Miss Night's Marbles

Musings, mumbles, marvels, and sometimes mockery, live from kindergarten.

Ask Miss Night: Potty Punishment?

on 15 September, 2012

As promised last week, today’s question is about bathroom breaks in primary school.  The “asker” is not a teacher, but a grandmother who is raising two of her grandchildren. She pulled them out of foster care to raise them herself — so let’s call her SuperGrandma!

SuperGrandma asks:

After reading your “Why I don’t do behaviour charts” story, I forwarded the link to my grandchildren’s principal along with my opinion of the story on asked whether they were using these in class and if so, they may want to rethink.  Coincidentally enough, last night I mentioned open house next week at school and my grandson,7, in 2nd grade, stated that he was not going.  (…) I dug a little further and he blurted out that in class they cannot use the restroom unless it is at recess or after school because their teacher says it takes time away from learning. If they need to go during class they must “pull a stick” to red. Trying to give the teacher the benefit of the doubt, I suggested to my grandson that maybe it was his behaviour coupled with having to go.  He said it wasn’t and was so upset that he HAD to pull his stick because he was going to go in his pants and he loses 5 minutes of recess for pulling the stick to red.  This morning I called the teacher and asked her if it was true.  She matter-of-factly told me it was and that it is 2nd grade policy. I am appalled! I bit my tongue, but told her that my grandson actually has medical issues and has signed forms in his file from a doctor, stating he is to go to the restroom every 2 hours whether he needs to or not, and must be allowed to go if he needs to. All she said was, she didn’t know and she would check his file. Does this happen in any other classroom? Are children punished for having to use the restroom? I can understand if there was a consequence for abusing restroom breaks. I am angry, but don’t want to start the school year off on a bad note.  I would like to bring this up with the principal, any suggestions? Advice?

So, to recap: the second grade teacher has a system whereby children must “pull a stick” if they need to go to the bathroom during instructional time, and if they pull a stick, they lose 5 minutes of recess. Also, the teacher was less-than-responsive to the possibility of a legitimate medical issue that should allow SuperGrandson to use the bathroom whenever he needs to. As a result of all this, SuperGrandson is already hating school after only a few weeks.

Ok, so let’s just start with the fact that every time I have re-read SuperGrandma’s message, I have felt my blood pressure rise and my heart start to pound. There are so many pieces of this that are upsetting to me, and, while all the pieces are related, I’m going to try and stay calm and address them separately. So, take a deep breath, friends, and lets dive in….

First a preface: all of my points below assume that there are no other behaviour issues relating to the use of the bathroom. I’m thinking here of things like: wandering the halls instead of going straight to and from the restroom, asking for bathroom breaks to avoid classroom activities that may be “boring” or difficult, having “bathroom parties” with other little boys who may be in there (someone PLEASE tell me I am not the only teacher who regularly breaks up this sorts of parties, which usually involve splashing water and squirting soap at one another…?!). That said, on to my thoughts:

1: The use of a behaviour management “system.”  You all already know how I feel about this. This particular situation is actually a great illustration of why I think these systems do not serve children well at all. A class-wide system does not allow for the particular needs of this particular child without his medical issue becoming public, possibly embarrassing, knowledge. In a relationship-based classroom, the needs of individual children can be accommodated INDIVIDUALLY, in a way that reinforces an important life lesson: Fair doesn’t mean same.

2: Bathroom use being considered a behaviour issue, and having a consequence. Even without SuperGrandson having a medical issue that affects his toileting needs, second graders are still very young, and many still have pretty short warning periods before they are at risk of having an accident. Even in kindergarten, we can work with children to start being aware of the best times to leave the classroom. (I have been known to ask “Is it an emergency, or can you wait until the end of circle/your friend is back/after the story?”) but a child who reports that it is an emergency should ALWAYS be allowed to go the bathroom when they need to go. This policy is also a little self-serving: I’d really rather not deal with toileting accidents if I can possibly prevent it. I’m surprised that a second grade teacher is willing to risk accidents by being punitive in her approach to bathroom routines.

