Potty Training: A Step by Step Guide Using Applied Behavioral Analysis

Are you in the throws of potty training or getting ready to start the process? Toilet training is an important milestone for your child – it opens the way to attend birthday parties, go to restaurants, attend pre-school – without the worry and embarrassment of an accident. It also makes life easier (and less costly) for parents, teachers and caregivers. Toilet training can be difficult for all children but for children on the autism spectrum who are comforted by rules and routines, this life change can be especially challenging. An Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) approach to potty training can help you and your child achieve this milestone with minimal stress while maintaining a positive self-esteem.

So what is ABA and how is it used for toilet training? At its core, ABA is a proven technique that achieves a desired behavior, in this case, using the toilet, by building skill at each foundational step. For example, the succession of steps that lead to successful toilet training includes recognizing the physical pressure that triggers “the urge to go,” ability to get to the bathroom and ability to remove pants. Positive reinforcement for success at each stage is key to implementing an ABA program. (See YouTube video, “Potty Training with Propel Autism” for more detail on ABA.)

Step 1. Assess Skill Set for Toileting

The chart below – Task Analysis of Using Bathroom – lists the steps involved in a typical, socially acceptable trip to the bathroom Use the chart to assess your child’s toileting skills, rate how much prompting your child needs to complete each step and determine where to begin training. Potty training is achieved when your child completes each step independently.

Step 2. Increase Opportunities for Practice

“Practice makes perfect” so increase opportunities to use the toilet following these strategies.

  1. Increase fluid intake. The more they drink, the more opportunities for practice.
  2. Use timers to build a schedule. Establish a routine by setting a timer for toileting every 15 minutes. Extend the time interval to 30 minutes after your child has demonstrated some control.
  3. Spot check the diaper every 3 minutes. Take your child’s hand to check if the diaper is dry or wet. If dry, use positive reinforcement. If wet, then make a positive, directive statement such as, “When we need to go the potty, we go to the bathroom.”
  4. Dress your child in loose clothing. Loose clothing makes it easier to quickly sit on the toilet in time.

Step 3. Use Meaningful Reinforcements

Reinforcements, e.g. verbal praise, edible treats, T.V time, and stickers, are key to maintaining a desired behavior. When your child uses the toilet and the reinforcement is something they value, they will repeat the behavior. Punishment or negative feedback is counterproductive and has no role in potty training. Follow these guidelines in using reinforcements.

  1. Make it fun. Use reinforcements that are meaningful to your child.
  2. Reward success at each step of the process.
  3. Be consistent in using reinforcements.
  4. Use high-value reinforcement for significant progress.
  5. Use a special, exclusive reinforcer when your child successfully “goes” to the bathroom.

Potty training is a complex process that requires a planned approach, time, and patience. To learn more about ABA as a potty training method or if you’d like to consult with a board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA), visit our website at www.propel.com.

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Reviewed by BCBA:

Nikita Harjani
Nikita HarjaniBoard Certified Behavior Analyst
Nikita Harjani has a M.S. in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), from Georgia State University. She is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, with a passion for assisting individuals to live their lives to the fullest. With several years of experience in the field of ABA, Nikita’s interests are in supervision, training staff, and developing research based interventions for early learners & young adults.

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