I realised that in my last potty training post I focused on the physical aspects of potty training and neglected the psychological, motivational aspects – which is silly given that is one of my areas of expertise. Apart from the sickness that put Alex in hospital for a couple of nights shortly after our first attempt at toilet training, I think the lack of motivation also undermined our last attempt. Last time, when Alex seemed to have the concept, and was physically able to hold on until he got to the potty, he started fighting going to the potty, and in my attempts to avoid accidents I was constantly asking, and rushing him. I rarely fall into power struggles with Alex, but using the potty started to trigger conflict.
Self Determination Theory and Potty Training
Potty training generally starts around the age where kids are beginning to assert their independence. This is a perfect time to draw on the Self Determination Theory, which recognises autonomy as a driving need. I studied Self Determination Theory for my honours thesis. It has a lot of empirical support, and you can find many references here. Today, I will be drawing on the theory to inform my next attempt at toilet training. I’m not yet sure exactly how to potty train, but I know how to set up the conditions to foster motivation, and I think that is a good place to start.
Self determination theory suggests that there are three fundamental needs: Competence, Autonomy, and Relatedness. Numerous studies have found that when these needs are met, people flourish, when they are undermined, people languish (1). Let’s look at each in turn.
People are most motivated to do something when they are optimally challenged. You may have experienced this with video games, when they become too easy, you stop because it is boring, when they become too hard, you stop because it is frustrating, but when they are optimally challenging you can become completely immersed and lose hours to the endeavour – or you could – pre-kids.
So, how do we make potty training optimally challenging? Here are a couple of ideas:
Scaffolding refers to providing supports initially, so the task is not too challenging, and then gradually taking these supports away. Here are some things we are going to try initially, to make going to the potty easier to learn:
1. Potty-sit practice: Alex struggled to sit on the potty quickly the first time. This time, in the week leading up to the training, we’re going to play the potty-sit game. This is basically musical chairs with a potty. When the music stops, the game is to sit on the potty as quickly as possible – pants and all initially.
2. Model: Seeing, or visualising successful action is a very powerful learning tool. So in the week leading up to the training we will be reading our Potty book (Potty by Leslie Patricelli), and helping teddy to go to the potty.
3. Pants-free time: Removing the nappy and undies for the first couple of days, like we did last time, provides immediate feedback. This is important in building a sense of competence or mastery. It also removes the need to fiddle around with pulling pants down.
4. Porta-potty: Taking a porta-potty everywhere means your child doesn’t have to hold on for as long initially, nor take so much time out of play initially. We bought the Potette Plus (Below left) – and found it very portable, but a little small – Alex needs good aim to get his bum on it. The Cool Gear Travel Potty (Below right) was another option we considered.
5. Sitting wees for boys: Initially, we’re not even going to try to aim wees for the toilet, we’ll go the sit and dangle method until that becomes too easy.
6. Going commando: Once pants-free potty use is easy, we might go to pants without undies. Less to pull down, and feels less like a nappy. Once this is mastered – undies!
If you think of any other scaffolding methods, please mention them in the comments below.
Once kids have mastered going to the potty, it can become an annoying distraction from play-time. At this point, we can try to add new challenges. Here are some ideas:
1. Bulls eyes: Paint a bulls eye in the potty for aiming at.
2. Standing wees for boys: Begin teaching boys to stand and aim when doing a wee. We plan to put a bright ping-pong ball in the toilet to aim for when Alex is up to that.
Alternatively, we can just make potty time fun, with books, songs etc.
Please add other ideas for making potty-time optimally challenging, and fun, in the comments section below.
Feedback is really important to building a sense of mastery, but if too much of that feedback is coming from a parental figure, it can seem controlling. That’s why I like the natural feedback that accidents provide, but I will also try to supplement with some of my own (feedback – not accidents!). Here’s how:
1. We’ll celebrate little successes – staying dry and successful use of the potty. I’ve already been saying to Alex that when I do a wee, I get to flush the toilet, and when he does a wee, he’ll get to flush the toilet. So the flush will be part of the reward.
2. We’ll celebrate progress each night – each night we’ll celebrate how many successes and how few accidents he had. On particularly good days we might ring Nonna and Pa to brag. On days that weren’t so good, we’ll talk through the accidents, and how he might be able to do better tomorrow. I’ll try not to tell or judge myself, but rather ask Alex. For example “Did you do wee wees and poo poos in the potty today?”…
Autonomy involves giving children a sense of control. This can be done by providing choices, rationales, and acknowledging feelings. Here are some things I am going to try this time:
1. Remove the pressure: I will either call potty-time (see number 4), or I will trust Alex. I won’t nag this time. I will observe: “Alex, you are crossing your legs, perhaps you need the potty”, or “Alex, I thought you said you needed the potty, do you want to take that toy with you?” but then I won’t push the issue.
