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 on 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, 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 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 and the parents need to keep the child home so they can intensify the training process."
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 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 preschools 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 and 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."
Rosso went through a potty-training 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 Montessori 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 physician, 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 she 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.