Is There a “Potty Learning Window”?

I’ve had this conversation often with friends, acquaintances, and online with other Montessori and Gentle Parenting advocates: Is there a toilet learning window? One Montessori-inspired book in particular says that the window is 14-20 months of age, which can really set Montessori parents into a tailspin!

I’ve written before on Montessori-inspired Potty Learning, but today I wanted to specifically discuss the concept of Potty Learning Windows.

Toilet Learning

In short, yes, there is a “potty learning window” but it’s not as set in stone as some people would have you believe. I personally think that for a typically-developing child the window will occur under three years of age, but for every child the window fluctuates based on their own development and their environment.

A lot of brain development and physical maturation is needed in order for a child to be capable of potty learning. While we can’t see what is occurring internally for our children, we can often see outward signs of readiness. Showing an interest or curiousity in pottying will often precede genuine readiness, and getting started on potty learning too early just tends to draw out the process.

When a child is ready, there is a period of time where they are intrinsically motivated to potty learn. They are interested in the process, they are fully satisfied by the outcome, and do not need outside motivation from parents or caregivers, though encouragement and reminders are definitely helpful. Stickers, chocolates, and similar treats are really unnecessary.

However, after that window of opportunity, when the child stops having a true interest in pottying, things can get a bit harder. The child no longer is as interested or motivated, so parents now have to inspire children to rekindle that interest. Also, the child has moved on to new focuses and interests which might compete for their attention. For example, an older child who is deepening his play or learning how to read might be focusing so hard on this new skill that they will not be able to integrate and learn the new skill of potty learning at the same time.

(A lot of parents and teachers mistakenly label this as laziness, saying: “he would rather poop his pants than stop what he’s doing.” That’s not quite it.)

With an older child, their body still has not developed associations between “potty cues” and “potty actions.” (Or, to be more scientific, they have not physiologically acquired elimination associations.) Have you ever tried to learn two brand new and unrelated skills at once? It’s overwhelming and you make a lot more mistakes than if you were just focusing on one new skill at a time. This is what the child who has “passed their window” is experiencing.

So, how can you support a child who has passed their potty learning window? There are many ideas for this, for myself, I think it’s essential to re-install motivation, and as much as I dislike external motivation, it can be beneficial in this circumstance.

5 tips for potty learning with an older child

5 Tips for Potty Learning Older Children

1. Give Yourself A Break.

The first thing you need to do with helping an older child potty learning is prepare yourself that it might be a long road (or it might be quick and painless!) and set yourself up to take it easy and not stress.

2. Ditch the Potty, and Keep the Pants ON.

While with younger children, we want to bring toileting down to their level and being bottomless can help increase the awareness of the sensations of needing to use the washroom, with an older child we need to remove as many “transitions” as possible and we need to ensure that they feel “grown-up” throughout this process. (Why are we teaching them to dress themselves if we are going to insist they be pantless?)

While a younger child might be successful learning bottomless, and then switching to underwear, with an older child, we need to be a bit more careful in what physiological associations we are creating with toileting — they might succeed bottomless, but then be incapable of noticing the sensations when fully dressed.

3. Reminders.

I hate timers, but they can be helpful and reduce fighting.

Initially, set the timer for every 35-45 minutes and when you can, give the child a five minute head’s up that they will need to take a break and use the potty. This allows them to finish up and disassociate from their work (at lease temporarily) and start focusing instead on their bodily cues. Sometimes the child will be ready to sit on the potty (or prepared toilet seat) before that five minutes is up, but I always try to give them a bit of freedom for that five minutes.

4. External Motivator. Some children will find a successful potty attempt to be it’s own reward, but with some older children, an extrinsic motivator is helpful. This could be a sticker chart (as much as I generally dislike those) or a special privilege time. I would initially attempt to use positive and affirmative language, or even a high five, before attempting a “reward.” A friend used a great method of having her son move one marble from one dish to another for every day that he was accident-free, and when the initial jar was empty, he was done with diapers!

5. Have them Help and Put Away the Change pad.

A change pad is for babies and very young toddlers, not for the older child. Younger children should be changed standing up in the Montessori Method, and older children should be helping with self-care.

This is not a shaming activity. It is done with the child’s involvement for several reasons, none of which are to embarrass them for their accident: it helps the child be very aware of what is happening — helping rather than being helped is an active rather than passive process; they fully experience that natural consequence so no other input or correction is needed; and they are empowered despite their accident.

 

I hope these tips help those of you who are potty learning with an older child, and for those of you who have already been there — what tactics did you find successful?

For more Montessori parenting tips, check out our Montessori approaches to sleep or raising children to be internally motivated.

 

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2 Comments

  1. Excellent tips. Thankfully my twins are past this stage, but such wonderful advice for those working on it right now. Particularly liked the way you calmly discuss what to do if you miss the window.

    1. Thanks, Erin! I was so happy when I was done the stage with my own daughter… and then I opened a Montessori daycare, lol. So it looks like I’ll be in potty learning mode forever! Full-day kindergarten starts at 4 years old where I am, so there’s a lot of panic for parents if their children aren’t trained by 3.5 years (kids get sent home after two accidents in the same day).

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