Should Classrooms Ban Water Bottles?

An argument in favor of hydration

In favor of hydration for learning and behaviorTalk to any of the coaches in my teacher training seminars and they all seem to have one thing in common. Regardless of the sport they coach, I’ve yet to meet anyone who would think of sending students out on the court, track, mat, or playing field without having them be adequately hydrated first. We know that players are more focused and less prone to injury when they’ve been drinking water, and the Coaches’ Learning Network recommend that athletes have water with them all the time—in school, in the car, by their beds at night—and not just during practices or games.

So here’s the big question: If we want our players hydrated to increase their levels of concentration and performance, wouldn’t we want our students hydrated in their academic classes to help them out in, say, math, biology, or reading? A 2004 article on the Teaching Expertise Web site claims that “mental performance can fall by 10%” when students are not hydrated, and that dehydration can add to tiredness, headaches, and irritability. Authors and educators most familiar with the relationship between students’ physiological needs and their behavior and performance (notably Carla Hannaford, Martha Kaufeldt, and Eric Jensen among others) advise that adequate hydration improves brain functioning and academic skills.

Water can account for a significant reduction in hyperactivity and inattention, and one principal reported a noteworthy decrease in the number of sick days among students and faculty alike after she had water coolers installed in every classroom. Water also helps counteract the effects of caffeine, sugar, stress, and low-frequency electromagnetic fields (encountered around computers, phones, mp3 players, or other electronic devices), all of which contribute to the body becoming dehydrated, and all of which are in abundant supply in most kids’ lives. Additionally, learning is better served by small and frequent water intake rather than making kids wait until breaks or lunchtime. In this regard, water bottles offer the perfect solution.

Yet despite all these benefits, this cheap and simple brain-friendly accommodation makes some people nervous. Chief among complaints is the fact that yes, increase water intake and kids will have to pee, at least until the kidneys adjust to the change. Still, many teachers report that after the initial fascination wears off, the students actually ask for the pass less frequently— especially in cases in which kids were asking to leave just to get a drink. (The decrease in these requests dropped off even more dramatically when teachers allowed brain breaks and movement at regular and frequent intervals. And not one coach has ever reported having to call a time out for a potty break during a game. Clearly the potential for self-management exists.)

Many teachers have averted potential negative behaviors involving water bottles (including a few reports of kids bringing vodka in the bottles), by providing water for the kids, by having clear boundaries and instructions for using this accommodation appropriately, and, better still, by creating emotionally safe, win-win learning environments in which students can get their needs met for attention, success, structure, belonging, and autonomy, for example, without abusing this privilege. (It’s always tempting to choose banning items over taking the time to teach students to self-manage and use them properly, skills that will serve them far better in the long run.) In fact, the number of teachers who allow, and in fact encourage water bottles and frequent hydration without incident may make the strongest argument for bringing this brain-friendly support for kids into as many classrooms as possible.

This article was originally written for the argument in favor of allowing water and hydration in class for a 2008 article that appeared in American Teacher. 

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Related resources:

Water and the Body: Benefits of Water to the Body
The “Ideal” Student: Kids for whom traditional classrooms are ideally suited (and why so many non-traditional learners struggle in these instructional environments).
Ways to Reach More Students
ADHD Look-Alike Conditions
Multiple Intelligences
Working With Different Sensory/Modality Strengths and Limitations
Survey: Is Your School (or Classroom) an Emotionally Safe Place?
Supporting Kids in Crisis: Non-supportive patterns to avoid!
Alternatives to Non-Supportive Responses
Industrial Age Classrooms vs. Information Age Classrooms

Links to other articles on hydration and nutrition:

Teaching Expertise: Hydrate the Brain (includes links to other articles)
Hydration and Learning Fact Sheet from Pathfinders for Autism
Hydration is the Key to Learning by Jennifer Insalaco
Feeding the Brain for Academic Success by Philippa Norman, M.D., M.P.H.
How Iodine Deficiency May Affect Your Child’s Brain Function and IQ by Dr. Joseph Mercola

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8 thoughts on “Should Classrooms Ban Water Bottles?

  1. this will really help me with my essay

    1. Glad to hear it. Not to slip into teacher mode, but you might want to include stuff like capital letters and punctuation when you write your essay. 😉 Good luck, Dustin!

  2. This really didn’t help. I need why water bottles should stay for my essay! >:(

    1. Ah, the problem of working with interviewers who only have a limited number of words to report on this topic. There are several reasons listed here, but see if this helps: http://janebluestein.com/2012/water-and-the-body/. If you need more information, contact me through this site (http://janebluestein.com/hire-jane/contact-dr-jane-bluestein/) and I can send you an excerpt from Creating Emotionally Safe Schools that talks about several aspects of physical needs and learning. Thanks for writing.

  3. Wow! This article will really help me with my essay at school. I love this website!

  4. I might need a little bit more info on why water bottles should not be banned though. Can you give me some reliable websites that I can use? Thanks!

    1. You might want to check out Brain Gym or sports resources online, or talk with some of the coaches in your school or area. There is a bit of hysteria on both ends of the hydration-and-learning spectrum, so tread carefully. I can also speak from experience, noting a shift in my level of alertness even with small amount of water. I’ve seen this in participants in my workshops, too.

      Does it work for everyone? I can’t say. But I’d be very reluctant to deny a thirsty student a sip of water. (I had a particularly hideous teacher in my own elementary experience who wouldn’t let us out for a drink on one of the hottest days. I remember very little else from that entire year.)

      Some teachers have found a way to provide water (or water breaks) in the classroom when water bottles were not an option. Don’t forget, a lot of kids will ask to go out for a drink of water or bathroom break more out of a need to MOVE than anything else if they’ve been sitting too long or too much. Is this really a hill worth dying on? This should be a non-issue, but it’s not worth your job. Find a way for kids who need to hydrate to do so.

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