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

Three-quarters of principals say that taking away recess is part of their discipline plan. Why this is a bad idea—and what schools should do instead.
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Kathryn Haake/AP Photo

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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Matt Rourke/AP Photo

Alternatives for Discipline

It’s fair to ask how teachers are expected to maintain discipline in their classrooms. Many schools have attempted to change the focus from punishment to positive discipline. At Haymon-Morris, Kahrs has long used a positive discipline approach that rewards kids for coming to school ready to learn rather than focusing entirely on discipline problems. In her school, they acknowledge positive behavior using stamp cards that accrue points toward a fun Friday. Positive discipline is one of the central tenets of the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports program, although it leaves the details of school policies up to individual states, districts, and schools.

Another way of looking at the issue is to focus on the learning that can come about through corrective measures. Instead of withholding recess for disciplinary issues in the classroom, for example, Jarrett recommends that consequences should be logically connected to behavior. As Jarrett explains, “I think that teachers need to look for natural consequences of behaviors. If you’re rude to somebody, you apologize. If you don’t get along with the kids in your group, the teacher should arrange your seating […]. There are other things that are appropriate for dealing with misbehavior.”

Similarly, the Responsive Classroom—an approach to elementary education that focuses on both pedagogy and encouraging a positive school atmosphere—recommends “logical consequences” for misbehavior. According to Mike Anderson, a program developer for Responsive Classroom, their approach distinguishes between logical consequences and punishments. Logical consequences are directly tied to the behavior and are aimed at teaching students the skills to channel their energy in more productive ways. In addition to being directly tied to specific instances of misbehavior, logical consequences should be respectful of both the student and the teacher and developmentally appropriate. So, a logical consequence for making a mess in the cafeteria might be to clean up that mess, but not to clean the entire cafeteria. As Anderson points out, it would make sense to have a logical consequence related to recess if the misbehavior is related to recess. For example, if a student has been pushing other kids on the playground, that student might miss recess for a few days in order to meet with a school counselor to talk about safe behavior on the playground. On the other hand, punishments, in Anderson’s view, are less effective in the long-term because they are not directly related to the misbehavior and often aim to humiliate or shame the student.

While the Responsive Classroom offers concrete suggestions for ways to teach students more positive behavior, it is not just about classroom management, but also about making learning more engaging for students. As Anderson points out, “If students don’t enjoy what they’re doing, they’ll misbehave.”

The non-profit Playworks offers another approach to school-wide positive discipline through a structured recess program led by trained coaches. Playworks coaches organize games on the playground and spend considerable time establishing community standards, like treating each other with respect and having, which they encourage through positive reinforcement like high fives. They also use seemingly simple strategies for teaching kids to settle disputes. For example, a key practice in the Playworks recess is the use of rock-paper-scissors to manage conflict. Rather than losing playtime by arguing over issues like who got there first, students are encouraged to play rock-paper-scissors to determine a “winner” and then move on. Angela Rogensues, program director for Playworks in Detroit, says that they tell the kids, “the more time we argue, the less time we have to play.”

I had an opportunity to see a Playworks recess, and the rock-paper-scissors approach, in action when I visited the Roosevelt School in Ferndale, MI. At one point in the 20-minute recess period, two kids were arguing over a foursquare spot and Angela went over to see what was going on. After hearing that they both claimed the same spot, she suggested that they try rock-paper-scissors. The game led to an immediate de-escalation of tensions, with one child returning to line and the other staying in the square. According to Rogensues, the advantage of this approach is that arguments on the playground get settled quickly, rather than being taken back into the classroom after recess.

The program also integrates play sessions into class time once every two weeks, This offers another opportunity to focus on relevant behavior issues. For example, if a class is having a hard time getting along, the Playworks coach might have them engage in cooperative games.

One other key element to Playworks’s approach to encouraging positive discipline is the junior coach program. Every year each school identifies about a dozen older kids to be junior coaches who will help lead recess and encourage play. Considerable time is spent supporting the junior coaches and helping them to be strong leaders and examples for their peers. In choosing junior coaches, the focus is on choosing both children who are natural leaders and those who may not always exhibit positive behavior. By giving those kids a chance to be leaders, Playworks attempts to channel their energy and behavior in a more productive way.

According to Playworks’ founder, Jill Vialet, “Playworks contributes to a healthy school climate - one in which kids are engaged and feel as though they have choice and voice and belong.  A healthy school climate is simply a more effective place to teach and learn.”

For Dina Rocheleau, principal of the Roosevelt School in Ferndale, Michigan, Playworks has worked. According to Rocheleau, there have been no disciplinary referrals from recess since Playworks came to the school two years ago. Before that, she was spending much of her time managing disciplinary issues that were arising on the playground. “And the families love it,” she adds.

There are detractors who say that coached recess programs like Playworks are too managed. Olga Jarrett, for instance, expressed “mixed feelings” about such programs because one of the crucial elements that makes recess a learning opportunity is the ability to organize one’s own activities at recess time. Although Playworks allows children to decide what games to participate in or whether to participate at all, she fears that they might miss some of the “cultural transmission” that happens in less structured recess environments.

The Counter Movement: A Resurgence of Recess

Just as many schools are cutting back on recess, and others are leaving it up to individual teachers’ discretion, there is a growing movement to make sure that all children have an opportunity for play during the school day.

In addition to schools partnering with programs like Playworks to ensure that recess is productive at their school, administrators like Sheila Kahrs are taking the lead in re-establishing recess. Seeing recess as a necessary break for all students, Kahrs took the unusual step of introducing recess into her middle school. Kahrs insists on it: “This works for us. This is a non-negotiable of mine.” One reason that Kahrs feels so strongly about the importance of recess at her school is that she fears that many kids are playing video games or watching television after they get home rather than going outside, unless they are in an organized sport. Recess is particularly important, she says, because “I don’t think the children go out when they go home.”

The push for recess has also come from parents: Parents in Chicago successfully lobbied to reintroduce recess in area schools, making it a policy that children are not allowed to have recess withheld for disciplinary reasons. Most recently, parents in New Haven worked with their district to institute a mandatory recess policy for all students, again stipulating that withholding recess is not a disciplinary option.

However, even when there are state laws, there is no guarantee that recess will happen. The push for recess in New Haven was facilitated by a recently passed Connecticut state law requiring recess in all public elementary schools, but individual districts moved slowly to make changes. Even with support from teachers, administrators, and the Board of Education, making recess mandatory was hard work in New Haven, according to Eliza Halsey who joined Tahnee Muhammad and other parents to push for the policy.

According to Halsey, the most important thing that parents can do in advocating for recess is to organize and be prepared for hard work, especially in getting the word out to other parents. Halsey says, “It’s not as easy as saying that our kids should have recess and making it happen”

The good news, Halsey points out, is that districts are looking for parent involvement, and this is one area where parents can advocate for their kids. For the New Haven parents group, it’s not just about recess, but putting recess and education in the context of children’s development, beginning with “small, winnable campaigns.”

Jarrett agrees: “Parents can make a difference […] meeting with the teacher. If that doesn’t help, meet with the principal. Talk about the effect on the home when the child has no break. Many parents say their kids are wild when they get home. Raising it in a respectful way, realizing […] that teachers have challenges. There have to be consequences. Parents and teachers can work together.”

As the policy changes in New Haven and Chicago show, it requires both parents and educators to come together to bring everyday practices into line with what we know about how recess benefits our kids. 

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Sigrid Anderson Cordell is the librarian for English literature at the University of Michigan.

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