’s prin­ci­pal told her that Zoe could be re­moved if she had three ac­ci­dents in one week or one ac­ci­dent a week for three weeks.

Er­dos said that she didn’t know how many times Ar­ling­ton pre-schools have en­forced the re­moval pol­icy but that it has been ef­fec­tive in the past.

Mark Wol­raich, di­rec­tor of the Child Study Cen­ter at the Uni­ver­sity of Ok­la­homa and author of the “Amer­i­can Academy of Pe­di­atrics’ Guide to Toi­let Train­ing,” said chil­dren typ­i­cally be­gin to toi­let-train be­tween the ages of 18 months and 4 years. Some learn quickly, while oth­ers take months. Many learn, then regress. Ac­ci­dents, he said, are com­mon. Nearly a quar­ter of all 5-year-olds still have day­time ac­ci­dents. Night­time ac­ci­dents can con­tinue for much longer.

“A lot of the preschools al­low or should be al­low­ing for some ac­ci­dents to be oc­cur­ring,” he said. “ To ex­pect kids to be per­fect and not have any ac­ci­dents is cer­tainly not re­al­is­tic.”

Wol­raich said toi­let train­ing, more than any other de­vel­op­men­tal mile­stone, has al­ways been emo­tion­ally charged. The push for early train­ing, he said, is more a re­flec­tion of par­ents’ need for ac­com­plish­ment than of any un­der­stand­ing of child phys­i­ol­ogy. “It’s al­most like a su­per-mom is­sue,” he said. “ There’s not been any ev­i­dence that chil­dren who get trained ear­lier are any smarter or more ac­com­plished later in life.”

Zoe’s story

Rosso went through a pot­ty­train­ing class in the sum­mer. By the end of July, Zoe was us­ing the toi­let reg­u­larly. But when she started a new preschool pro­gram in Septem­ber, the change threw her off. At pickup time, Zoe’s teacher an­nounced in front of ev­ery­one how many ac­ci­dents the child had that day, Rosso said.

Two weeks later, when a slot opened up at the Clare­mont Mon-tes­sori pro­gram, the Ros­sos grate­fully trans­ferred Zoe.

Through the fall, she would stay dry for weeks, then have a spate of ac­ci­dents. She would clean up af­ter her­self, chang­ing her own clothes. As teach­ers sug­gested, the Ros­sos took Zoe to a pe­di­a­tri­cian, who said the child was per­fectly nor­mal. “Hav­ing a few ac­ci­dents a week is not un­usual,” the doc­tor, Chris­tine Bal­drate, wrote to the school.

By that time, the Ros­sos had bought Zoe a spe­cial watch to go off ev­ery so of­ten to re­mind her to go. They read or sang to her as she sat on her green frog potty. They watched train­ing videos with her and de­vised an elab­o­rate sticker sys­tem to re­ward her when she made it to the toi­let on time.

Af­ter she was re­moved from school in De­cem­ber, Zoe had only a hand­ful of ac­ci­dents, her mother said.

With trep­i­da­tion, the Ros­sos sent Zoe back to Clare­mont ear­lier this month. She stayed dry at first but within a few days had five ac­ci­dents.

“I couldn’t bring her back to school” af­ter that, Rosso said. “Ev­ery sin­gle day, we’d be wait­ing for the prin­ci­pal to ap­pear and es­cort us out of the build­ing again.”

Af­ter fran­tic calls, the par­ents found a spot for Zoe in a pro­gram that works with chil­dren who are be­ing potty-trained.

“We told Zoe that we want her to go to a school where peo­ple aren’t go­ing to get mad at her for hav­ing ac­ci­dents,” Rosso said.

Since she started at the new school on Jan. 11, her mother said, Zoe has made it to the toi­let ev­ery time.

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