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Nixing Recess: The Silly, Alarmingly Popular Way to Punish Kids

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  • Nixing Recess: The Silly, Alarmingly Popular Way to Punish Kids

    When Kathy Lauer-Williams’s son was in elementary school in Allentown, Pennsylvania, he would often lose recess as a punishment for forgetting his homework or a signature on a form. Troubled by the teacher’s habit of taking away recess, Lauer-Williams wrote about it on her blog and spoke to other parents. She found that she was not the only parent questioning this practice. Despite her attempts to talk to the school, she says nothing has changed.

    Taking away recess has become a common practice among teachers trying to rein in unruly students. A study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that 77 percent of school principals reported taking away recess as a punishment, while a 2006 study found 81.5 percent of schools allowed students to be excluded from recess. While teachers may think taking away recess is an effective way to punish students for bad behavior, recess plays an important role in children’s development. Research shows the value of recess: It gives kids a much-needed break from intense studying, teaches them social skills, encourages them to use their imagination, and allows them to exercise.

    So why is this practice so prevalent? In her work mentoring teachers, Olga Jarrett, a professor in the College of Education at Georgia State University often hears teachers express frustration and a sense that they have few other options for controlling misbehavior in their classrooms. At one event where she discussed the importance of recess, a group of teachers from the same school asked, “What do we do? We make lunch silent, we keep them in at recess as punishment. What else do we do?” This feeling that teachers have few options for maintaining discipline in their classrooms is backed up by online discussion groups, such as pro-teacher, where educators debate approaches to classroom management.

    State and district-level policy can also guide a teacher’s decision to keep students in from recess. In documentation for its statewide implementation of a program called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, a disciplinary framework adopted by many states, Michigan’s Department of Education lists taking away five minutes of recess time as a possible disciplinary option. Chris McEvoy, a behavior support consultant who co-authored the policy, explains that “It is essentially a brief time-out. It allows the student to reflect on their behavior and quickly get back on track. “ Withholding recess, notes McEvoy, “in a PBIS school would never be done in isolation from other positive (teaching and positive acknowledgments) classroom management strategies.” On the other hand, Steve Goodman, co-author of the policy and director of Michigan's Integrated Behavior and Learning Support Initiative, describes taking away recess as “a process where the student may ‘owe’ time from recess” because of negative behavior during class time. The question remains, however, whether recess is the appropriate place for educators to be looking to make up that time.

    When it comes to instituting recess, state-level policies like those in Michigan matter. A study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that children are most likely to get recess if state laws require it or if districts have a policy encouraging it. The National Association of State Boards of Education lists states with policies encouraging or requiring recess, and slightly less than half have such policies in place. Whether or not these policies are enforced is a separate question, and in some cases the policies appear contradictory. For example, Michigan’s State Board of Education has also issued a Model Policy on Quality Physical Education and Physical Activity in Schools recommending that “physical activity, including recess, not be denied or used for disciplinary reasons, or to make up lessons or class work.” As of yet, this policy does not appear to be reflected in the state’s discipline guidelines, and it would be understandable if both educators and parents were confused about what is or is not acceptable. Nationally, recess policies reflect a patchwork of individual and state practices.

    When Recess Goes, What Else Do We Lose?

    An increasing number of organizations are speaking out against the practice of withholding recess. In its recent statement on the “crucial role of recess,” the American Academy of Pediatrics emphasizes that recess should not be taken away for disciplinary or punitive reasons. Likewise, the National Association for Sport and Physical Education outlines in a position statement that “students should not be denied recess so that they can complete class work or as a means of punishment.” Furthermore, most researchers advise against replacing recess with physical education classes: PE is a class, they argue, whereas recess is an opportunity for social interaction and creativity.

    Recess has the added benefit of leading to a more effective learning environment in the classroom. Research has shown that taking away recess does not make classroom behavior any better, and, in fact, it might make things worse in the case of students who are misbehaving because of an excess of energy or boredom. In a study of fourth graders, Jarrett and her colleagues found that students were less fidgety and more on-task if they had recess. As Jarrett explains, “a lot of the kids deprived of recess are kids with high activity levels … so you make them sit it out and not be active? It doesn’t make sense as a useful punishment.” Likewise, as Jarrett’s study revealed, kids with ADHD are particularly likely to benefit from recess.

    Sheila Kahrs, principal of the Haymon-Morris Middle School in Winder, GA, asserts that at her school, “Nobody can be punished in that way. Bad, good, or indifferent, they get recess. I say to the teachers, look, the worse a kid is that day, the more they need it.” In Kahrs’s view, the practice of punishing kids for bad behavior by making them sit out part or all of recess can have the negative effect of making the problem worse when kids lose the opportunity to take a break and work off excess energy.