2. Accidents are opportunities to learn: When Alex has an accident, I will acknowledge his disappointment, we will clean up the mess together, then talk through what he could have done.
3. Ask, don’t tell: When we are talking through accidents, I won’t tell him what he should have done, but rather ask him and discuss. “You did a wee on the floor, where should you have done the wee?”, “Why did you do the wee on the floor?”, “Do you think you might have got to the potty quicker if you didn’t play with that on the way?” “What could you do next time you want to do a wee?” “What if you want to play with a toy, but you need to wee?”…
4. Set Potty Times: Last time we tried potty training, I would ask Alex ten times before we left the house whether he needed to go. It must have seemed like I was obsessed! This time I’m not going to ask 10 times, I’m going to tell – once. I’ll use this at night too. Alex started trying to delay bedtime by saying he needed the potty. This time, 15 minutes before the sleep routine, and before going out, will be potty time. Here’s a great article for making these have-to-happen tasks fun by using choices: 33 Phrases To Stop Your Toddler’s Tantrums. We’ll try variations on “OK, potty time because we are about to go out (rationale), / do you want to walk or jump to the potty? (choice) / which nursery rhyme do you want today? (choice) / can you sit on the potty before I get to 10? (challenge) / do you want to use the potty or toilet this time? (choice)”.
5. Acknowledging feelings: “I know you want to keep playing, but sometimes the potty can’t wait. We can play that again after the potty. / How about you bring that to the potty. / Let’s talk about what we’re going to build next while you’re on the potty”.
Relatedness refers to that sense of acceptance and belonging. Relatedness can be undermined if parents get angry about accidents, show affection conditional on potty training success, or enter into a power struggle over the potty. I will attempt not going to get angry about accidents, and take the time to play with Alex when he is on and off the potty. Alex is indicating that he wants to wear undies like Mummy and Daddy, so I feel it is the right time to start. I’ll try to support him in reaching this goal, and try to make the journey fun, rather than trying to completely control the process. I’ll let you know how we go.
What about rewards?
Rewards aren’t as simple a motivator as behavioural psychology would have you believe. They need to be handled with care.
If the child only behaves in a certain way to gain a reward, they can lose interest in the task itself, and see no reason to continue the behaviour if the reward is no longer available or becomes less appealing to them. This is extrinsic motivation.
If the child identifies with the objective, then even though taking time out of play to go to the potty is arduous, he may still use the toilet because the objective of being like Mummy and Daddy is important to him. In this case the motivation is more internalised. Motivation comes from the child, not someone else. The quality of this motivation is better.
Alternatively, you can make the activity so fun, that children want to do it in it’s own right. (This is called intrinsic motivation). During potty training, when children need to spend a long time on the potty to experience success, this can be a good approach. However, the ability to keep potty time more appealing than playtime is limited, so ultimately, internalising the objective is ideal.
Praise is a form of reward, but it is also a way of communicating sentiments like pride, encouragement, affection, and recognition. Therefore, try to keep praise genuine. This way it provides feedback and adds to the optimal challenge. Initially a wee in the potty may be a big achievement, then a poo, then a whole morning without accidents, then a whole day.
I plan to keep a visual recognition of Alex’s acheivements by charting out the learning process, and the different levels he will through. Level 1 is no pants and no undies. When he can do all his wees and poos in the potty (apart from nap and sleep times), then we will move up to level 2 which is pants but no undies. When he can do all his wees and poos in the potty with pants, then we will move up to level 3 which is undies and optional pants. When he masters this level, we will have a big celebration. He can choose the food and toys involved in the celebration.
You can sign up to download the chart here.
How you use the chart is important. The idea is that the levels provide clear goals, and it is clear when a level is accomplished. The celebration is to recognise success, not reward behaviour. Therefore, the levels, and the celebration are not bargaining tools. They should NOT be used as “If you don’t go to the potty, you won’t level up”, or “Go to the potty now, or there will be no celebration”. To avoid these tempting phrases, I am going to try to use questions not statements. Such as “You’re wearing no pants and no undies now, when will you get to wear pants?”.
If you don’t know the background on our first attempt, you can see the research it was based on and a debrief of the outcomes here.
Vansteenkiste, M., & Ryan, R. M. (2013). On psychological growth and vulnerability: Basic psychological need satisfaction and need frustration as a unifying principle. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 23, 263–280. doi: 10.1037/a0032359