We told Zoe she was getting an extra-long Christmas vacation because she’d been doing such a good job at school. What else are you supposed to say to your three-year-old when she’s been suspended from school for a month because of having too many potty accidents?

This explanation was my mom’s idea. She was thinking more clearly than I was during the panicky and maddening hours after I was called into the principal’s office and told my daughter “had had enough chances” to master her tiny bladder and that removing her from school for several weeks was the only solution.

This happened on a Monday morning after I had dropped Zoe off in her classroom. The previous Friday the principal had escorted us out of the building, while promising she would continue to work with us to help Zoe reduce accidents in the classroom. That week I had agreed (against my better judgment but hoping to placate the principal) to come into the classroom whenever Zoe had an accident. The principal said my doing that would demonstrate my and my husband’s commitment to working with the school on this issue. I complied with her request and of course Zoe was completely confused and the classroom totally disrupted both times when I arrived. Of course Zoe wanted to go home, so I took her home rather than cause a scene that would further interfere with her classmates’ activities and the teacher’s ability to teach. I worried that Zoe would think she was either being punished or rewarded because of the accidents.

Throughout this saga we’ve done our best to shield Zoe from the school system’s opinion that something is wrong with her because she has accidents. I’m sure she’s overheard me talking about it on occasion, but she seems to be ok. She’s perceptive, though, and knows there’s been anxiety around the subject. At a friend’s house over Christmas she had an accident. While we were in the bathroom afterward so she could change clothes, she said “You’re not mad at me, are you? You know I’m trying as hard as I can, right?” My heart was breaking. Of course I know she’s trying as hard as she can. Perhaps I didn’t at first, but now I do.

What’s ironic is that my husband and I were so determined to get her into one of our county’s popular public Montessori schools and we spent much of the spring and summer strategizing and worrying about whether or not she’d get in. While we loved the small cooperative preschool she attended before, we were looking for more consistency. At two she attended preschool two mornings per week, a home-based day care two days per week, and was with her grandparents or at home the rest of the time. We thought she could benefit from more stability and that she would thrive in the Montessori setting, which encourages independent thinking and responsibility. We knew it was hard to get a spot in one of these programs, especially since two-thirds of the slots are reserved for children from low-income families, which we are not. At the same time, we couldn’t afford a private Montessori program, which can easily run upward of $10,000 per year.

During the summer we heard that a spot had opened up at one of the schools, and we were thrilled. In August, in preparation for starting school and going on vacation, we took Zoe out of day care. We had started potty training her in June, later than we had originally planned because she had eyelid surgery just after her third birthday in April and we were advised to wait eight to 12 weeks before attempting potty training because the surgery was already stressful enough.

By July she was doing great, using the toilet independently and having infrequent accidents. Although we had heard that stress can cause regression in potty training, it’s hard to remember that something as seemingly simple as changing a child’s routine can cause stress. Taking her out of day care, going on vacation, and then a death in the family (accompanied by our attending the funeral and her staying with another family member) resulted in a lot of accidents. Then in September, she started school.

During the first week of school, which was 8:30am to 3pm in a classroom with three-, four-, and five-year-olds and no rest time, Zoe had a lot of accidents. It was a big change. Academically and socially she was having a blast, but her body had a hard time keeping up. Every day when I picked her up, the teacher announced, across the room in front of Zoe and everyone else, how many accidents Zoe had. She suggested that something was wrong and instructed us to take Zoe to the pediatrician immediately. We did.

The pediatrician said Zoe was normal. She said even after potty training, kids have accidents, especially in new and stressful situations. We talked about how increased patience and decreased anxiety on our part might help her relax and improve. I struggled to get my anxiety under control in the face of the teacher’s exclamations about Zoe’s accidents. I asked the teacher to please tell me something good or interesting Zoe had done that day when I first walked in instead of focusing exclusively on bladder control.

Two weeks into school, we got a call that a spot had opened up at another school. My husband and I struggled with the decision to cause yet more disruption and possibly more potty setbacks. But we went to visit the school to make an informed decision. The new school was beautiful, with a classroom twice the size and filled with light. The new teacher seemed very easygoing. The program was housed in a sought-after elementary school with a special focus that we would be guaranteed placement in if Zoe went to preschool there. We decided to make the switch. We told the teacher about the accidents and she assured us that she’d help Zoe and it would be fine.

