When Schools Tell Kids They Can’t Use the Bathroom (2023)


By imposing harsh restrictions on when students can use the restroom, educators are teaching kids to ignore their bladder.

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When Schools Tell Kids They Can’t Use the Bathroom (1)

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Most people probably take their bathroom privileges for granted, heading to the toilet in their home or office whenever the need arises without thinking much about it. But at school, children don’t always have that luxury.

A recent survey by the Society for Women’s Health Research found that schools often disregard kids’ restroom rights, often by failing to have a bathroom rule on the books and provide staff with education on bladder health. Absent official policies, parents and doctors tell me, many teachers come up with their own regulations, which anecdotes suggest can border on the absurd. I heard about a teacher who allegedly stipulated that her students could only go to the restroom during class time once every two months, for instance, and read about some school districts routinely locking restrooms at lunchtime or after school to discourage misbehavior.

Schools seek to minimize the amount of time kids spend in the bathroom during class to ensure that they get the most out of their instruction, and generally restrict students’ access to prevent misconduct in the restrooms, where kids tend to be unsupervised. Well-intentioned yet overburdened teachers might adopt such rules to avoid disruptions and ensure that all their students are accounted for. But treating bathroom use as a discipline issue can have serious health implications, especially when a kid needs to go, but can’t.

Read: Using the restroom: A privilege—if you’re a teacher

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A majority (84 percent) of respondents in the recent survey, which was distributed among school nurses serving all grade levels nationwide, said students often have ulterior motives when they ask to use the bathroom—maybe they don’t have to go and just want to meet up with a friend, for example, or perhaps they intend to skip the bathroom altogether and cause a ruckus in the hallway. A little more than half reported that kids misbehave in the bathroom. Underlying these assumptions is the fact that few schools have written policies on students’ bathroom use—just 8 percent of nurses said such rules existed, while fewer than half said students on their campus can use the bathroom whenever they please, with permission required only as a formality.

And the survey’s results suggest that such realities persist despite growing recognition of the health consequences. More than a third of respondents expressed concern about the adequacy of kids’ bathroom-break time—and three in four said they were aware of bladder or bowel problems among kids at their school.

A separate 2015 study underscores the disconnect between discipline-focused bathroom policies and kids’ health. While 81 percent of the more than 4,000 elementary-school teachers said they allow kids unlimited access to water, 88 percent also said they encourage their students to hold their pee; 36 percent of participants, meanwhile, indicated they had a “protocol in place to encourage students not to use the bathroom during class time.” Also notable: About eight in 10 of those educators said bullying, misbehavior, vandalizing, or other negative behavior happens in the restroom.

Some experts point to bed-wetting—which according to the American Academy of Pediatrics affects 20 percent of 5-year-olds and can be a symptom of an acutely dysfunctional bladder—as attributable largely to kids holding in their urine or feces. This “voiding dysfunction,” as medical practitioners refer to it, can have severe, long-lasting physiological consequences—a swollen colon can damage the nerves feeding into the bladder, for example—not to mention psychological ones.

Despite the growing body of empirical research showing that holding it is bad for kids, schools’ mind-sets don’t seem to have changed much. This is the case even though awareness among campus officials appears to be growing, if only slightly. In a 2012 survey, fewer than half of the 600 school nurses who responded suspected that children with frequent urination or bladder and bowel accidents were suffering from an underlying health problem. Roughly a decade earlier, in 2003, that number was even smaller when similar questions were asked of teachers. Fewer than one in five participants in a survey of Iowa educators suspected that children who demonstrated frequent urination or accidents were suffering from an underlying health problem. A third of them said they’d ordered at least one student requesting bathroom access to wait.

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Christopher Cooper, a pediatric urologist at the University of Iowa who co-wrote the 2012 and 2003 studies, began researching the issue after noticing a high frequency of UTIs and higher rates of voiding dysfunction among his young patients. “It started to seem like, if for eight hours a day you [as a teacher] are the primary caregiver for these children, you’re missing a potential opportunity to pick up on some abnormal things going on,” he says. It’s hard for a kid to advance academically and develop socially and emotionally if she is constantly distracted by her bladder troubles. “Wetting your pants at school is one of the most stressful things a child can face or even imagine,” Cooper says.

