If you’re getting ready to send your child to kindergarten, potty training may already feel like a distant memory. As I start to think about training my daughter, I realize I don’t really remember how we got my son to use the potty. My daughter is three years younger and a lot has happened in those three years! But I am realizing that the bathroom journey isn’t done with my four-year-old as I start to think about getting him ready for school. There are some things that he doesn’t seem to understand or can’t handle independently yet and they may really get in the way of his school experience! Here are some of the things we are working on.
My four-year-old can tell you that the bathroom is a private place and that you need a private place to take off your clothes. And then, we have company, and I see that he doesn’t quite get it. I end up running from the dining room table (which has a perfect view of the bathroom!) to save the guests from an unexpected view!
Depending on the school, your child’s kindergarten might have a private bathroom in or near the classroom, or your child may have to use a multi stall bathroom like the older children do. Even if the kindergarten has a private bathroom, learning how to manage a public bathroom will be important if your child is going to the bathroom during lunch or in the gym.
The core message for your child is that every individual has a right to privacy when they use the bathroom. That means one person in the bathroom or stall at a time, close the door, lock the door, and when you’re done, come out with your clothes on and fastened. This can be tricky because when children are little they live in a world of “privacy… but…,” like Mom and Dad will come in to check on you if you’ve been in the bathroom too long or I’ll come in and wipe when you’re done. As a parent, I definitely don’t get privacy in the bathroom every time and even though my son understands that I want privacy when I’m in the bathroom it doesn’t stop him from coming in when two of his Legos are stuck together. Now is the time to start making those blurry lines around privacy a little sharper and more black and white. It may be a shift for your family, but it’s a shift that will help your child with the transition from being home to being in the more public world of school.
When my brother was potty training many years ago, my father famously told him that “the job’s not over until the paperwork is done.” I know a lot of preschoolers, and if we’re being honest, I’ve known some school-age kids, who still needed feedback on their cleanup job after using the bathroom. Now is the time to step up that gradual release of responsibility. I know that in a perfect world I would rather have my kids walking around clean than have them be walking around independent, but if they’re going off to school, they need to be able to do enough wiping to manage. They likely won’t have access to wet wipes either, so be sure that they get some practice cleaning up after using the bathroom with toilet paper only.
That brings me to a – perhaps less common but definitely real – problem for many students preparing to enter kindergarten. That is fears about using the bathroom on their own. For my son, it has been the sound of the loud flush in a large public bathroom. He also may run back out into the restaurant if the hand dryer comes on. While he may not encounter automatic hand dryers when he gets to school, he definitely does need a strategy for flushing the toilet on his own instead of hiding outside the stall while I do it for him.
Other kids have different fears that may interfere with their bathroom Independence. For example, in one school where I worked, the older students had convinced some of the first- and second-graders that one of the bathrooms was haunted. At least one student took it to heart and was running off the school bus in the afternoon and barely making it into the bathroom before having an accident because she was so afraid to use the bathroom at school. Another student I know began to avoid going to preschool out of the fear that he would have to poop there and no one would be in the bathroom to reassure him that he wouldn’t fall in. Every kid has their own quirky needs and worries in this area. Before they start kindergarten is the time to take a step back and think about whether any of your child’s peculiar anxieties are getting in the way of their safety and Independence in the bathroom.
When I was in Americorps we had a uniform with a belt. It was a canvas belt with a free end that threaded through a metal clasp and then, as far as I could tell, became stuck there forever. I remember an embarrassing and nerve-wracking moment when I couldn’t get out of my uniform belt and had to stand there in the hallway while one of my teammates tried to free me, and I concentrated on not wetting my pants. I was 20, not a child. But that’s the memory I think of when I think about kids wearing belts and buttons and tights to school that they have to get out of to use the bathroom.
There are so many adorable kids’ clothes and school shopping is so exciting. Grandparents get in on the act, too, and buy adorable little outfits for the little boys and girls going off to school. And they make for great pictures! But before you send your child to school in a new kind of clothes, make sure that they can independently unfasten and fasten them in a limited amount of time. My son’s favorite pants all winter were a pair of hand-me-down khakis, but he could not get the hook at the top of the zipper done independently. It resulted in him walking around with his pants half open more often than I would like to think about. When I pick out school clothes for him, I go with all elastic waist and drawstring options that he can get in and out of efficiently I get back to his classroom. As his motor skills get better, more options will open up. And on the weekend, when he’s with the family, he can wear whatever he wants!
Kids are gross. Listen, I taught my son to wash his hands before I even taught him to use the bathroom. There’s a little song I made up and everything. And yet, I still catch him dipping his hands in the water, squirting a handful of soap, and rinsing it immediately into the sink and then drying his hands on my nice clean towel and trying to walk out of the bathroom. Yuck.
To an extent, kids are going to do a bad job with things like washing their hands and faces. Even if they know they’re getting rid of germs, they don’t really get it and they don’t really believe you that washing their hands will keep them healthy. So continue to reinforce this skill with your child and know that the teacher will, too. But you do have to accept that no one is going to supervise them scrubbing their hands every time. Yikes. So you may want to find out whether hand sanitizer is an option. In some schools it is, and others avoid it.
As much as it grosses me out (OK, I have a thing about germs) to think of a bunch of five-year-olds using the same bathroom all day with little adult intervention, I do realize that kids become independent eventually! This last window before your child starts school is your chance to give them the skills to be independent and confident so they can take care of business and get back to their classroom day!
I wrote a book about getting your preschooler ready for kindergarten. Join my mailing list for updates about the book and tips for preschool parents!