Taking Away Recess: Shifting Mindset Away from Compliance and Toward Productivity

Taking Away Recess: Shifting Mindset Away from Compliance and Toward Productivity


By Christine Merle

There has been much writing circling around education forums lately around the idea of recess – specifically, ending the practice of taking away recess as a consequence. We know from the American Academy of Pediatrics that “recess serves as a necessary break from the rigors of concentrated, academic challenges in the classroom” and that “safe, well-supervised recess offers cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits” to children that are key to their development. Taking away recess is not proven to change behavior, and it can actually exacerbate challenges with students who truly need that time as an emotional and physical escape.

But it’s tough. We hear from so many educators that they need that card in their back pocket, they need to be able to use recess as a lever to get their class to behave. It serves as a simple equation kids can understand: “if we don’t get our work done, we can’t go out for recess.”  With so many other struggles that teachers face, how can we also ask them to give up that trump card?

    In basic terms, this recess equation is classroom “currency”. What do kids want the most – and then what do we take away when they need consequences? As currency, if recess is what they want, and they lose it when they misbehave, then they would only lose it once or twice and their behavior would change.  However, we tend to see the same kids sitting on that bench or staying behind inside time and time again.  This tells us that taking away recess does not really change a kid’s behavior.

     So the idea becomes much bigger – what can we do to actually CHANGE behavior rather than just punishing it?  What are the natural outcomes?  What are the conversations that we have with children – one on one and in private – that may actually get a student to think about their behavior and make different choices?  Why are the students losing time?  Are they blurting out (consider using a blurt book or bingo chips)?  Are they distracting others (maybe a sensory board or flexible seating options are what they need)?  If they’re just not doing work (are they hitting a wall because it’s not chunked up, or they don’t have a choice or ownership on how they do it) it can be natural to jump right to suggesting a consequence.  

     Taking away recess seems like an easy way to achieve student ritual compliance but it doesn’t actually teach the students anything about behavior. And if we aren’t teaching kids the correct behaviors, but simply punishing incorrect ones, then we can hardly expect them to behave correctly without direction in the future.
    So we as educators have to ask - WHY aren’t they completing their work? (We can’t just get frustrated that they aren’t.)  We have to dig deep and ask: 

  • Have I set it up in such a way that a student is capable (cognitively, emotionally, and socially) of completing it?  
  • Have I made enough of their work interactive and engaging so that they want to complete it?  
  • Have I created enough of a supportive and nurturing relationship that I can ask kids to complete difficult tasks? Do they know that struggling is ok, and do they feel confident in their ability?
  •  Have I created an environment that is flexible?  Can they sit in different places, or work with different people?  Do they have voice and some choices throughout the day?  Or are they just filling in worksheet after worksheet?  

     If we want to change behavior – if we want our kids to anticipate and perform the correct behaviors in different situations – these are likely the issues that we need to think about. And honestly they involve us accepting a little responsibility for why students may not be completing the work. 

     The great news is that this is a strong place to start. With a few shifts in practice, we can develop classrooms where students respond to the currency of our relationships with them, rather than the risk of losing recess; and we all still benefit from the opportunity to get their (and our own) wiggles and giggles out each day.

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