Even with the switch, Zoe’s number of accidents dramatically decreased. Rather than daily, she didn’t make it to the potty on time one to three times per week. During this time we were still working diligently at home to encourage her to stay dry. We employed every possible reward system. We sang and read books in the bathroom. We read to Zoe many books about kids using the potty and watched many videos. We bought a watch that you program to alarm at various intervals to remind kids to go. Zoe could go five or six days at a time without an accident. We saw improvement and were proud.

Then, suddenly, on the Monday before Thanksgiving, we got a letter from the principal saying that the school system’s policy stated that children who had more than three accidents in a week or one accident three weeks in a row were not potty trained and could be removed for a week or more until they were potty trained. What?

This was the first we’d heard of this policy, which we were later told was an “internal guideline,” but which was not available to the public or given to parents when children apply or enroll in the program. We scheduled a conference call with the principal and teacher to understand what was going on. The principal mentioned repeatedly during the conversation that she could remove Zoe from the program because of the number of accidents Zoe had had.

We talked to an assistant superintendent, who assured us that no one wanted to remove Zoe from school. We talked to someone in the early childhood office, which oversees the county’s preschool programs, who reiterated the policy the principal had outlined. We didn’t see how this was possible, but it was still happening to us.

In the meantime, we loved our daughter even more fiercely. She is a creative, charming, bright, and affectionate little girl. Just because her bladder control hasn’t yet been perfected does not mean that she deserved to be kicked out of a school where she was otherwise thriving, making great friends and learning a lot about herself and the world every day.

We took Zoe to the urology clinic at Children’s National Medical Center to ensure that there was no actual medical problem contributing to the accidents. The urologist said she is shocked by the number of parents who bring in their children every September for similar reasons. Their kids’ schools say they have to stop having accidents and, surprise, they can’t make their kids do it! The urologist said approximately 20% of five-year-olds have frequent accidents, years after they’ve been potty trained. The pediatrician and urologist agreed it was developmentally inappropriate to remove a child from school because of accidents.

We felt like the facts were on our side, but it didn’t matter.

Zoe stayed home for a month. We had a lovely time. We took trips, made cookies, spent a lot of time at the library, and played  with Zoe’s large collection of tiny people and food items. Thankfully my parents live nearby and are happy to spend time with Zoe because I had to meet some deadlines for my business, which effectively shut down for the month. I wondered what would have happened if one of the kids in Zoe’s class whose parents work low-wage jobs had been made to stay home. Would one of those parents have had to quit his or her job?

As Christmas vacation came to an end, we started to get nervous. What would happen when Zoe returned to school? We had received acknowledgements of our letter to the school system from the superintendent and school board, but no further action. My husband’s calls to the superintendent went unreturned.

In January Zoe went back to school. Days one and two were accident-free. Day three she had an accident at naptime, which is completely out of her control. I’m sure most of the kids in the class still wear pull-ups to bed. Day four she had four accidents. I have no idea why, except maybe the stress of worrying about having accidents. She hadn’t had four accidents in a day in months. I asked her whether the teacher had said anything to her and she said the teacher’s aide had dealt with her all day, and had gotten upset at her every time it happened. I’m sure the more she worried about it the more she wasn’t able to handle it. She was so worried I would get mad. I asked her if she wanted to stay home the next day and she was jubilant.

That night and the next day I worked feverishly to find preschools with mid-year openings. As it happened, the lovely co-op preschool where she used to go had a spot in the three-year-old class. We took it. We told Zoe we wanted to find a preschool where they didn’t get mad at her for having accidents because we knew she was doing the best she could. She accepted that. We visited the school so she could see her new classroom and meet the teacher (whose daughter was in her two-year-old class, so Zoe was already comfortable with her). She immediately started playing and said “I’m fine here, Mommy, you can go out now.”

Everyone at the co-op has been delighted to welcome us back. The community is supportive and nurturing and understanding of early childhood biological development. Every preschool director, teacher, and parent I’ve talked to about this has been shocked by what happened and how we were treated. So were we.

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