Schedules and Sticker Charts – Success!

Educators of young children know that children love structure. Sometimes, parents are fortunate enough to know this, too. I have my sister-in-law to thank for giving me On Becoming Baby Wise when I was pregnant with Peter eight years ago (read my review here).

My first son was born with a compliant disposition, and since he didn’t have any competition in the sibling department until he was four, it was easy to build structure into his daily life by following Babywise‘s suggestions. By age three, he had been fully potty-trained for a while and was fairly independent. When Peter started preschool, the only thing I worried about was me surviving a much earlier wake-up time.

Everything changed with baby number two. I tried so hard to implement the same structure into Ian’s life as Peter’s, but there were two major stumbling blocks in the way of achieving this goal. The first is that when Ian came along, Peter didn’t just disappear; I am now a mom of two. Second, Ian is a completely different animal than his brother – strong-willed (he’ll touch the stove even when he knows it’s hot), mischievous (he’ll pull on the oven door just to find out what it does), clumsy (he’ll walk into the kitchen and fall flat on his face – right when I’m opening the oven door)– and did I mention strong-willed?

I feared Ian was developmentally delayed or somewhere low on the autistic spectrum (jury’s still out on both of these – trying to get an appointment with the only local developmental pediatrician has been harder than I imagined). Last spring, I started talking to the woman I hoped would be Ian’s teacher about his potty training issues and my worries about his behavior. She had also taught Peter and seemed alarmed to hear about Ian’s issues, but she was more than willing to advise me. To encourage Ian to be independent, as far as the potty is concerned, she told me to use incentives, rewards. As for his social behavior, she suggested structuring his day as much as possible. He had to learn to deal with interruptions in the middle of an activity he was enjoying without throwing a fit.

I was stressed over not being able to prepare him in time for the first day of school. I dreaded being in the middle of teaching my own class and getting a phone call that Ian had already messed up all three of his outfits. Or if that wasn’t the problem, he would disrupt class, push other children, fail to follow the rules, scream at the drop of a hat… he would be the nightmare student that no one wants to have. It was June. I had two months.

Fortunately, at the end of twelve months of potty training hell (read the account of the first nine months here), Ian was bowel trained the same day we solved a dietary issue – we got him on a magnesium supplement. The new issue was getting him to dress himself before leaving the bathroom. (I honestly don’t ever remember teaching Peter how to get dressed, other than how to tell his right shoe from his left – it was a total non-issue.) Obviously, it wouldn’t do for Ian take himself to the bathroom but not know how to pull his pants up again. It’s baby steps, folks, and with this child, each step seems to take about a decade.

I’d tried incentives with almost no success before, but as nothing else seemed to be working, I decided to go at it whole-heartedly. We found a school supply store and cute little incentive charts. Ian even picked out his own stickers. What I was really looking for, though, was some sort of calendar. When I subbed in the past, teachers used something like this:

PreK 4 Schedule

PreK 4 Schedule

These signs have Velcro on the back. My preschool class inherited the ones above from the kindergarten teacher who was in our room before, and we can move the components around every day. My four-year-old students actually pay attention to this schedule and depend on it to tell them about their day. I wanted to find something similar (but portable) for Ian.

Lo and behold – I found an Easy Daysies magnetic board with all sorts of optional magnetic schedule categories on the clearance table. I picked up the standard daily schedule (most of the magnets on the picture below are from this collection), as well as a set geared toward extracurricular activities like sports and dance and gymnastics – even one set that’s all about potty training.

Ian's Schedule

Ian’s Schedule

Between the school supply store and the local dollar store, I picked up a number of activities that I knew Ian would enjoy – foam alphabet puzzles, coloring books, stickers. I even filled a shoebox with scrap paper that he practices cutting. After buying all the supplies on a Saturday, I started “summer homeschool” the next Monday. I introduced Ian to songs I knew he would sing in PreK 3. I drew his attention to the new magnetic schedule. I awarded him with a sticker when he pulled his pants up by himself.

Sticker Charts! This kid has earned a bunch of rewards.

Sticker Charts! This kid has earned a bunch of rewards.

The transformation was amazing. It’s not like he’s morphed into a different person – he hasn’t turned into a miniature version of his brother – but he’s gained patience, is able to sit at an activity for an extended period, has an expanded vocabulary, and is even – gasp! – more compliant.

Although Ian loves his sticker charts (and earns some sort of reward every time he fills one up), he loves the schedule even more. He has to check it several times a day. Even though there are many days when nothing special happens, he reads it eagerly, reciting, “Naptime, suppertime, clean up time, brush teeth time, bedtime.” He is even willing to go right to bed when the schedule dictates. Maybe you don’t think that’s miraculous, but it certainly feels that way to me.

Even Peter has gotten onto to schedule/sticker bandwagon. I picked up a whiteboard for him. Over the summer, I wrote his daily chores, and now, I have a list of his morning chores. If he completes everything on the list before we leave, he gets a sticker, which equals a dollar. If he leaves his pajamas on the floor or doesn’t make his bed, for instance, his forgoes the sticker and money.

Peter's Jobs

Peter’s Jobs

My house is a different place. It’s still messier than I’d like, and it’s certainly far from peaceful at times, but a lot of the pressure that I used to feel – to be perfect, to do it all myself, you name it – is gone. It’s only natural, you say – my kids are growing up. Yeah, that’s true. And maybe I just happened to start implementing these plans at the time when my kids were ready for them anyway. Doesn’t matter – my house is a good place to be. It’s a place where I can entrust at least one child with some responsibility and in which I’m watching the other grow into his own little personality.