One mother in the Seattle area, Maija Brissey, says she will never forget the day her son, who struggles with urinary accidents because of a rare medical condition, came to her at the age of 6 and asked her if he had a disease. Apparently, his classmates had convinced him that he did because he kept peeing his pants. Over the years, Brissey says her son started disengaging from classes and from his neighborhood friend group, retreating to his room right after school rather than playing with his buddies. “We’ve got to do a better job of making using the bathroom more comfortable for kids,” says Brissey, a nurse.

When they’re in elementary school, kids’ bladder systems—and the psychological responses to these physiological sensations—are at a crucial point of development. According to Cooper, children are “very good at ignoring [their bladder] signals” after being regularly denied the opportunity to go when they feel the urge. And the side effects—from incontinence to recurring urinary accidents—can put stress on the bladder, which is a muscle, and thus make it stronger and overactive. Cooper cited the high rates of bladder cancer among truck drivers, who often hold their urine on long drives.

Read: The long lines for women’s bathrooms could be eliminated. Why haven’t they been?

Suzanne Schlosberg, a health and parenting writer based in Bend, Oregon, started advocating for policy reforms and greater awareness after experiencing similar issues with her child. A few years ago, Schlosberg teamed up with Steve Hodges, a pediatric-urology professor at North Carolina’s Wake Forest University, to create an online resource for parents, therapists, teachers, and others seeking to help children who suffer from toileting problems. One of the inevitable challenges of this issue is that many people don’t want to talk about bathroom issues. As universal and mundane as they are, they can be embarrassing to discuss—not only for kids, but also for the adults who care for them. These days, Hodges says he often finds himself writing letters to schools demanding bathroom freedom on behalf of his patients.

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Schlosberg says she has often had to contend with teachers whose bathroom policies encouraged her son to resist the urge to go. One teacher, she recalls, relied on the popular classroom-management strategy of rewarding kids for good behavior, in this case through the use of fake money. If students wanted to use the restroom during class, according to Schlosberg, they had to pay a “fine.” “My kid wanted to save his money, so he was having to decide between using the bathroom and saving his earnings,” Schlosberg says. Upon learning of her son’s issues, the teacher was quick to exempt the child, but stopped short of changing the class policy.

On K–12 campuses across the country, children’s bathroom needs are left in limbo because schools seldom have established policies, and teachers lack the training on how best to balance discipline concerns with kids’ needs. Just one in five respondents in the 2015 study of more than 4,000 teachers, for example, said they’d participated in “professional development” on bathroom regulations for kids. This lack of awareness, combined with sometimes-valid fears about misbehavior and academic disruption, leads to a patchwork of inconsistent rules that teachers might devise themselves.

What’s ironic is that most teachers are familiar with students’ bathroom woes—they seldom have the opportunity to relieve themselves during the school day, either. In fact, in a 2015 survey that asked teachers about the quality of their work life, its 30,000 respondents listed this problem as one of their biggest sources of everyday stress.


Why do schools not let kids go to the bathroom? ›

Schools seek to minimize the amount of time kids spend in the bathroom during class to ensure that they get the most out of their instruction, and generally restrict students' access to prevent misconduct in the restrooms, where kids tend to be unsupervised.

Can a teacher tell a student they can't use the restroom? ›

This is considered abuse. Abuse is illegal. Therefore, refusing to allow a child to go to the bathroom is illegal.

Can a school tell you you can't go to the bathroom? ›

If you have to go badly then no they cannot. If it's a little, you should be able to hold it until after a lesson. If you really need to go but they won't let you, ask them this: “Would you rather clean up my mess or just let me go to the bathroom?”

Can a school refuse a child to use the toilet? ›

Yes, schools can stop pupils from using toilets during lessons and often do as a way of dealing with disruptive behaviour by some pupils. Unfortunately, we are not aware of any legislation or government guidance stating that schools cannot lock toilets during lessons or at other times of the day.

Should students be able to go to the bathroom without asking? ›

The same approach should be applied to students having to go to the bathroom during class. Asking a teacher or even worse, sacrificing class points, to use the restroom is unacceptable. Students should be able to go the bathroom when they want without having to ask the teacher if they are allowed.

Is using the bathroom a human right? ›

Access to sanitation is a human right

According to the human rights to water and sanitation , sanitation services must be available, accessible and affordable and must ensure the safety and privacy of the person using them.

How often should a child go to the bathroom at school? ›

“That can lead to kids having a hard time getting their bladder empty, so it's all connected,” Dr. Suson says. While it can vary, children should generally be urinating at least once and more ideally two or three times during school hours.