Illustrative example: when I was in third grade, my teacher had a system where we had to write our names on the board the first time we went to the bathroom each day, and we had to add a checkmark to our times every subsequent time. At the end of the day, she would point out who had been to the bathroom the most times. I have NEVER seen or heard of so many toileting accidents – in THIRD grade.

Bottom line: The system of “pulling a stick” turns normal toileting into a behavioural issue, and that makes me very uncomfortable.

3: Losing recess as a consequence. Ok this probably deserves a blog post of its very own, but I am of the opinion that primary-aged children should generally NOT lose recess time as a consequence for in-class issues (never mind something like toileting, which should not BE an “issue” to begin with.)  Recess is not a “treat,” it is an important and valuable part of the school day. Exercise, fresh air, unstructured time with friends are POSITIVE, important, contributors to children’s growth and learning. Taking these things away is likely to make behaviour challenges WORSE, not better. Considering toileting a behaviour issue makes this practice even more questionable to me.

4: Poor response to a legitimate medical concern. If SuperGrandson has a medical concern that requires him to have free access to the restroom, that should immediately trump any classroom system or “second grade policy.” Additionally, any medical issues (especially one that affects something as sensitive as toileting) should be dealt with as discreetly and respectfully as possible. To me, that would mean completely removing toileting from the list of offenses that require “pulling a stick”  for ANY of the students. (I would take it one step further, and suggest it would mean dismantling the entire “stick system,” but that may be too much to ask for.)

So, SuperGrandma, my advice is this: first, I would request a face-to-face meeting with the teacher, and ask her to describe the philosophy behind the “system” as well as share the complete list of offenses that require kids to pull a stick. I think that listening to her first will create a more positive environment for both of you. I would then explain SuperGrandson’s medical concerns, and request that toileting not have any negative consequences for him. I don’t know if you will have any success requesting the removal of the behaviour system, but it may be worth asking if the “second grade policy” could exclude toileting for ALL the children. If that meeting is not productive or satisfactory, I would then speak with the principal.

This is a tough one, because there are two “levels” of concern: 1 – looking after SuperGrandson’s specific needs, and 2 – questioning systems and policies that affect ALL of the children in 2nd grade. While I am hopeful that SuperGrandma can address level 1 satisfactorily, I am more cautious about the likelihood of change at level 2.. My best hope is that this conversation, about THIS child, may, at some point, prompt the teacher to re-consider….

Readers – anything I missed? Any light to shed?

SuperGrandma – any updates now that we are several weeks into the school year?

Happy weekend to all!

Miss Night

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8 Responses to “Ask Miss Night: Potty Punishment?”

  1. Michelle says:

    This is a pet peeve of mine as well. I remember having teachers who asked (and have seen teachers now who still do ask) if it is “number one or number two.” In my opinion, that is irrelevant and personal information that a teacher has no right (under normal circumstances) to ask.

    In most adult workplaces (at least the jobs I’ve had over the years), use of the bathroom during work time would not result in a reprimand and an insistence that the bathroom is only to be used on break time. When you need to go, you need to go. It is my belief that whether you as the teacher feel that the child should need to go or not, you have to respect that child’s body. Insisting that children only use the bathroom at recess is treating recess like a break – but recess is important unstructured play time, and unstructured play time is valuable learning time too (arguably the most valuable learning time for young children). I am hesitant to treat recess as dispensable time – and if every child at the school could only use the bathroom at recess, they would all be spending their valuable recess time waiting in lines for the bathroom.

    Additionally, it is not medically correct to ask a child (or anyone) to “hold it” – repeatedly doing this can lead to urinary tract infections, which are not only disruptive but incredibly unpleasant.