    Tahnee Muhammad, a New Haven, Connecticut, parent who fought to make recess mandatory in her district, suggests an additional benefit to recess: a more “positive perception of school.” When her son’s school eliminated recess, he began to express unhappiness about going to school. According to Mohammad, “He just was not liking it anymore. In the beginning. I didn’t know what it was. I thought he was being bullied. [He] wouldn’t say, just, I hate school. I asked what about your teacher? What are the tears coming from? What are you not liking? And he replied, ‘We don’t have recess!’”


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    May we raise children who love the unloved things - the dandelion, the worm, the spiderlings.
    Children who sense the rose needs the thorn and run into rainswept days the same way they turn towards the sun...
    And when they're grown and someone has to speak for those who have no voice,
    may they draw upon that wilder bond, those days of tending tender things and be the one.

  • #2
    Being kept in from recess was a routine enforcement tool when I was in school. If it was for disruptive behavior, it would be used as a time to talk to a kid quietly, calmly in an empty classroom (as opposed to dressing the kid down in front of his classmates). If it was for something like a missed homework assignment, then that time would be used to make up the homework.

    I don't really see anything wrong with it, so long as it's used judiciously. Obviously, locking a kid in a closet or something like that during that time is not at all constructive, but there definitely are constructive ways to use that as a time to separate the pupil from the rest of his class for a little one-on-one.
    Bask in the warmth of the Deep South
    No one will be denied:
    Big law suits and bathroom toots;
    We're all getting Dixie-fried.
    But somewhere Hank and Lefty
    Are rollin' in their graves
    While kudzu vines grow over signs that read "Jesus Saves."

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    • #3
      I don't see it as wrong. Recess was that magical time of day (in elementary school I think we had 2 recess periods, one in the morning and one in the afternoon). You lived for recess (especially the boys). It was a good stick/carrot to modify behavior.
      Not where I breathe, but where I love, I live...
      Robert Southwell, S.J.

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      • #4
        Where I went to school nobody ever missed recess but malcontents were required to stand or sit up against the building under the watchful eye of a teacher while everybody else ran around. That was a pretty seldom used thing, though.

        But times change and teachers have essentially no tools to control behavior today. As a child, I was way more worried about my teacher calling my folks than anything she might do to me in school (detention, yelling, extra homework, writing on the board, etc.). I don't know if that's the case today considering that parents can't terrorize children into compliance either.

        Most kids back then understood that if they screwed up big time and repeatedly that they would either be held back or expelled. I don't think those options are available for the same reasons today.
        "Alexa, slaughter the fatted calf."

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        • #5
          Originally posted by Gingersnap View Post
          Where I went to school nobody ever missed recess but malcontents were required to stand or sit up against the building under the watchful eye of a teacher while everybody else ran around. That was a pretty seldom used thing, though.

          But times change and teachers have essentially no tools to control behavior today. As a child, I was way more worried about my teacher calling my folks than anything she might do to me in school (detention, yelling, extra homework, writing on the board, etc.). I don't know if that's the case today considering that parents can't terrorize children into compliance either.

          Most kids back then understood that if they screwed up big time and repeatedly that they would either be held back or expelled. I don't think those options are available for the same reasons today.


          My 4th grade teacher regularly sent one of our classmates out to run around the school building a few times when he started getting hyper and fidgety during class and she did it in a nice way. Worked like a charm to calm him down. She knew how to think outside the one-size-fits-all box.

          Teachers are not doing themselves any favors by denying physical activity to kids who need a consequence for their behavior. Keep them after school or call their parents instead.
          May we raise children who love the unloved things - the dandelion, the worm, the spiderlings.
          Children who sense the rose needs the thorn and run into rainswept days the same way they turn towards the sun...
          And when they're grown and someone has to speak for those who have no voice,
          may they draw upon that wilder bond, those days of tending tender things and be the one.

          Comment


          • #6
            Recess is important, but they're taking everything away and tying up the hands of teachers.

            In my county, you can't take away recess, but you can make the kid walk the entire time.

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            • #7
              Originally posted by Michele View Post


              My 4th grade teacher regularly sent one of our classmates out to run around the school building a few times when he started getting hyper and fidgety during class and she did it in a nice way. Worked like a charm to calm him down. She knew how to think outside the one-size-fits-all box.

              Teachers are not doing themselves any favors by denying physical activity to kids who need a consequence for their behavior. Keep them after school or call their parents instead.
              You know, it's funny but all those people who are probably in favor of eliminating recess for bad behavior or for time reasons would be horrified if they heard that some trainers limited puppy play time as a method of securing a better trained dog. You can get a really well trained dog that way, of course, but at what cost?
              "Alexa, slaughter the fatted calf."

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