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March 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 6

Water, Water Everywhere

We easily recognize water's essential role for biological life. But this simple substance also has a subtle yet significant impact on the social and emotional lives of students and teachers.

My birthday began with water. —Dylan Thomas
Water flowing from her eyes, the student came into my office upset and crying. "I know I am going to be in trouble. I left class when the teacher said I couldn't go. I just had to use the bathroom."
How many times has restroom use been an issue in schools? When I was a high school principal, I often faced this situation. I recall one teacher who rewarded students with points on the semester average if they did not use the restroom the entire semester. Another teacher refused to let students drink water in the classroom or leave to get water. Withholding bathroom privileges and drinking water is not a healthful practice for learning or for school climate.
Should students be permitted to carry and drink water at any time? What should a teacher do if the clear liquid is not water? When are restroom breaks a distraction?
Water. It seems so simple. Biologically and environmentally, it is essential for life. Yet schools often neglect this fundamental substance so crucial for learning. Our body weight is approximately 45 to 75 percent water. Our brains are 78 percent water (Jensen, 1998). A person should consume water at a rate of about a quart a day for every 100 pounds of body weight. In times of stress, we require more (Hannaford, 1995). How does our body's dependence on water influence learning? How should schools address this need?

Implications for Learning

For optimal learning, the complex systems of the body need every advantage. Water plays a major role in the functioning of all body systems, but the brain and nerve cells have specific requirements.
The brain, the control center for learning, needs energy, oxygen, and water to operate. Electrical transmissions in the nervous system depend on water. Nerve cells, like all cells in our bodies, have membranes that conduct electricity to send messages. This neurological transfer of information through water is important for learning. Inadequate levels of water can decrease the conductivity and cause electrical problems that diminish optimal conditions for learning (Tortora & Anagnostakos, 1990).
Water is also essential for supplying oxygen to the brain. The brain, an oxygen glutton, makes up about one-fiftieth of the body's weight but uses one-fifth of the body's oxygen (Hannaford, 1995). Learning requires adequate levels of oxygen for our brains to decode, process, and store information. Water keeps the air sacs of the lungs moist so that oxygen can dissolve, enter the bloodstream, and travel to the brain (Hannaford, 1995). Without sufficient oxygen levels, brain function is impaired.
Unfortunately, instead of drinking water during the day, many students consume caffeine-laden soft drinks and snacks, such as cola and chocolate. Caffeine is a diuretic that actually eliminates water from the body (Barnett, 1992; Dennison & Dennison, 1988; Ward & Jaley, 1993). When students or staff ingest large amounts of caffeine, their bodies expel water and their brains send signals of thirst. They consume more caffeine in other beverages and expel more water, which reduces body hydration and begins the vicious cycle of dehydration.

Implications for School Climate

The research on nerve cell electrical transmission builds a strong biological case for drinking water, but this is only part of the compelling need for water awareness in schools. From my experience as a principal, I know that water consumption in a school changes the school's climate.
In my first year as a high school administrator, I immersed myself in the research on the brain, health, diet, and learning. At an after-school inservice meeting on reading comprehension, the presenter explained the importance of water for brain functioning. At that session, I distributed bottles of water to all staff members. The faculty was energized and enthusiastic, even after a long day of teaching. Although the faculty usually bickered over the issue of food and drink in the classroom, after the training we agreed on a compromise: Students could consume water in classes and halls. This change of policy had a tremendous effect on school climate.
Student restrooms are difficult to monitor. Smoking and other off-task behavior make these areas problematic. Because I drank many glasses of water a day, I checked the boys' restrooms quite often. On the basis of what we learned at the water-related inservice program, our faculty and staff also increased their water consumption. Soon the restrooms experienced a continual flow of teacher traffic, which seemed to keep students from mischief.
Transferring the philosophy and science of water consumption from staff to students was the next step. The faculty encouraged students to drink water. The school installed bottled-water vending machines, and the additional consumption by students increased the volume of restroom traffic. I certainly will not claim that all restrooms were smoke- or drug-free, but I was pleased that as the years went by, water awareness became part of the culture and restroom mischief declined. For weeks on end, I would check the restrooms and find no smoke, graffiti, or other signs of disturbance. Safe and unvandalized restrooms were an emerging signal of improved school climate.

Humanizing Class Climate

Humanizing the classroom is a vital step in improving the climate of a school. Freedom and control are powerful weapons in the arsenal of human behavior. Access to the bathroom pass can become a major conflict between teachers and students and, at times, can become a means of coercion. This issue may disrupt class, cause discipline problems, and harm relationships. When we gave students greater access to the bathroom, the request for and the delivery of passes for the restroom diminished as a problem.
One department chair reflected that drinking water had several benefits. She felt that consuming water was a good break strategy for long block-scheduled classes and created a more relaxed atmosphere. She called this a climate of “structured flexibility.” She went on to report that “giving students a privilege like H<SUBSCRPT>2</SUBSCRPT>O is a good way to humanize the classroom.”
True, not every teacher bought into this process; even so, the change occurred with a majority of staff and students. Water in the classroom eased students. Water in the classroom eased tensions and gave students more freedom. With the control issue lessened, students could function better as students as focus on the real purpose of school—learning.
The freedom to consume water had other natural consequences embedded in how students and staff handled instruction in the 90-minute blocks of time. Active learners needed something to do with their hands and bodies during these longer classes. Water helped. Students had something to manipulate, hold onto, and put into their mouths—water bottles.
With all this extra water consumption, what problems were evident? After this policy change, I cannot recall a single faculty complaint. Even the custodians enjoyed our new policy. Water spills were less of a problem to floors and carpets than were other liquids. The climate continued to change for the better.
Water is the “magic elixir for learning, the 'secret potion' if you will” (Hannaford, 1995, p. 138). This odorless, colorless, and tasteless liquid sustains life and learning. Water is necessary for biological, neurological, environmental, psychological, and emotional wellness. A policy like ours helps create a school that is humane and conducive to learning. As educators, we must continue to explore the science of learning and the implications of water. In our school, water made a difference.

Barnett, S. (1992). It's all in your head. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing.

Dennison, P., &amp; Dennison, G. (1988). Brain gym [Teacher's Ed.]. Ventura, CA: Edu-kinesthetics.

Hannaford, C. (1995). Smart moves: Why learning is not all in your head. Arlington, VA: Great Ocean Publishers.

Jensen, E. (1998). Teaching with the brain in mind. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Tortora, G. J., &amp; Anagnostakos, N. P. (1990). Principles of anatomy and physiology. New York: Harper.

Ward, C., &amp; Jaley, J. (1993). Learning to learn. New Zealand: A &amp; H Print Consultants.

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