When you’ve got to go

Bathroom breaks are controversial in some schools, especially when students plead necessity so they can cheat on tests, vandalize the facilities or otherwise wreak mayhem. Teachers have the right to say “no,” but get complaints when they do.

Christopher Cooper, director of pediatric urology at the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital in Iowa City, says he has seen many elementary-age “normal children who have developed bad habits.” They arrive at his office with urinary tract infections, incontinence and damaged kidneys, often as a result of infrequent trips to the bathroom.

It’s not just that kids can’t go when they want to. Some avoid school restrooms because they’re dirty and plagued by bullies.

My high school closed many restrooms to prevent smoking. As a result, I learned planning and self-control.

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  1. Students ask to go to the bathroom when class starts to get boring or when they feel it’s time to stretch their legs.

    I have students who ask to go to the bathroom every day in every class–except mine.

    Why? Because I have a policy that states that students may go to the bathroom any time they want so long as they agree to stay ten minutes after school.

    I make clear it’s not a punishment, just a deterrent. I don’t dare use the word “detention” because I’d catch hell if it got out that I was punishing students for something they can’t help.

    So, I have students come to my desk with a worried, pleading look. They shift their weight back and forth from one leg to another and their eyeballs proverbially float. “Mr. Wright, I have to go bad! I can’t wait!”

    I smile and say, “Of course, I understand. Write a pass.” (I make them write their own passes. All I do is sign them.)

    So, they write the pass and just as I’m about to sign I say, “Remember, ten minutes after school.”

    And when they do remember, suddenly the I’ve-got-to-go-bad dance stops. They look at me and say, hm, on second thought, I think I can hold it until the end of the period, even if 40 more minutes remain.

    That’s how it goes 90% of the time.

    Even though I’ve taught for 30 years, there’s no way I can tell if a student really has to go by tone of voice and body language. Ah, but the ten minute policy works every time.

    By the way, when a child really has to go, gets the pass signed, and then shows up after school, I never keep him. Never. I guess they’re too grateful to spread the word.

    Before the ten minute policy, I’d have about eight students leave every day. But now, with the police, I have about five per year.

  2. ucladavid says:

    My policy is 1x per semester. Anytime after that, they have to stay after class and that equals however long they are out. While they stay after, they usually clean my room.

    Usually I will get about 1-3 per day. There are a couple kids who try to go like once a week but they know the policy. That usually deters them 90% of the time.

  3. If a student asks to go I usually ask them to wait a few minutes. About 2/3 of them seem to forget or since the “meeting time” to see their friends in the hall or bathroom has now passed they simply do not bother to go. If a student comes up 10 or 15 minutes later still needing to go it is likely legitimate. Cell phone technology allows them to “plan” their time for social reason very well. Hopefully many more students will begin using this technology for more meaningful purposes soon!

  4. Robert: Have you had any parental complaints?

    I’m always fascinated that I — a 40-something — can go to the bathroom [much] less than a middle schooler. But when I’ve attempted restrictions analogous to Robert’s, I’ve gotten parental complaints. Not many, but enough to make the admin. wince about restrictions.

  5. Well, as the parent of daughters, I find your policies a bit unfriendly, to say the least. One of the most frustrating aspects of policies like the above for a young lady is their monthly period. This is, of course, dependent on the amount of time allowed between classes, and the timing of PE and lunch as to whether they have adequate time to take care of these matters.

    But, young ladies, especially those of middle school age, find it very embarrassing to have to explain to a teacher (especially a male teacher) exactly why it is that they need to use the facilities.

    I also get so tired of teachers who think that they can simply hold kids after school for 10 minutes or so. If the kid misses the bus, and the parent works and can’t pick up the child for several hours, then what? What choice would you make if you were a student in that situation?

  6. We have an agenda the students use for a hall pass at our school. I insist the students log in their agendas any bathroom breaks with the time left and back. This helps document the amount of learning time that is lost, manage their time properly, and inform parents of behaviour/medical issues they may be developing. Also, you can tell which class has already given the student the priviledge. If they need to go, they can take the 10 second effort to log.

  7. Hube, I’ve had a couple of parent phone calls in the last 20 years.

    I honor all requests from parents that ask that their children are allowed to go as frequently as they like. I get maybe one note every other year so it doesn’t really impact my policy.

    One parent wrote a note for her daughter because she threatened not to like her anymore if she didn’t. The girl took a bathroom break every time when we started reading.

    Karen, girls never have to explain why they want to go to the restroom. Some do anyway and I’m the who gets embarrassed.

    I don’t think 10 minutes is a draconian consequence (especially since I never enforce it). If students have to ride the bus and will miss it if they have to stay, I tell them they don’t have to show.

    Oh, and with the girls, when they ask to go, I “forget” to remind them about the policy. And they usually forget, too.

    Maybe my policy is a little unfriendly, but very few students miss my class, nobody has missed a bus, and nobody’s wet their pants.

    How do you teach a class when somebody is always missing? You fall into the loop of having to stop and repeat things constantly. The whole class suffers and it’s totally unnecessary. A little unfriendliness might be a good thing.

  8. If boredom is the problem, then do what the military does in regard to bored and tired students: let them stand up in the back of the class. This way, they get to stretch their legs, don’t fall asleep, and standing up makes the “have to go” feeling less pressing. Plus they get all those benefits while learning.

    Of course, if you really must go, that’s how it is. College and Big Gulps didn’t go all that well.

    In high school, none of the boys’ rooms had doors on the stalls. So, if you didn’t wish to provide an entertaining display, you had to do some functions during classes, very quickly, and it was still a risk. Even twenty years later, if I ever hear anyone admit to breaking those doors I’ll probably key his car. Of course, the school itself never got around to fixing the things. I’m sure that had to have changed in the age of the cellphone camera. At least I hope so.

  9. I refuse to be the potty police. I teach 16-18 year olds, I tell them at the beginning of the year: “just get up quietly, sign out and grab the hall pass” (I have a plastic pass on a lanyard which is usually draped on the doorknob) if they need to go. They are 10-12th graders. I also tell them if they personally abuse the priviledge, I’ll simply take their priviledge away. I rarely have any issues. Treat them with respect, they (usually) step up to the plate. I reserve the right to suspend potty breaks during a very important 10 minute section of lecture. No fuss, no muss.

    As far a having their periods, that is exactly why I allow them fairly free rein, sometimes you just have to go 🙂 I also always give passes to the nurse for female issues. The students feel respected and it creates a win-win situation.

    The only real non-negotiable rule: one person out of the room at a time.

  10. How does the military handle bathroom breaks with recruits?

    I worked for a company, by the way, that put their employees on a bathroom break schedule. Wasn’t a nice job, but welcome to the real world.

  11. In the Army

    We did not have bathrooms in the field. We dug cat holes or used a very ripe portapotty. We were only in the barracks in the morning and evening. Inspections were a big deal. Since we had to clean them we were encouraged not to use them. We had no stalls around the toilets.

  12. Karen: when I see a female student ask me to use the b-room and they have their purse in their hands (or on their shoulder), I never quibble about letting them go.

    Sometimes I will joke around with students (not just females, BTW) when they ask by saying “C’mon, you know you don’t really have to go. You just want to walk around, mingle with your friends in there, etc….” It actually works more often than not as the kid will smile and/or laugh, and take their seat again.


  1. […] out the discussion at Joanne Jacobs’ blog about bathroom breaks in school. Here’s the USA Today article that prompted the blog […]