I vacillated about blogging on this topic, but in the past couple of weeks especially, I seem to have been tuned into a lot of bathroom stress. In kindergarten, kids love to talk freely about bodily functions, and they’re naturally very curious about their bodies. Like most kindergarten classrooms, we have a washroom in our classroom. It’s a single bathroom, and our students can use it freely without asking first. Many students though still let my teaching partner, Paula, and I know when they’re going to the bathroom. It’s a habit of sorts that we just can’t stop. It’s through so many bathroom conversations that we realized how much stress comes from this one room.
First, there is the question of, “Is the bathroom free?” You would think that the answer to this would be obvious, but kindergarten children have a habit of closing the door when they leave the bathroom and keeping it open the rest of the time. We’ve taught children to knock and ask, but many don’t respond to the knock. Nobody wants to wait if it is available, but they also don’t want to barge in if it’s not. Then comes the delicate dance of just opening the door a bit to see or urgently requesting educator support, as it’s stressful not to know.
Then there is the waiting game. We talk frequently with students about listening to their bodies and not waiting until the last minute, but based on age alone, many kids do wait until the last minute to go to the bathroom. This can be problematic when there is one toilet and lots of need. It’s made more challenging during the time of COVID, where heading to another classroom to “borrow a bathroom” is harder, as we can’t mix cohorts. This means that one child goes to the bathroom, others see (as all desks are forward facing, so children notice everything that’s happening in the room), and the “peeing is contagious parade” begins. Now there’s a line-up with an accident likely only being minutes away. This leads to additional stress. There are the student concerns about waiting in line when they “really have to go” coupled by the adult concerns about rushing a child and increasing bathroom stress. If you play this roulette game wrong though, you end up with an accident and an even longer wait for kids to get into the bathroom. Getting changed in kindergarten is not a quick process.
There’s also the “sound of the toilet” stress. Kindergarten toilets are loud. Like really loud. Maybe it’s a big toilet in a small bathroom that increases the noise volume. Maybe it’s the brand. But many students do not like the sound. This means that they’ll either not flush the toilet or come to an educator to flush for them. Sometimes this means students supporting each other with flushing, which might seem strange, but does seem to reduce the stress.
There’s also the “size of the item in the toilet” stress. Even though many children don’t like to flush the toilet on their own, they also don’t like pee, poop, or toilet paper in the toilet when they go to use it. Recently, I was made aware of this problem in the most unexpected of ways. A child came to me seriously distressed. There was “/p/ /oo/ /p/” (yes, he sounded it out) in the toilet, “and it looks even bigger than the hole, Miss Dunsiger. Will it go down? I think it’s going to cause the toilet to overflow.” I do love an inquiry mindset, but this was a new case of wonder for me. 🙂 I could have told him to “just flush” and “it would be fine,” but he was obviously stressed. I kept thinking about Stuart Shanker, The Prosocial Domain, and the need to be empathetic here. I went to investigate. While I had no doubt that the poop would flush, I told him, “I understand your concern. Would you like me to flush it?” He said, “Yes, but run out of the bathroom quickly in case it overflows.” I heeded his advice, and we spoke about how long he would have to wait to ensure that the tank would refill. He felt that it would take a while. Could the stopping of the sound be a clue? Thankfully, there was no flood — especially considering that Paula was on her lunch at the time and dealing with a flood on my own might have been stressful — but it did show me how kids think and the deep thought that might go into something that we might consider a non-issue. The stress is real.
Finally, there is the “wiping” stress. Here is something that I’ve learned from 20 years of teaching, most of which has been spent in kindergarten: young kids poop at school and many don’t know how to wipe their bums. It’s not just about the wiping, but it’s also about getting enough toilet paper and pulling that toilet paper off the roll. It doesn’t pull well. Being there to talk kids through this process is important. When you see children in tears because of pooping and wiping, you realize how easily this could lead to negative bathroom experiences. We can help change that trajectory.
I share these stories because bathroom stress is not just restricted to kindergarten. COVID limits the number of students in the washroom at a time, and the scheduling of bathroom breaks can cause problems for students in all grades: if it’s around the need to go at another time or the difficulty with going on a schedule. Even just asking to go to the bathroom can be stressful for some kids, be it about a fear that their request will be denied or that attention will be coming their way for even asking. These washroom woes reminded me that …
1) teaching is about more than academics,
2) how we respond to students can increase or decrease stress for them,
3) an inquiry mindset can present itself at the most unexpected of times, and
4) just as we get students to consider multiple points of view as one of many Language expectations, we have to do just that when listening and responding to kids.
As a new week is upon us, look and listen for the bathroom stress in your classroom or home. How do you respond to it? What impact might this stress have on your child’s behaviour and interactions with others? Even as adults, it’s easy to get caught up in bathroom jokes, but some toilet talk might be more serious than we initially realize.
Oh, Aviva. I feel like every single human who is not a teacher should read this post! I read part of it to my husband and he just said “ you could not pay me enough.” We both remember the days of our primary aged boys running the 3 blocks from school because there was no way they were going to the bathroom at school. And in the intermediate environment where I teach, it is a rare day when someone doesn’t come back from the bathroom to tell me that there is a clogged or overflowing toilet, or that something else unsavoury is going on in the bathroom. And let’s not start on the horror show that is high school bathrooms.
In short, K-12 bathroom stress is real. Thank you for reminding me.
Thanks for your comment, Lisa! It’s such a great reminder that bathroom stress is not just a kindergarten problem, and that teaching is about so much more than just academics. You make me think that every teacher out there — and every parent — has a bathroom story to share.