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.
Note: 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.