    I once observed a teacher who did not require children to ask to use the bathroom at all – in grade one. If they had to go, they just went. There was no mayhem and no abuse of the system – and there was no “potty parade,” perhaps because none of the children were aware of another child’s bathroom breaks. Sometimes, it’s true, when one child asks, suddenly half the class realizes they have to go too (which shouldn’t be surprising, this happens to adults too – sometimes until the topic comes up, you’ve been too busy doing other things to realize you’re feeling thirsty, or peckish, or need a bathroom break). I’m sure she must have had a system in place to account for who was out of the room, but whatever system she was using was unobtrusive to say the least, since I didn’t notice it. I’ve seen other teachers who use bathroom passes or have kids write their name on a corner of the board so that they know who is out of the room, and in my experience these systems work well.

    I have also observed a grade one classroom where children were not permitted to use the bathroom except at recess, and a few of the children were so afraid to even ask if they could go when it was an emergency that they were having accidents regularly. Unfortunately the teacher didn’t make the connection between the accidents and the bathroom policy and reprimanded those children not only for having an accident, but also for not having had the foresight to use the bathroom at the appropriate time, like they were supposed to.

    My heart goes out to SuperGrandma, and anyone else who is in this position. I hope she got this resolved satisfactorily.

  2. I hate that teacher. Maybe it’s unproductive hate, but I do.

    I used to raise guiding eyes digs. When they pulled on the leash, you were supposed to stay relaxed. Pulling back indicated fear or panic to the dog. The natural instincts of animals are to panic or be afraid when a basic need is held back. We are not teaching respect when we control instead of inspire.

  3. Supergrandma says:

    So, the call to the teacher was not successful. Last night my grandson says to me, “Grandma, I am afraid of this whole potty thing. Yesterday I had to go so bad and it was #2 and the teacher said be back in 1 minute or pull a stick.” So he held it. Now I have not spoken with the teacher to confirm this, but in light of his medical condition I have gone straight to the principal. I just sent her an email this morning. I work full time so going to the school while staff are there is difficult. If I do not get a response I will request a face to face meeting with teacher and principal. I did ask that they eliminate the bathroom policy.

  4. Esther says:

    I’m thinking that if I have an urgent need to use the washroom and I can not go I am going to lose instructional time as well, the teacher might not mind because I would be on my chair but my brain would not be there. I would also spend a lot of time raging against the injustice of the policy. And yes, I do break up parties in the bathroom and when a child needs a private bathroom because he or she is so lacking in self control I quietly arrange for that without shaming the child.

  5. […] Ask Miss Night: Should students bathroom use be considered "behaviour issue"? Add your thoughts! Not a "behavior problem" at our school, inconvenient, but not a problem.  […]

  6. Tracy says:

    I teach second grade. My students use the restroom before school at recess (1.5 hours) at lunch (1.25 hours) and afternoon recess (1.5 hours). The longest they go without using the restroom is 1.5 hours. I will let them go during instructional time if it is an emergency. It is my thinking that if students use the restroom during recess, lunch and before school, they should not need to use the restroom during class. However, a medical issue would be another story. At my school, I have to send three students at a time to the restroom. I have one little girl that will take 15 minutes in the restroom during instructional time. She does this on purpose. So I have her and her two chaperones missing instructional time.As a parent, I would be unhappy that my child is losing out on instructional time. Also, I’ve had kids playing in the restroom (one hung on a stall door and broke it), having soup fits and dousing themselves with water because they were hot. There is no adult supervision in the restroom during instructional time. At recess, lunch, etc. we have an adult standing outside.

    • Miss Night says:

      Tracy, I agree that we can encourage children to monitor their bodies and use the restroom at less-disruptive times whenever possible. However, I think there is inherent danger in counting bathroom use as an “offense” that carries consequences in a behaviour system.

  7. Patty says:

    Miss Night,
    That would be considered child abuse in NYS. I always remind staff that it is not our job to control children with punishment for basic need things such as bathroom needs or (my all time pet peeve) telling children what they have to eat/forcing them to eat. Super Grandma needs to talk to teacher & principal about this. I’m betting this would fall under child abuse. We simply cannot force children to do things without it having horrible consequences.

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