Why & How to Abolish “Can I Go to the Bathroom?”

The way we handle one of our students’ most basic needs can reflect a lot about the degree to which we cling to control. Not only does this topic take a lot of honest self evaluation, but it requires genuine empathy for each of our students.

Why?

unnecessary interruption

When students are required to raise their hand to ask to use the bathroom, it often disrupts the flow of a discussion.  And with intercom announcements, drills, and more, don’t we have enough interruptions anyway? 

Domino effect

Particularly with younger students, a restroom announcement from one student often triggers several more deciding to go unnecessarily. This turns a simple, individual routine into a larger disruption to learning.

humiliation factor

We probably don’t need to list all the circumstances that may require a person to visit the bathroom more frequently than others.  And because those circumstances are often deeply personal and sometimes embarrassing, forcing students to raise their hand each and every time can be humiliating for some, and perhaps debilitating for others.  Students have enough on their shoulders without the added anxiety of whether they’ll be able to discreetly take care of their bodily functions.

Student autonomy


We often worry so much about our responsibility as teachers to keep tabs on all our students that we lose sight of their capacity. However, with some training and discussion, the majority of our students can handle the simple social contract of only using the restroom when needed, and to monitor appropriate timing to do so.  If you’re worried about them getting up in the middle of instruction, tell them that. Explain the concern that they will miss important instructions, and encourage them to utilize independent or group work time. Explain the privilege and associated accountability with this autonomy. And of course, continue to keep an eye out to pick up on misuse and possible intervention. See ideas for this in the tips below.

Put yourself in their shoes

We may think we’re teaching them responsibility to check in with you first. We may think we’re teaching them time management to tell them to just go during their breaks. But in the end, we must honestly ask ourselves the tough questions: how would we feel to work in an environment where we had to check in with someone each time we needed to go?  How would our concentration be impacted? What messages are we sending to our students when we strictly control their bathroom use?

How?

  • If you’re coming from a place of more thorough bathroom-use monitoring, start by opening up the conversation with your students. Arrange a class meeting and ask students how they would feel about a new bathroom procedure that allows them to take care of things without coming to you. Discuss the functions of trust, responsibility, and safety, both during that meeting, and throughout the year.
  • Set alternative requirements that will still fulfill your responsibilities as a teacher.  For instance, stipulate that students must put an object on their desks, such as a bottle of hand sanitizer, to indicate they have left (win-win). Another idea is to further require that only one boy and one girl may be absent simultaneously to avoid group bathroom hangouts.  
via 3rdGradeThoughts
via 3rdGradeThoughts
  • Really ask yourself, is one of  your main worries that they’re going to the bathroom just to escape? If so, ponder what you can do about your classroom environment or practices to make your room a more desirable place to be.
  • For students who are accustomed to total teacher control, they may view this new privilege as a continuation of the “me vs. teachers” game they’ve learned.  If this happens, work with that individual student, reminding him or her about trust.  You may find it necessary to create an individual system for that one student (small check-out sheet, etc), but make sure you do not punish the entire class for the lack of responsibility of just a couple students.

featured image: Sam Breach

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Mary Wade

I taught 5th grade at a PYP International Baccalaureate school in Utah for 4 years, and am currently on extended parental leave until my kids start school. In between the roller-coaster adventures of motherhood, I enjoy educational blogging so I can stay in the loop and keep learning! Snapshot favorites: Student voice & choice. Twix bars. Global classrooms. Calvin & Hobbes. Outlandish sewing projects. Teachers learning from teachers. Modeling daring to students.

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