By Steve Hodges, M.D.
At BedwettingAndAccidents.com we get a lot of email from parents distressed about school bathroom policies — how these policies are damaging their children’s bladders and self-esteem.
As we’ve noted, some schools reward students — with student-store “money,” even pizza parties — for not using the bathroom during class. Countless schools restrict bathroom passes or punish children who use them. Heck, until I intervened, my own son’s 3rd-grade math teacher required students to pay 5 “town bucks” for the privilege of leaving class to use the toilet.
So when I read an article by Shanna Peeples, the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, about her liberal bathroom policy and the administrators who hated it, well, that just made my day. I was eager to talk to this maverick teacher and find out more.
Shanna’s bathroom policy was as simple as it was radical: Students could quietly leave class whenever they needed to go — without asking her permission.
She placed the hall pass on a hook by the door so students could discreetly take it and replace it when they returned. As Shanna wrote in her Curio Learning article, “My only rule was that they had to show the same decorum that they would at the movies: no one gets up in a theater and loudly announces their business.”
During her 14 years teaching middle school and high school English, Shanna wrote, no student abused her policy, confirming her initial instinct: “Kids really can be trusted to take care of their own private needs.”
If only this mindset were the norm!
Unfortunately, it’s not. A survey of 4,000 teachers, conducted by University of California at San Francisco researchers, found that 88% of teachers encourage students to hold pee during class, and 36% either reward students for not using passes or penalize those who do. (The study was co-authored by a teacher-turned-doctor who was alarmed at how many accidents she witnessed in class.)
Holding pee can aggravate and thicken the bladder wall, as Dr. Hodges explains here. The students who most frequently and urgently need to pee — those who may appear to be “abusing” bathroom passes — are the kids who most need unfettered toilet access. Ignoring the urge to poop is even more damaging for children than holding pee, as constipation — epidemic among U.S. children — is the direct cause of almost all bedwetting, daytime accidents, and urinary tract infections.
Teachers may not realize how many of their students, even in high school, are struggling with bedwetting, a condition that’s especially hard to resolve your daytime bathroom access is restricted.
Of course, health is hardly the only reason to let students use the bathroom when they need to. As Shanna wrote, “Trust is a thing we create through small daily interactions. Simple things like extending the same courtesies to them as we would want for ourselves.”
I recently spoke with Shanna, now a language-arts curriculum specialist in Amarillo, Texas, about the origins of her radical policy, the reaction she got from colleagues, and how parents can work to get bathroom restrictions eased.
I’ve lightly edited our interview for clarity and space.
Q: You’ve written that administrators hated your policy, and many of your fellow teachers questioned your judgment. What were their objections?
A: I think they had two separate fears. One was that kids would take advantage of the pass to roam the halls and disrupt other classes — a fear of, ‘Oh my goodness, if we allow this, it’s just going to be chaos.’ The other fear was that certain kids might use the pass to do bad things, like get into a fight or smoke cigarettes. Those are things I heard from the principal and that did occasionally happen on some campuses. But to me it didn’t make sense to punish an entire classroom for one incident that happened years ago.
Q: How exactly did you present the policy to your students?
A: I told them, “This will work until someone messes it up. If we don’t start any trouble, there won’t be any trouble.” And there wasn’t. For 14 years I taught in Title 1 schools, and my kids were never found roaming the halls, because they understood they could use the pass any time. It wasn’t something they needed to take advantage of.
Q: How did you get the idea for your policy?
A: The first couple years I taught 7th grade in a portable classroom, and the bathroom was right there. I thought it was ridiculous that students would have to ask for a pass when the bathroom was 10 steps away.
When I moved to the high school, my class was fairly close to the bathroom, but I had an assistant principal who really did not like my policy. It really irritated her. She felt it was an invitation to trouble.
I told her: “These are kids who drive cars and are trusted with huge amounts of money to lock up the safe after work, but I can’t trust them to go to the bathroom? That’s insulting to them.” Some of their parents worked three jobs and these kids were the primary caregivers to their younger siblings, getting them ready for school and picking them up. These kids had some real responsibility. Many of them were athletes, and they were given a lot more independence as athletes than as students. They were trusted to be taken off campus to events, but they couldn’t use the bathroom when they needed to?
To me it came down to: What kind of climate you want in your classroom. Are you someone who believes in building a trust-based classroom or an authoritarian classroom? The teachers who needed a lot of control hated my policy. I never understood people who ran their classroom in a punishment-based and authoritarian way.
Q: You mentioned that the idea for your policy even pre-dated your teaching years?
A: Yes, when my daughter was in elementary school, before I was a teacher, she had a medical issue, and her pediatric urologist she she had to have a bottle of water on her desk and use the bathroom when she needed to. What upset me as a parent was that using the bathroom was frowned upon. My daughter would say, “I don’t really want to go because it makes the teacher mad.” I said, “You have to go.” It took me being proactive, and that’s a shame because not every parent has the time. You have to be such a maverick to do it, which is a shame.
Q: Given the resistance we hear about from parents, it seems teachers and administrators put a lot of time and energy into enforcing bathroom restrictions. Was that something you encountered?
A: I can’t even tell you how much time we wasted in team meetings, discussing how many passes to give and who would keep track of it. That made me tired. I wanted to make my students college-ready and career-ready, not police the bathroom.
When I look back, it’s so sad that letting kids use the bathroom when they needed to was one of the most rebellious things I ever did. It speaks to have little we trust kids, how little privacy we’re willing to give them, how little respect.
Q: What has been the reaction among teachers to your article?
A: It turned out to be one of the most popular things I’ve written. I was really not prepared for it to be that popular. A lot of teachers said, “I want to do this but my school’s policy won’t let me.” To me that’s a hopeful sign that people may be becoming more aware.
Q: I realize schools have a million problems to deal with, and bathroom issues don’t rate high on the list. We’re trying to educate teachers and school nurses with materials such as our “K-12 Teacher’s Fact Sheet on Childhood Toileting Troubles.” But what can parents do?
A: Parents can push. Parents have a lot of leverage. I don’t think it would take very many parents to get up at a school board meeting and say, “We want this changed.”
Suzanne Schlosberg is co-founder of BedwettingAndAccidents.com and coauthor, with Steve Hodges, M.D., of Bedwetting and Accidents Aren’t Your Fault, Jane and the Giant Poop, It’s No Accident, and The M.O.P. Book.