WASHINGTON - 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 (Va.) 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, an early childhood specialist and executive director of the Falls Church-McLean Children’s Center in Virginia, 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, Md., 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 in Washington. “To be successful with toilet training, it’s much better not to force.”
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 child-care 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.”