Why Your Child’s Teacher Won’t Let Kids Go to the Bathroom (and how to solve the problem)
I am a former classroom teacher, current literacy interventionist, and a mom of three young kids who will NOT be having accidents in their classrooms.
There’s a lot of outrage over potty policies in American public schools, and parents are worried because their child’s teacher won’t let kids go to the bathroom. There was even an article in the Atlantic about how school bathroom policies that require kids to “hold it” are permanently damaging their bladders.
This is a mostly made-up problem in the media and on Facebook mom groups, so I’m hoping to add some clarity here.
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Can teachers stop kids and teenagers from going to the bathroom?
Of course teachers cannot stop kids (of any age) from leaving the classroom to use the bathroom, and most have no interest in doing so. Given that we can’t physically restrain a child in any way, there’s absolutely nothing stopping your child from just walking out of the classroom and taking care of business in the event of an emergency.
That is what you should teach your child. I have taught my own first grader that if she is having a potty emergency or needs to vomit, she’s not even allowed to ask permission or wait from a head nod from her teacher – just make a break for the door and sort out the consequences later. I will obviously have her back.
As a fellow teacher, I can tell you that a true potty emergency from an otherwise compliant kid will rarely be met with a consequence.
I love teachers, and I am one. But with 3.5 million teachers in America, you’re bound to occasionally meet one that your kid calls “mean.” Here’s how to problem solve a “mean teacher.”
Why You Should Probably Trust the Teacher’s Bathroom Policy
I don’t know a single teacher (and I’m acquainted with lots of them) that wouldn’t be horrified by a child having an accident in her classroom. Teachers are imperfect people, but they don’t get any joy from humiliating a child.
- Are we sometimes struggling to manage the expectations of our jobs? Yes.
- Do we get irritated at kids not meeting expectations (just like you do your own children)? Yes.
- Are we monsters who love to watch kids squirm and be physically uncomfortable? Um, no.
Please give your child’s teacher the benefit of the doubt, no matter how strict her bathroom policy might seem at first glance. She’s probably got a very good reason for clamping down on potty trips.
If you’ve got health concerns about your child that revolve around toileting issues, a private conversation can solve this immediately. Every year I’ve had a parent give me a heads up about a child who needs free rein of the bathroom passes for some medical reason or another, and it’s never been an issue. Further, those kids have never once taken advantage of the situation.
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Why are some teachers so strict about letting kids use the restroom?
Most parents don’t understand why teachers don’t allow a bathroom free-for-all.
I think it makes sense that parents are skeptical. After all, when parents are around the house or out in public with kids, their children don’t make a habit of running to the bathroom 10 times a day. There’s usually something more interesting to do, and kids typically only ask when nature calls. In other words, parents only have experience with their kids using the restroom when it’s needed.
The Doing Dishes Analogy
However, kids in school will often ask to go to the bathroom when they’re bored or being asked to mentally exert themselves. Imagine if every single night, you asked your three children to clean the kitchen together. And every night, the youngest child mysteriously has to go to the bathroom. Kitchen clean up lasts 20 minutes, and your baby is gone for at least 7 of them every night, leaving the older two to do all the work. and the youngest without any life skills. Would you have a new policy that required this child to sit on the potty before dinner, or after the dishes were done? I bet you would!
Some kids have a very hard time engaging with work that’s hard for them. They don’t all have a very high frustration tolerance, so as soon as the rubber meets the road, they’re looking for ANY opportunity to escape.
Here are three reasons why teachers are strict about bathroom breaks.
They need to maximize instructional time.
If your child is in public school, I can promise you there is pressure at the campus, district, and state levels to achieve certain benchmarks of success. That pressure is applied directly on the teachers to perform on multiple benchmark tests throughout the year, cumulating in a state summative exam at the end of the year.
Teachers work hard to not pass that pressure down to kids, but there’s not much extra time. Every moment of classroom time has to be maximized.
