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Action Goals: Oboists and Toddlers

Zoe’s been going to preschool for nearly three weeks now.  And it’s been amazing for her, and I can really tell how much she’s learning, but it hasn’t been a seamless transition.  The issue is peeing.

Zoe was potty trained over the summer, and is reliable at home.  She got alarmed in the first week by the automatically flushing toilet in her classroom.  It is very loud, and she can’t predict when it is going to go off right under her, so after being scared once or twice she just decided that she wouldn’t use it any more. 

This worked out all right for her for a day or so.  But we began to notice that she was coming home with damp pants, because three and a half hours PLUS a twenty minute walk home is too long for a very little girl to wait.  Then, almost immediately, she began to have accidents in the classroom.  We warned her that too many accidents would get her suspended, but evidently by this time that sounded pretty inviting - no more early mornings, no more scary potty - so she had some more. 

Steve and I were tearing our hair out.  We tried rewarding dry panties, we tried being angry at wet ones.  We talked with her about the big picture of why school is so important, we talked about how BIG girls used the potty, we tried being understanding, we tried being firm.  We went to school for Movie Night and she and I spent half an hour in the restroom together figuring out how to outwit the automatic john.  (Ask me about the solution sometime - I’m pretty proud of it!) And still she would come home in different clothes than she left in, and still the teachers were frowning when we picked her up, and we were past the limit of permissible accidents and coasting on her charm and obvious readiness to learn and participate in school.

Then I remembered what I’ve learned from my teaching: Outcome goals don’t work.  I want to get a Gold on my solo.  I want to be first chair.  I want to get into Juilliard.  These are nice motivators, but not helpful day to day, and possibly not in your control, right?  You could do all the work and still get Silver because the judge didn’t like your ornamentation.  You could be amazing but be fourth pick for a class of three at your conservatory of choice.  The actual outcome in all these cases is out of your hands.

What you can do, though, is commit to an hour of practice every day.  You can decide to work mindfully on a specific technical challenge to solve it.  You can create and stick to a dynamic plan in your solo, and you can work to exaggerate it even when you are nervous.  This kind of Action goal is something you have complete control over, and it will get you toward your lovely, motivating Outcome goal, and it is a concrete thing you can DO. 

Perhaps Zoe needed an Action goal.  “Dry All Day” is too big and abstract for a three-year-old.  But I sent her to school yesterday with instructions to use the potty twice.  Once right after breakfast and one additional time.  We talked about counting to two.  We talked about the (leftover Barret Night) cookies she could have at home - one if she peed once and two if she peed twice.  I reminded her as she walked into school. 

And she came home dry and glowing with pride.  Talking about her friends and her activities instead of sulking and guilty.  She enjoyed her well-earned cookies and was a delight all day long.  Day one was a smashing success.  Day two (today) was equally perfect.

I know she’ll get this and ultimately have success at school.  No one is still wetting their pants in sixth grade - she will be rock solid soon, I bet.  The challenge for me was to think like a very small child and break the steps down sufficiently.  She is apparently not so great at listening to her body and making the right choice in time.  But Little Girl can sure count to two, and if you give her something specific enough to do she can do it.  I have high high hopes for the future - and I’m back in love with Action goals!


  1. Bravo!! you're really a born, and talented pedagogue.Over the years I've heard repeated stories of this problem from friends.Unfortunately I could not help.I am sure you suggest Action goals(instead of outcomes) to your students with grate results,
    Play on!

  2. I love to teach - but I know nothing about Early Childhood Development except for my observations of Zoe. This is why it took three weeks of trauma to come to this point - a successful THIRD day in a row! We just keep working at it.

    Thanks for reading!


  3. We had some setbacks with our daughter, as well. She potty trained very early (16m) but every three to four months she'd have these few days of wetness. Then she'd go back to going to the bathroom. She is three now and has been accident free for a good year (finally!) I never figured out what was going on but she loves preschool and will do absolutely anything to go. In fact, she climbs in my bed around 5am to inquire if it'school day EVERY-SINGLE-DAY.
    I would love to hear what you did for the automatic flushing toilet. She doesn't mind it at this point but with girls you just never know.

  4. I thought no one would ever ask. Lots of people suggested Post-Its over the sensor, which would clearly work but Zoe rarely has pockets and I didn't figure I could count on her fetching a Supply on her way in if the situation was urgent. We wound up settling on toilet paper wrapped around the sensor, but EVEN MORE RELIABLE was her own panties - which she ALWAYS HAS WITH HER - draped over the sensor. The key element was showing her that the black SQUARE was the answer to her woes. If it couldn't see her, it wouldn't flush at her.

    Thanks for reading!


  5. Awesome! Wish there was that simple as solution to bad tone. LOL


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