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Removing Recess as Punishment

removing recess as punishment

Do a Google search for “schools removing recess as punishment” and you will be hit with more than 660,000 results.

Surveys conducted over the last two decades conclude that between 77% and 86% of teachers in the United States have taken away recess as punishment for bad behavior in students.

Those numbers should shock and dismay you!

Why is this archaic, disproven, punitive, mean-spirited, desperate, and counterproductive practice still allowed to exist in many states?

The American Academy of Pediatrics released a position statement in 2013 that advised recess “not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons.” It went on to say that recess is a “crucial and necessary component of a child’s development.”

Yet nine years later, taking away recess as punishment remains a common practice.

Let’s be clear that this is not an issue specific to children with ADHD, autism, or any alphabet soup labels of behavior challenges that a child has been tagged with. This is an issue that can affect any child at any time. The ones who struggle behaviorally, for whatever reason, will be the ones most frequently targeted by the punishment. Teachers are also removing recess for failure to complete in-class work or for students who forgot their homework.

Removing recess as punishment sometimes seems like the only recourse a teacher has for misbehavior or failing to meet classroom expectations. This is outdated thinking based on the false assumption that giving a punitive consequence will change the behavior. Let’s examine why this punishment won’t work.

First, kids love recess. Logically, removing something they love and look forward to for behavior or an action that is entirely unrelated to recess would not reliably change the behavior. Most children, and especially those with ADHD, lack the forethought to make an in-the-moment decision about their behavior even if they know something they desire is on the line. For in-class behavior or failure to do the work, taking away the child’s only source of free time in the school day does not address the root of the problem. He or she may try hard to do better next time, but will likely slip up eventually, due to the failure to provide behavioral support, or to help a child engage in the classwork. In this case, the punishment does not “fit the crime” and will not solve the root cause of an undesired behavior.

The only exception to this rule is if an undesired behavior occurs at recess, such as hurting another person. Removing recess as punishment would be a more logical consequence, though it is still unlikely to prevent the behavior from recurring. A child who struggles to meet behavioral expectations at recess will also need adult support.

Regardless of the reason, taking away recess can have detrimental effects beyond not solving the problem.

An article published by the Hechinger Report stated “withholding recess as a punishment can negatively affect a child’s relationships with teachers, feelings about school and sense of self-worth. It is a punishment that is especially stigmatizing and visible to their peers.”

Read that again! Withholding recess can cause a child to dislike their teacher, dislike school itself, and impact their self-esteem. I am sure that this is not the teacher’s goal when taking away recess, but it is absolutely the outcome. I always ask my young clients what their favorite part of the school day is, and they most often report that it is recess.

As an occupational therapist, we are taught in school about the value of play. Play is a child’s primary occupation. It is how they learn about the world and how their bodies move in space. They learn to problem solve, work cooperatively, and use their imagination freely. Play is the most important part of a child’s young life. Recess is what I call a “true break”: a time where a child can release the demands of the classroom and just be themselves. They have their entire lives ahead to learn and to work hard, but only a short window of time to develop life skills through play. An article in the British Journal of Occupational Therapy stated, “play is a subjective experience of joy and fun, that comes from engaging in freely chosen, intrinsically motivated, self-directed meaningful occupations.”

If a teacher is replacing recess with walking laps or alternative physical activity that is not self-directed, it may have the same detrimental effect as if they took recess away. If we only view recess as physical activity to “release energy”, we are missing a big part of the picture. In addition to being able to move bodies and burn energy, recess offers a time to explore the playground, field, and outdoor areas, to make choices, to engage and socialize freely with peers, and to allow time for the brain to process information and recharge.

I went through just a few of those 660,000 hits that Google delivered me. Here are some that I found helpful and may help guide you toward change if your child’s school is still doing this.

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