In fact, the quickest way for a teacher to get in trouble is for an administrator to walk in and find students on phones or doing a coloring page. Even extra time spent passing out materials before switching activities (due to sloppy transitions) can cause a negative comment on a teacher evaluation.
There’s a frequent flyer problem with kids leaving the class.
There are lots of reasons that kids become “frequent flyers” to the nurse or bathroom.
Rarely, kids will have a legitimate medical need to be out of the classroom more frequently. This is always understandable and accommodated, once the teacher is made aware of the situation.
More often, kids who ask to go to the bathroom frequently are avoiding the classroom. Perhaps the classwork is hard, and the child is wanting an escape from the pressure to complete an assignment. Quarantine has exacerbated this problem; most teachers in 2021 will tell you their students suffer from a lack of grit that wasn’t nearly so obvious before the pandemic.
Some students are just very active kids who feel a need to move around the building; in fact, lots of behavior plans for ADHD students will incorporate walks around the building as a teaching strategy.
Social problems might cause a child to want to leave the room.
Unfortunately, once one kid gets to leave the classroom, there’s often a cascading domino effect. Other students start wanting to go, and before you know it, 7 or 8 kids have left the room one right after the other. The constant opening and closing of the door, missed instructions, and incomplete assignments takes a cumulative toll that’s so much worse than just a single kid leaving and coming right back.
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Kids are engaging in dangerous or destructive behaviors in the bathrooms.
Every campus deals with concerning bathroom behaviors at some point or another.
At the high school and middle school levels, administrators are dealing with drug abuse, self harm, vandalism and sometimes even sexually inappropriate behaviors. The simple fact is that when kids are in the bathroom, they can’t be monitored for safety.
Even at the elementary level, troubling behaviors can occur. One year, we had to completely re-do our grade level’s bathroom policy because a 4th grade student was smearing feces on the bathroom stalls every day. Since we couldn’t be sure who it was, we had to visit the bathrooms as an entire class three times a day until the problem was solved.
What are some common school bathroom policies and procedures?
Here are some totally normal rules or expectations around bathrooms. It will vary according to grade level. Teachers will often mix and match any of these policies to create a system that works for them.
Note: All teachers will have a contingency for true emergencies, but we’re also pretty good at knowing whether or not a student is habitually breaking the “emergency” clause.
- Bathrooms only during independent or group work time – never when the teacher is addressing the whole class
- Only group bathroom breaks allowed (common at the elementary school level or when dealing with dangerous or destructive bathroom behaviors on campus)
- You don’t need permission to leave – just take the pass if it’s available and walk
- Only one student of each gender out of the class at a time
- Students get X number of passes per time period (week, month, grading period)
- Free-for-all: there are literally no rules around bathroom use (extremely rare, even in high school)
What should parents tell students to do if they can’t wait to use the restroom?
Tell your child to not wait for permission or even ask in a true emergency. The same goes for teenage girls who need frequent bathroom visits when on their period.
They can simply get up, whisper to the teacher, “I’m going to the bathroom and it’s an emergency,” and just speed walk out of the room. The teacher will likely not even protest because we are very good at discerning when kids are being honest.
You can assure your child – especially if they’re the rule following type – that if they get in trouble, you’ll have their back and defend them.
Help them think through this rationally. What’s the worst that can happen during the day if they break a rule? See what possibilities they consider. They may lose recess time, get sent to an administrator to discuss the situation, or get “yelled” at, in the worst case scenario. I don’t think any of those are likely in a true emergency, but they could happen.
Now, are any of those worse than having an accident in your pants or bleeding on your clothes? I don’t think so, and your child probably doesn’t either.
However, you should also tell your child to NEVER use this method to avoid work or in a non-emergency. If the child can wait for an appropriate time or to get permission, they SHOULD follow the rules like every other student. Doing so will help them earn the benefit of the doubt from their teacher.
Many careers, including nursing and teaching, require employees to wait for an appropriate time to the use bathroom. We can’t just go any time we feel like it, and it’s a useful thing to learn in life. Even as your child’s teacher won’t let kids go the bathroom anytime they need a break, they too have to wait until their designated break time.