How many times should you use the bathroom at school? ›

Holding in urine can weaken bladder muscles, which can lead to leakage and increased susceptibility to urinary tract infections. Children especially need to use the bathroom regularly — every two to three hours, according to research. Waiting until their bladders are ready to burst isn't good for them.

At what age should a child be able to go to the bathroom by themselves? ›

Parents should base their decision on each child's needs, said Kate Gallagher, an educational psychologist. In general though, a 5-year-old can handle going into a public bathroom but shouldn't be asked to go it alone without being taught “protective behaviors” by about age 3, she said.

How do you stop students from asking to go to the bathroom? ›

I am happy to share them.
  1. Don't make it easy. Use a sign out sheet. ...
  2. Set a rule. There's no using the restroom 10 minutes before or after a bell (beginning or end of class). ...
  3. Have a few set lines. ...
  4. Line up outside the room. ...
  5. Leave the bathroom door propped open. ...
  6. Use an individualized bathroom plan.

Why do we have to ask permission to go to the bathroom? ›

Why do students have to ask to go to the restroom? A teacher can't determine whether their body is telling them they have to go. Most teachers require that you ask so they know you are leaving. It's more of a safety precaution than anything.

Is it right to pee in the shower? ›

The short answer: It's fine to pee in the shower. That's according to Jamin Brahmbhatt, MD, PUR Clinic urologist and Assistant Professor at UCF College of Medicine in Florida, who knows more about urine than most people.

Do toilet breaks count as breaks? ›

Can employer's time bathroom breaks? Employers can impose restrictions on toilet breaks at work because there are no laws protecting toilet breaks. Although they must ensure employees are given their statutory rest break period. This is 20-minutes per six-hour shift worked.

Is going to the bathroom considered a break? ›

Bathroom Breaks Are Not Part of the Mandated Rest Period

California doesn't regulate the use of bathroom time for employees. However, that doesn't mean an employee can go to the restroom frequently without any repercussions.

Do kids get potty trained for school? ›

Is it Required that Children be Potty Trained before Preschool? Whether or not a child is required to be potty trained before preschool simply depends on the school. Generally speaking, those enrolled in programs for children over the age of three require the child to be fully potty trained.

How often should a 10 year old go to the bathroom? ›

Most children would be expected to toilet 4-7 times a day, so anything more than this may be a cause for concern. If a child is toileting 8 times or more a day there may be several reasons for this: A small bladder capacity for age. Having a twitchy (overactive bladder)

How does your child indicate bathroom needs? ›

Signs that your child may be ready for toilet training include the following: Asks to have the diaper changed or tells you a bowel movement or urine is coming. Shows discomfort when the diaper is wet or dirty. Enjoys copying what parents or older children do.

How long is too long to use the bathroom? ›

Most professionals recommend spending no more time on the toilet than it takes to pass a stool. Studies have shown that the average bowel movement takes 12 seconds. Sometimes it does take longer, however, so at maximum, you should not spend more than 10 minutes on the toilet.

How do I ask my teacher to go to the toilet? ›

' 'Excuse me but where is the loo? ' 'Could you tell me where the restroom is please?

Do teachers ever go to the bathroom? ›

That's Why Some States Guarantee Them. As concerns about keeping teachers mount, here's something to consider: Teachers in most states across the country don't have duty-free lunch, bathroom, or planning breaks protected by law.

Can teachers leave to go to the bathroom? ›

All jokes aside, teachers can go to the bathroom. At my school there's only one bathroom for staff, and most of the time it's always occupied during passing period, and we're only given 4 minutes to get to class. Some teachers opt to using the student bathrooms (we're high schoolers so it's not too bad, just awkward).

Is it a human right to go to the toilet? ›

Yes. The right to sanitation is an element of "the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family" (Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights or ICESCR).

Is a teacher shower a thing? ›

Throw a teacher shower. Similar to parties for an upcoming marriage or a new baby, teacher showers are gift-giving events designed to celebrate a new teacher and supply them with the classroom decorations they need.

How long are teachers allowed for lunch? ›

A '"reasonable length" of time is at least 20 minutes, and is usually a lunch break.

Why do students need to ask to go to the bathroom? ›

Most teachers require that you ask so they know you are leaving. It's more of a safety precaution than anything. Although many students lie about where they are going.


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