And, as always, even when a mishap happens, it’s all fodder for a good story.

A Potty Training Miracle

The Potty Training Years 1988–1992

The Potty Training Years (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Considering that my children couldn’t be much more different, I shouldn’t have been surprised that potty training the second one would be absolutely nothing like the first. Yet I had this idea that I’d done it before and knew what to expect.

We learned our lesson with Peter (child #1), starting too soon, and had to put potty training on hold for six months. Then it was a month of on-and-off frustration before he got it. What really helped were the incentives. We promised him that he could move out of his crib and into his big boy bed once he potty trained. But the biggest motivator was that we would use the money we saved on diapers toward a trip to Disney World.

Disney? No, problem. Peter was potty trained like that (imagine me snapping my fingers). And ever since, he’s only had one daytime accident. Ever.

With Ian (child #2), I didn’t even pull the potty chair out until he was two-and-a-half. Why cause myself more angst than necessary? I had no idea what was coming. One Saturday last June, I decided to dedicate my day to potty training, giving Ian juice and treats and sitting him on the potty until he got it, Peter-style.

Nothing happened. On the potty, that is. As soon as I put underwear on him, Ian had an accident. I was on the third or fourth pair of underwear when my husband got involved. Miracle of miracles! Ian sat on the potty, and when Thomas told him to go, Ian went.

About a minute later, he had an accident in another pair of clean underwear.

That was when we discovered that Ian knew exactly what was going on, and he simply didn’t care.

We tried everything. For nine months we tried, and we took advice from any- and everyone, and we would take two steps forward and giant leaps back. We offered him candy for keeping his pants clean and dry, but usually he just didn’t care. Other times, he would ask for candy after having an accident. There was no problem at all getting him to use the potty, but we couldn’t get him to quit wetting his pants, too. People advised us to just put him in underwear, and he would learn his lesson when he had an accident. I can’t tell you how many times we tried this and failed.

Our solution was Pull-Ups, which many people say is a potty training no-no, but he didn’t need diapers, and I didn’t want to have to wash every pair of his underwear five to six times a week. We bought Pull-Ups for eight months. I hope and pray that I’m finally on my last box.

His pediatrician assured me that we were on the right track with incentives, but I tried to explain that Ian and incentives aren’t the best of friends. The candy was hit or miss. Sometimes he got excited about moving to his bed. But when it came to visiting Mickey Mouse (whom Ian adores), he would flat out say that he didn’t want to go. Still, I persevered. I was determined to reward him with a trip to Disney before he turned three (mainly so his admission would be free).

Naturally, there was little improvement until a couple weeks after his third birthday, when Ian finally seemed to turn the corner. Although still in Pull-Ups, he would sometimes tell us when he had to go, and he even woke up dry some mornings. He even seemed willing to undress and take himself to the potty (but only if we asked him to).

I finally decided we were going to Disney World over spring break, and if Ian still wasn’t potty trained, I would just tell him we were proud of his progress.

Then last Tuesday (three days before our trip), I decided that if Ian was going to be rewarded for supposedly being potty trained, I was going to go ahead and put him in underwear. If he messed up his clothes or his car seat, oh well. Maybe if he had an accident and had to sit in it, he would learn his lesson.

So that’s exactly what I did.

There were accidents – none in the car, thank goodness. It was the panicked, “I gotta go potty, Mommy!” about two seconds too late. But at least he finally cared.

For our first day at Disney World, we decided – even though we hadn’t chanced it with Peter – that we would put Ian in underwear. We were armed with multiple changes of clothes, and I even lost sleep over it, but he was fine.

Disney fireworks

Disney fireworks – appropriate for how I felt after Ian’s success

I figured a good thing couldn’t last two days in a row, but it did. In fact, all three days that we were in the parks, Ian was 100% accident free. Every time I took him to the bathroom, I praised him, wondering if he would make it another hour. Was it giving him the reward that he hadn’t fully earned that made him finally earn it? Who knows, but I’ll have to say that it worked – and it’s still working (at least as far as #1 is concerned). He even wakes up dry from naps and overnight. I’m not going to hold out hope for only one accident ever, like his big brother, but so far so good. (#2 is still a work in progress, but for the first time in nine months, I think he’ll actually make it.)

After all this success, I’ve been beating myself up about it. If I had decided to put Ian in underwear and live through the accidents back in November or December, would we have had similar results? Would he have gotten one last free trip to Disney? Or would I have pulled my hair out even more and caused myself more frustration than was necessary? My husband thinks that, even though Ian didn’t care about Disney World until we actually go there, he had so much fun that he didn’t want to deal with the hassle of multiple wardrobe changes. I guess it will always be a mystery, but I’m glad it finally happened.

For all frustrated parents out there, please know that if someone promises there’s one proven way to potty train every single child, it’s a lie. Every child is different and will take a different method. I would love to hear other potty training stories (the good, the bad, the ugly) and encourage you to keep trying. As people have often assured me, there isn’t a kid yet who’s gone to college still in diapers. I thought we were getting close, but it seems that Ian will make it to preschool next year, after all.

Next on the agenda… how to get him to eat healthy food.