Get a group of teachers whose students are aged 7 and under together and the conversation will quickly turn to toilet talk. Toilet incidents, you see, are simply part of life for many children in the formative years of education.
Searching for the owner of the soiled knickers in the toilets, sniffing out the perpetrator of that pungent odour, trying to locate the child responsible for the puddle of liquid in the reading corner.these are just a few of the jobs that fall to teachers. We all have our battle stories - in one case I know of, a child managed to wet themselves while sitting on a teacher's lap.
If you want to work with this age group, none of this can embarrass you and you cannot be squeamish. It is part of the job. A friend of mine finds it hilarious that in my cupboard I have a bag full of spare knickers, pants and trousers as well as a hoard of plastic bags to carry the soiled garments these back-up items replace. To me and my colleagues, it is simply normal.
Children soil themselves at school for a number of reasons. Some accidents occur simply because of age: students can easily forget to ask to go to the toilet or become so engrossed in a game that they do not recognise the signs that they need to go. Other children are too shy or embarrassed to go to the toilet in school or are so used to being supported in the process at home that they struggle to access the facilities independently.
While it is not always possible for a teacher to leave the room to help a child, a classroom assistant or other suitable adult should be available to help with the process when necessary. Here are my tips for dealing with toilet traumas.
Talk them through the process
In the vast majority of cases, verbal instruction and encouragement is enough to help a child use the toilet successfully. Having a trusted adult on the other side of the cubicle door will give them the privacy and security to go to the toilet on their own.
If you suspect a child has soiled themselves, take them to one side and ask if they need help. Let them know that it is OK while reminding them that next time they should go to the toilet before it's too late. Provide them with a change of clothes and a plastic bag to contain the dirty ones.
Seek help in a messy situation
When a child does need help to be cleaned up, it is good practice to ask a colleague to support you in this procedure. No child should be left in soiled clothes for any length of time.
Consider the underlying reason
If a child regularly soils themselves, try to work out why. Discuss home toilet habits with parents and eliminate any medical issues. Try to resolve the matter by reminding them to go regularly. If necessary, break down the process using picture clues and other resources that can be found online (see panel, left).
Adapt the facilities to the need
Children with particular medical needs may require aids to help them access the toilet. Handrails, steps and special toilet covers could be appropriate, along with easy-turn taps and accessible paper towel dispensers.
Draw up a personal care plan
For children who require daily support in using the toilet, a personal care plan should be drawn up. Your special educational needs coordinator should help with this. Agree what the parents will provide - for example, baby wipes and nappies - and make sure the child has a supply in school at all times.
Ensure other children are understanding
Sometimes students will ask why a classmate needs changing. Help them to be supportive by playing down the situation and treating it as normal. It is rare for children of this age to tease each other, but nip it quickly in the bud if it does occur.
Although you may feel disgusted by a situation, it is important not to let the child see this reaction because it may increase their anxiety and escalate the problem further. Save the gagging for the staffroom or when you get home.
Most importantly, think about how you would like the child to be treated if they were your own. Every child deserves care, kindness and compassion in what can potentially be a very embarrassing and worrying situation.
Alice Edgington is a teacher at St Stephen's Infant School in Canterbury, south-east England
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