457,499 kids confirm your suspicions.

December 12, 2011

in classroom management ideas, ideas from my book, tips and tricks

You always wondered if students who asked to use the bathroom were just trying to get out of doing work. Here’s the proof that you’re right, in the form of a student-created page on Facebook:

The funny–and sad–part is, teachers have never been fooled by this. Yet our tendency is often to address the kids’ symptom (constantly excusing themselves to the bathroom) rather than the root problem (the students are not engaged in learning.)

Many years ago, I gave up the need to control students’ bathroom use (mostly for the sake of my own sanity) and allowed kids to go to the bathroom freely whenever they needed to. I was amazed at how well it worked, especially when I had a bathroom in my classroom, and how beneficial it was for my students. I explicitly teach bathroom expectations like any other procedure, with lots of modeling, practicing, and reinforcement. I frame the discussion in terms of privileges and mutual respect, letting the kids know I’m trusting them to be responsible and considerate of their classmates, and asking them not to take advantage of their freedom. The rapport and relationships I try to build in the classroom are the glue that makes the expectation stick.

Then I watch to see who’s abusing the system. Typically it’s one or two kids, not the whole class, so I resist the knee-jerk reaction to start restricting everyone’s privileges.  I usually find that the kids who excuse themselves to the bathroom 10 times a day never seem to pick group work times, centers, or computer-based activities. So the question that needs to be answered is not How can I stop this child from getting up constantly? but What can be done to engage this child more in his or her learning? What can I do to give this child a mental break and allow more movement and interaction in the classroom?

Occasionally, it seems like the whole class needs to go to the bathroom at once. I can’t count how many times I’ve said, “Do you REALLY need to go, or are you just going because SHE went?” Kids see one person get up and suddenly they all want to, right? When that happens, it could be a clue that the class needs to stand up, move around, and take a break. You could say, “Alright, I’m noticing lots of people heading over to the bathroom and then sloooowly washing and drying their hands afterward. Why don’t we all stand up and stretch. If you need to use the bathroom, go, and if you don’t, take a break for a few minutes and chat quietly with your friends. We’ll get back to our activity in five minutes, so make sure you’re in your seat ready to go at 10:20.”

Seeing the title of this Facebook group (and then discovering the countless other pages dedicated to student hatred of teachers not letting them use the bathroom) was a just a happenstance that made me laugh. But it also really made me think about how some of the little things that irritate us as teachers are actually just the kids’ way of trying to get their needs met. The more we tune into their signals, the happier we’ll ALL be.

Sign that tells students when they can use the bathroomNote: I’ve only taught elementary school, and this worked for the younger kids. I can’t say with real confidence whether this is a good idea or not for older kids–please share your experiences with middle/high in the comments! If you’re an elementary teacher, I’d also love to hear from you about what works and what doesn’t in terms of bathroom privileges. You can download the sign I used to indicate when students could go freely to the bathroom and when they needed to wait from the Bathroom, Hall, and Water Procedures page. 

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Angela was a classroom teacher for 11 years and currently works as an instructional coach and educational consultant based in New York City. She's created a webinar series on pro-active behavior management and has written 3 books for educators. Check out the blog and free teacher resource pages for photos, tips & tricks, activities, printables, and more.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tom December 12, 2011 at 7:36 pm

It works for a high school class too, especially if you’re like me who honestly would rather focus on things such as what you’re teaching instead of who’s using the bathroom. Basically, if a student asks me to go to the restroom, I say “Write a pass,” and sign that pass. If another student asks while that student is gone, usually I politely ask them to wait until so-and-so gets back. 99% of the time they nod and go back to work. If they really need to go, they ask again when that student has returned; if they didn’t they most likely forget.

As for abuse of the system? Well, I don’t “track” the students but when it becomes noticeable that a certain student leaves at the same time every class or someone has been gone for 20 minutes or if they are gone for 10 minutes and come back from the bathroom with half the vending machine in their hands, I’ll inquire and then offer up a verbal warning before I go the discipline route.

Btw, I love how we as teachers kind of have to laugh when our students go all Facebook about how they hate us, but if we were to do the same, we’d get raked over the coals :).

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2 Angela Watson December 14, 2011 at 5:38 pm

Hi, Tom! Thanks for chiming in with high school advice. Totally agree–bathroom stuff just annoys me because I want to get back to the content at hand! It sounds like the pass system works well for you. I know that students can’t roam the hallways in most middle/high schools without a pass, so it makes sense that you would need to have a system that incorporates them. I like that the kids write the pass themselves so you don’t have to stop to do it, or make photocopies in advance. It’s probably also good that they have to put out the effort themselves to write the pass–that extra little step probably deters some of the kids at times.

