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.

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

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