Potty training a toddler is one of the most challenging things I’ve had to do in recent memory. It’s incredibly hard to teach a child that they now need to do their duty in a toilet rather than their oh-so-convenient diaper. There are so many things that can, and will, go wrong–they’re either not ready, it’s easier in a diaper, they forget because they were having fun, they simply don’t want to, and so on. Even when they do get into the habit, there is often some regression, or they’ll learn to pee but not poop in the potty. With my son, Ethan, it was all of the above.
After reading and trying every book and blog post out there, my wife and I managed to get him to consistently pee in his potty but we had little-to-no success with him pooping in.
We tried rewards systems, they didn’t work. I would leave him in his underwear on all day but he’d wait until he was in his diaper for the night to do his thing– and that’s only when I was lucky. He couldn’t always wait that long and he’d often soil his underwear which is very frustrating and messy to clean. Nothing was working, we needed a different system.
Enter the Abacus
At the age of three, an abacus isn’t of much use to a toddler. They can’t really do any math, they might not even be able to count yet. Ethan would play with it because he liked the colors, but for the most part, it was stored on a top shelf waiting until he was older. After a few potty mishaps in a row, I looked up at the abacus and an idea sparked.
My previous reward system was “If you do your poop in the potty, I’ll get you this toy that you really want.” This worked well until he got the toy. He’d then regress and I had to start the entire process over again.
With the abacus, I tried a delayed reward approach and within a week, he was fully potty trained, he improved his counting skills, and he even learned some basic math.
How I leveraged the abacus
On the topmost row, I moved 5 beads to the left and 5 to the right. Every time he would do something good, e.g poop in the potty, clean up his toys, etc, he would earn a point (move a bead to the right). When he did something bad, e.g, pooped his pants after I had just warned him to go the bathroom, didn’t listen to what we told him, left a mess behind, he would lose a point (move a bead to the left). If all the beads would make it to the right, he would be awarded a toy as a prize. In our case, it was a Lego set that he had asked for. The lego collection consisted of 5–6 small bags of different colored pieces. Every time he’d complete a row, he’d be awarded a new color that he’d choose.
The set was placed out of his reach but still very much in plain sight. He wanted the toy badly and because it was visible, he grew more and more eager to play with it.
Some ground rules
We would be very clear with when a point would be awarded. “You had fun playing, now it’s time to put all your toys away and I’ll give you a point.” “Do you have to go to the potty? If you poop in there you’ll get a point.” We also made sure the opposite was true. “It’s cold outside if you don’t put your jacket on you’ll lose a point.”
He didn’t need to be at home to get or lose points. When he earned a point, I’d make sure to congratulate him and tell him he’d get the point when we got home. The minor threat of removing a point when he was misbehaving would make him cooperate immediately.
When it was time to award a point, I’d tell him how many points he earned and we’d move the abacus pieces together counting each move. I also made sure he’d count how many beads were needed to win his toy.
It took two full rounds of points for Ethan to get fully potty trained, though the improvements during his first round were quite noticeable.
There were some extra perks with this approach. He quickly learned to count properly and to do some basic math (additions and subtractions). He learned that there were consequences to his actions. He had a visual indicator that showed him how good he was being and he wanted to be good.
Because the rewards weren’t instant, and points needed to be accumulated, he didn’t get accustomed to thinking that something good would instantly get him a prize.
After a couple of weeks, we slowly weaned him off the abacus.
Even to this day, if I threaten to remove points, he’ll quickly realize that he’s misbehaving and correct himself. We’ve been mess-free for well over a month.
A step further
Really early on in my abacus project, I realized that Ethan was able to grasp the concept of punishment versus reward. I introduced a second toy if he completed the second row, a small board game. Every time he’d gain a point, I would let him choose if he wanted to give the point toward his Lego or the board game.
Every child is different and this solution won’t work with every child. However, it is a great way to introduce your kid to the basics of math, counting, and the consequences of actions.