Lunchtime is over and a Year 4 lesson is in full swing. “Any questions before we get going on our starter activity?” the teacher asks.
An eager hand shoots straight up: “Please Miss, can I go to the toilet?”
Whether or not permission is granted will depend on the staff member’s assessment of several factors: the who, when and why.
Is this a one-off request from a usually attentive pupil? Or is it a repeat offender, a serial disrupter? A child who, if allowed to go, will spend 10 minutes wandering the corridors before eventually finding their way to the toilets.
Whether permission is granted will be based on the teacher’s intuition, knowledge of the ‘ones to watch’ and the overall school policy around toilet breaks during lessons.
To go or not to go?
When a child asks to go to the toilet during a lesson, should they be allowed to go? What if the repeat offender was actually struggling with a urine infection and proceeds to wet themselves?
Working for ERIC, The Children’s Bowel and Bladder charity for the last 10 years has given me an insight into the argument from both sides.
Battle lines are frequently drawn between parents on the one hand fighting for their child’s human rights and teachers trying to minimise classroom disruption.
Behaviour vs bladder control
It’s not unreasonable to think that children should be able to use the toilets at breaktimes. After all this is how we as adults have learnt to behave.
Leaving the class in a middle of a lesson causes disruption, lost learning time and there will always be children who use it as an excuse to mess about. Some schools have even taken the extreme step of locking toilets during lesson times with access being patrolled to curb bullying and vandalism.
What if you can’t hold on?
Continence conditions are among the most common health issues affecting children, with 1 in 12 young people aged between 5 and 19 living with a bowel or bladder condition. A third of all children struggle with constipation.
So, in the average class, there will be two or three children who are affected by an issue related to using the toilet. Embarrassment and stigma attached to things relating to wee and poo means the true extent is hidden.
Restricted toilet access can cause significant anxiety in all children, but particularly those with a pre-existing continence condition.
There’s also the fundamental way our bodies work to consider. Did you know that 20 – 30 minutes after eating is when we are most likely to need a poo?
This is worth bearing in mind when you consider the time children have after eating their lunch and before afternoon lessons begin.
Banning on toilet breaks during lessons
Numerous surveys have shown that children frequently avoid eating and/or drinking in school so that they are less likely to need to use the toilet.
This is more likely if they feel that toilet access is restricted, they feel the need for additional privacy, or school toilets are poorly maintained.
Medical conditions such as chronic constipation, wetting and urinary tract infections (UTIs) can be caused or aggravated by the avoidance of, or limited access to, school toilets.
Children with additional needs such autism are prone to dealing with constipation and may have difficulty in recognising the signals from their bladder or bowel in time.
Not drinking enough water during the day can cause and aggravate problems with the bladder and bowel, and lead to dehydration and lack of concentration.
Alongside those children who have an invisible, possibly undiagnosed health condition which can cause them to need the toilet urgently, it’s not uncommon for girls to start having periods from the age of 8 or 9 years.
More children are also now starting school without having fully mastered bladder or bowel control. Unsurprising when you consider the average age we now start toilet training has risen to 3.5 years.
BBC Newsround recently asked young people to give their views on school toilets after an international survey by Domestos found that 9 in 10 children face issues with their school facilities, causing anxiety and even absence from school. Children were invited to share their experiences:
“We are not allowed to use toilets in lessons, which means sometimes you have to wait hours to go! I think this is stupid, it is bad for your physical health, and you can’t concentrate sometimes.”
“The most common thing at our school is teachers saying, ‘you should have gone at lunch’…They always leave the classroom to go to the bathroom when they like, but we can’t because it will ‘disrupt our learning’? Our lunch is quite long but a club or long queues can stop you getting any food or a chance to go to the bathroom.”
Practical ways school leaders can create a positive and inclusive policy around school breaks
- Ensure you have a School Toilet Policy, invite the children to contribute to it and make sure it’s reviewed regularly.
- A scheduled toilet break for younger children can lead to a decrease in children going during lessons whilst limiting disruption.
- Allow children to use a non-verbal sign that they need to use the toilet, in case they are too embarrassed to put their hand up.
- Ringing the bell five or 10 minutes before the end of lunchtime and advising the children that this is their chance to go to the toilet can act as a prompt.
- Don’t hesitate raise concerns with parents/carers if a child is repeatedly asking to go. Check if it’s something they’ve also noticed at home and suggest they see their GP to rule out an underlying condition.
- Encourage children to remain hydrated throughout the hours they are on the school site – they should have half of their daily fluid requirement in core school hours.
- Children should have access to clean, well-stocked toilets at intervals appropriate to the needs of the individual child.
- Learners who are known to have continence difficulties should be offered a care plan, to ensure their individual needs are met in school.
- Use assembly or circle time to explain why it’s important that they look after the school toilets and respect the behaviour codes for everyone’s benefit.
Alina Lynden, Communications Manager for ERIC, The Bowel and Bladder Charity and co-author of best practice guidance document: Managing Continence Issues at Nursery, School and Colleges. www.eric.org.uk