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  • Writer's pictureJoan Medlen

What does p**p have to do with learning?

Ok, I admit it. I have a “sardonic” sense of humor. I have an eye for the ironies of life for my child and his peers. The following may not make some very happy, but it reflects a very real truth: the opportunity for a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restricted environment (LRE) or inclusive community based classroom, is often determined by p**p rather than learning style or even educational skills.

Read on at your own risk.

Nineteen years ago, I thought it was just us. Everyone so incredibly focused on my son’s bowel and bladder habits. Discussing them until I wanted to scream. The school team was so focused on this, it became the center of their educational programming, rather than developing sight words or symbols or other academic topics.

For years, every note that came home included something about the bathroom. Usually in the first sentence. At every IEP meeting, the team wanted to dissect how to get him to communicate that he needed to use the bathroom. All of his communication tools had bathroom as the key focus. The more attention they gave it, the more notes I received. The more notes I received, the more laundry I had to do. It seemed to go in the wrong direction.

Yet he made progress at home. We used a combination of timed suggestions and listening to his emerging communication. We combined bathroom trips with natural events, like leaving the house. He’s a subtle communicator. We act on mere glances when we are learning a new skill. Nine times out of ten, that glance is the start.

When we advocated for him attend a general education classroom with supports in third grade, his bathroom skills were an argument for him to not be included. We managed to negotiate past that, but there was a price. I worked in a community hospital 45 minutes away, just three days a week. At least once a week I would hear my name being paged to an outside call. I would pick up to hear, “Mrs. Medlen, he peed on his sock.” Apparently this is the end of the world.

I thought we were the only ones who were under the microscope in the bathroom.

I was wrong.

I’ve received many calls over the years about p**p. Children with disabilities across the nation, who may be able to say their ABC’s and count to 100, are excluded from kindergarten because of p**p-phobia.

Older students are not allowed time in general education classes because they may have an “accident” in the class. This is very distressing to teachers. So much so, that one young man endured being photographed before being cleaned up. (Do I hear, “child porn”?) Apparently parents don’t understand how distressing it is to have an accident in class. Surely a photograph will help. They were included in his IEP report. There is simply no excuse for this. For this student, these photos were also a part of the school’s evidence to move him to a segregated setting.

One of the children in our neighborhood – who did not receive special education services – had some issues with using the bathroom. No one talked about removing him to a “life skills class” because of his need to learn this skill. True, he need a little less help cleaning up, but he still needed an adult. I bet no one paged his Mom at work.

So I ask you, “What does p**p have to do with learning?”

Rather than debate how this applies in IDEA and other laws, let’s look at a more practical angle.

I understand.  Teachers in K-12 education settings do not expect to have to deal with this. That’s what the IEP is for: accommodations that assist the student to be successful in the least restricted environment. I never expected a general education teacher to be the person to assist my son with his trips to the bathroom. I expect that teacher to teach. He had an Educational Assistant assigned from the Special Education Department, where, I assume, they know students may need assistance in the bathroom. The Educational Assistant’s whose sole purpose was to assist and make accommodations as needed. Still, I understand not wanting to deal with p**p, because I don’t want to deal with it either. And I’m his Mother.

What we all forget is this: the student doesn’t want to deal with p**p –or us.

Which is the point, really.

They certainly don’t want it to be the major subject for objectives in all areas of learning (communication, “life skills,” fine motor, learning to organize ones day…). But that’s what happens if you haven’t mastered that skill. “Johnny will use an icon to communicate he needs to go to the bathroom.” “Johnny will unfasten his pants, pull them down, use the toilet, pull them up, and fasten them with minimal assist.” and on and on.

Instead of, “Johnny will be able to match 10 new sight words from the Dolsch reading list.” or “Johnny will complete a visual project on the food options for pioneers on the Oregon Trail.” And maybe under a list of supports, “Johnny needs 1:1 assistance in use of the bathroom,” with a detailed description of his current, successful routine. Or even just confining bathroom related goals to a section focused on life skills?

More often than not, as I listen to parents on the phone, they tell me they do not have the same level of trouble with bathroom use at home. So I ask, “Tell me what it looks like at home?”

That answer varies widely. But in that answer, I learn where the child is in the process of learning the skills and communicating the need. I also learn what the parents do – whether they realize it or not – to create a successful environment for their child.  Those whose children are learning to use the bathroom typically are working hard on the skill all day and night by setting timers, making visual schedules, even putting recorded switches on the wall to ask for help in the bathroom.

The question becomes, “how can the team create an environment in which the student feels safe enough to communicate in the same way?”

There are two issues as I see it.

1.       Does the child trust the adults to listen? Or trust them in general?

2.       Are the adults “tuned in” to the student’s communication in a positive manner?

You see, it’s our job as adults – teachers, educational assistants, speech language pathologists, parents – to accommodate the student with special needs. To shape the environment for success.

Not the other way around.

Using the bathroom is a very private thing. It requires the ability to relax. Kids who feel  stress and who do not trust the environment will prefer to try to “hold it” than to risk embarrassment, shame, or making others angry. Children who are accustomed to autonomy with regard to using the bathroom, may be breaking rules by leaving their seat and be admonished.They may not feel comfortable sharing or even know how to communicate the need.

Just like everything else, it wouldn’t surprise me that when p**p becomes the main topic for the team, the student knows it. That raises the stress the student feels and lowers his trust. The more staff “encourage” use of a system, the harder it is to learn when a “failure” to use the system results in an accident or an increase in use of the system. It may feel like being badgered. (or….”bullied”? )

We could talk about strategies and communication issues for years.

The question is what does p**p have to do with FAPE?

Using the bathroom is a life skill. One of many. Learning this particular life skill does not require a segregated classroom. Learning to use the bathroom and learning to read alongside the children in the neighborhood are not discreet events. Delayed learning with regard to using the bathroom in a school setting does not mean a child cannot learn to read with the girl next door.

Yes, we adults have to be diligent. We have to do the hard work. We need to make accommodations so that learning this skill is one of many natural lessons about life in a day. We need to follow universal precautions when dealing with accidents. We need to show respect, dignity, and privacy to students who struggle in this area.  And, yes, we need to deal with something we don’t like.

Welcome to adulthood.

P**p has nothing to do with learning in the least restrictive environment.

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