And yes, great point about how no teacher could ever create a Facebook group about how much s/he hates things that students do… :-)

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3 Anna December 12, 2011 at 8:57 pm

I teach grade 7 and the system in my classroom is pretty simple. As long as I am not teaching something new (say in math) or giving explicit instructions about an assignment to be worked on, all my students are free to go to the bathroom when they want. Next to the door and below the clock is a sign out sheet where they put date, name, time out and time in. Only one boy and one girl are permitted out at a single time. This way the students self-monitor, and go when they need to. Interestingly, when you put the control in their hands they seem to go less often. It becomes less of a power thing and therefore less exciting. Of course, should problems arise I might have to restrict a student’s privilege, but they can always earn it back after a short period of time.

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4 Angela Watson December 14, 2011 at 5:31 pm

Hi, Anna! I like to do it the exact same way. Younger kids don’t always understand when I’m giving important directions, which is why I use the two-sided sign to help them make the connection. I have done sign in sheets before with some classes. You’re right, as long as the kids are in control, they don’t feel the need to push the limits as much. Thank you for sharing what works in middle school–very much appreciated.

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5 Kate December 13, 2011 at 4:31 am

Hi Angela,

I introduced this a few years ago after reading about it in your book. I love it. Saves that moment of a discussion being ruined by the “Can I go to the toilet” question! Next year I am taking on a leadership role in numeracy so will be 3 days classroom, 2 days numeracy supoort. I hope the teacher I am sharing with is keen to use it too.

2 more days of school left here in Australia before 6 weeks summer holidays!!

Kate from Australia

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6 Angela Watson December 14, 2011 at 5:28 pm

Hi, Kate! So glad this idea is working for you. Thanks for taking the time to share that!

Enjoy your summer vacation! Awesome! :-)

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7 loventeachn December 22, 2011 at 1:29 pm

i agree…if I’m teaching, providing instructions, giving an announcement, etc. my students are not allowed to use the restroom (unless an emergency). It’s funny how students squish their faces, hold their private areas, and squirm to portray the need to go to the bathroom badly. You ask them to wait 2 minutes, and miraculously they don’t have to go anymore. What’s with all the acting?! Once kids know I’m hip to their game, they stop. They don’t like taking time away from their work time to go, but prefer to go during “my time.” how is that fair? This discussion always baffles them. Once they see where I’m coming from, they don’t abuse the privilege.

One thing I can’t get them to give up is asking to go to the bathroom when really they want water. Don’t lie to me. Tell me what you need. P.S. a water fountain is in the back of the room if you’re dieing of thirst. as always…they’re no longer thirsty. Haha

Stretch breaks and movement are now a part of every lesson !! I guess I learned my lesson too :)

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8 Angela Watson January 4, 2012 at 1:52 am

Hah, you are so right, that’s EXACTLY what happens! And I can’t stand the bathroom-lie-to-get-a-drink. I started letting kids keep water bottles at their desks and that helped a great deal.

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9 Claire December 28, 2011 at 8:36 pm

I had a teacher at school who used to take this approach, she just let you walk out and no need to ask to go to the toilet. I think she was one of the best teachers I had and I really remeber some of her lessons. Treating kids like an adult does go a long way towards getting them on site so to speak (in my eyes)!

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10 Angela Watson January 4, 2012 at 1:30 am

Agreed, Claire! It’s all about respect.

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11 Tasha Grant January 5, 2012 at 10:20 pm

When students tell me they have to go and it’s an emergency, I ask them if they want to make up what they will miss during their recess time. Nine times out of ten the answer is “I can wait”.

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12 Angela Watson January 12, 2012 at 1:02 pm

Tasha, you’re right, I have done that before for kids who repeatedly get up to use the bathroom during tests, when I’m giving directions, etc. I’ll say, “If you go now, you’re going to owe me two minutes at recess. Is it worth it?” I don’t think that’s a great solution because it’s penalizing kids for needing to exercise basic bodily functions, but I will use it for a child who is repeatedly abusing the system. Usually I only have to say it once or twice and the child starts to use better discretion about “emergencies” and will wait the three minutes until I’m done giving directions before s/he leaves the room. Again, not ideal–but our classrooms are not ideal places, they’re in the real world, and this does work in the real world. :-)

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13 Marian January 8, 2012 at 7:11 am

I think restricting or limiting kids access to the toilet is moronic and well done for your approach, I love it.

I remeber been asked once why I did not go at break time, I replied “because I didnt need to go at break time, I spent break time drinking and eating which is why I need to go now, you are a biology teacher remeber”

I was then screamed and shouted at (moron teacher), I saw this teacher getting on a bus a few weeks ago (I am now 35) and I just thought to myself “that woman is a moron”.

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14 Angela Watson January 12, 2012 at 12:35 pm

Hi, Marian, it’s amazing the things that we remember years later!

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15 Kerry Witherington March 18, 2014 at 8:02 pm

My students give a signal (2 fingers in the air) if they need the restroom and all I have to do is nod to give them permission. I don’t restrict them other than only allowing one boy/one girl at a time to go and we also go by rows once in the morning and once in the afternoon.
I don’t really understand just letting them walk out, however. What if you don’t notice that they leave and then you’re unsure of how long they’ve been gone? With the signal system they don’t have to ask aloud (thus start the bathroom choo-choo as I call it) and I’m always aware of exactly who is out of the room.

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