What to Do If Your Child Will Not Use the Potty at Day Care

Blue and white potty chair

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Potty training is sometimes a frustrating and confusing experience, perhaps more so for parents than for children. Among the toilet training challenges that you might encounter is a child who, despite using the potty regularly at home, refuses to use it at day care or school.

As frustrating as this is for you and your child's caregiver, it is not uncommon. The exact reasons why your child refuses to use the toilet for a caregiver can be hard to figure out. It may take a while to determine what the cause is and how to resolve it.

It's also very possible that your child will just decide one day to go potty at school and you'll never know the root of their original resistance. But in case that magical day doesn't seem to be coming anytime soon, you may be looking for ways to help your child feel comfortable using the daycare bathroom now.

Possible Reasons for Resistance

The first step is to try to identify what might be contributing to your child's resistance to using the potty at day care. Often, kids are fearful or shy.

  • Shyness can make it hard for your child to feel comfortable approaching a staff member at their day care for assistance.
  • There may be something about the nursery's bathroom your child doesn't like, and this is causing anxiety.
  • Your child might be afraid of having an accident at school, so they feel more secure in diapers.

At this stage of development, your child's limited vocabulary may make it impossible for them to tell you what's wrong. And they may not really know what is causing them to resist using the toilet anyway.

The good news is that you might be able to help by offering lots of positive reinforcement and trying different strategies to address the resistance. It's unlikely that your child will change their mind about the potty overnight, however. It will take time and a lot of patience from you and your toddler's caregiver.

Helping a Shy Child

The most important thing when dealing with a shy child is to avoid dismissing their fears or ridiculing their shyness. Demanding that they stop being shy is just going to make them more self-conscious.

If shyness is at play in potty training at school, it was probably a factor in other milestones there as well. How did your caregiver help your child feel at ease when you first left him? How did their teacher get them to interact with other children? Some of those same strategies might be applied to this situation.

At the very least, the staff should make an effort to ask if your child wants to use the potty rather than waiting for them to speak up. An experienced caregiver can often recognize the signs of a child with a full bladder or knows that a child is ready a little while after eating and drinking.

And if your child doesn't want anyone to go with him, the staff needs to be sure that the bathroom is set up to make it easy for them to go on their own. It also helps to dress your child in clothes that they can pull up and down himself (elastic waistbands, no belts, etc.).

Bringing their own potty to at school can be an excellent way to make your child feel more comfortable. Even if they resist using it at first, you can continue to keep it at school so that when they are ready to try, they have the added comfort of using a potty that is comfortable and familiar.

Addressing Anxiety

If you suspect that your child is not just shy but seems afraid (mildly or severely so) of using the potty at school, it's important to hunt down the reason. Toddlers and even preschoolers sometimes make up their own rules and stories around everyday rituals.

Part of this has to do with what's called magical thinking, which is the same phenomenon that makes a two-year-old insist on only using a pink spoon (because food won't taste as good with another utensil) or refuse baths since they are quite certain that children can disappear down that drain. If your toddler is adamant about not using the daycare potty, they may have built a connection in their mind between that potty and something unpleasant.

Consider whether there are real and concrete reasons they don't want to use the potty at their preschool.

Look around the bathroom at your child's school. Is there a picture on the wall that they might not like? Is it too dark? My own daughter once refused to use the potty at a daycare center because it "smelled funny" (the air freshener was very strong and she's sensitive to odors). Again, your child's limited vocabulary may make it hard for them to tell you what's wrong, but if you suspect something, you can point it out and observe their reaction.

The cause of anxiety may not be physical but could be related to the different routine they use at school. Do the children use the potty in a group? Some kids might find that unsettling. What practices do you follow at home that you could have the staff adopt? Some families have a song they sing at potty time or allow a child to read on the toilet.

Making those rituals part of the experience at the nursery school can go a long way to making your child feel more at ease. And don't feel that you are imposing on the staff. They surely are eager to have a well-trained child in their care and should be willing to do what it takes to help them progress.

Dealing With Fear of an Accident

Another reason your child may not want to use the potty at daycare is that they don't like what happens when a child has an accident. Ask the staff what their procedures are when this happens. If you think that they are using inappropriate toilet training techniques, address that with the day care director.

You can also ask your child what they have seen happen. Perhaps they have noticed a child cry after an accident, don't want to be the focus of attention, or just want to avoid being the one to soil the carpet. In this case, you might want to see if you can compromise with your child: They can wear absorbent training pants like Pull-Ups "just in case," but needs to try and use the toilet when they have to go.

Coping With Peer Pressure

Every setting is different, but if your child is showing signs of potty training readiness but none of their peers are toilet trained, there might be little motivation for them to go to the toilet even if they're capable. And even worse, you might also be dealing with an unsupportive caregiver who feels like it's easier to have all the 2-year-olds on the same page.

Address the situation head-on by reinforcing your expectations and praising your child for not needing diapers any longer. Also, be clear with your caregiver that you won't allow your child to wear diapers during the day. Using reinforcements like a sticker chart can also help a child see that being a "big kid" is special.

A Word From Verywell

As with everything related to raising children, consistency is key. Since you know that your child is ready for the potty, it's OK to let them know that you expect them to use the potty at day care. Be sure the staff is offering the chance to use the potty every day and are being positive when they tell them they know he can do it.

You and your child's provider need to avoid turning the potty into the focus of fights and tantrums, though. Forcing them to sit on the potty, punishing them for refusing, or making derogatory comments will only make a willful toddler dig in and refuse more.

By Maureen Ryan
Maureen Ryan is a freelance writer, editor, and teaching consultant specializing in health, parenting, and education.