Time-out: schools reconsider recess as a tool for discipline

Time-out: schools reconsider recess as a tool for discipline

(Calif.) It’s been a time-tested disciplinary tactic for teachers for decades but as concerns over taking recess away from misbehaving students continue to mount, more and more school districts across the nation are seeking to modify the practice or restrict it altogether.

Among the latest local educational agencies to take on the increasingly controversial subject, Berkeley Unified School District last week adopted a new policy limiting the amount of time a student may be kept from recess for misconduct.

“A clear and adopted board policy is what is required for teachers to be able to use recess restriction in limited and appropriate situations,” Pasquale Scuderi, the district’s assistant superintendent of educational services, wrote in a memo to the board late last week. “The proposed policy ensures among other things, that no student will ever be prohibited for more than 10 minutes of any activity in a single day.”

The issue represents a collision of goals within the education community and exposes the pitfalls of making any one change independent of competing concerns.

Some child advocates argue, for instance, that restricting a pupil’s recess time runs counter to federal and state initiatives aimed at increasing students’ physical activity – a position supported by research showing playtime reduces obesity and improves mental function in the classroom.

Critics also complain that punishment is meted out in a haphazard manner – some kids are being kept from recess for not completing homework assignments, others for behavioral challenges –neither of which is typically grounded in clear policy.

Many educators say recess restriction works and is one of few tools teachers have to control behavior in a classroom with between 20 and 30 students.

Board members at Connecticut’s Wallingford Public Schools, for example, recently realized that a wellness policy adopted in 2006 to meet federal child nutrition requirements prohibits the district from denying recess as a form of discipline. In June, Gov. Dannel Malloy signed into law a bill requiring school boards to adopt, as they “deem appropriate,” policies “concerning the issue regarding any school employee being involved in preventing a student from participating in the entire time devoted to physical exercise in the regular school day.”

Trustees are now working to devise a policy that complies with both mandates but leaves in place the option for teachers to use recess time as an incentive for good behavior.

“I don’t see what the problem is if a child stays at the wall,” Wallingford board member Michael Votto told the local Record-Journal. “If they stand by the wall for 10 minutes, I don’t think it’s a big deal.’  

Other than an obligation to “administer student discipline without discriminating on the basis of race, color or national origin,” there is no federal law dictating school discipline policies, and while some states have laws on their books giving teachers authority to remove problem students from the classroom most leave the specifics up to local districts.

California’s Education Code, for example, doesn’t dictate policy on recess restriction but rather simply states that: “The governing board of a school district may adopt reasonable rules and regulations to authorize a teacher to restrict for disciplinary purposes the time a pupil under his or her supervision is allowed for recess.”

Legal experts on both sides of the debate interpret this law differently, with those opposed to the punishment arguing the intent is that if a district doesn’t have a policy specifically addressing it then they don’t have the right to use it.

Berkeley Unified School District’s policy adoption last week follows a push two years ago by the mother of a kindergartner who was repeatedly being kept from recess for misbehaving. She, like many parents focused on the issue, has said it’s often the kids acting out in class that need recess the most.

“It’s not effective,” Sinead O’Sullivan told Berkeleyside.com, an independent local news site that covered last week’s discussion by the school board. “The kids who get [recess taken away] are the high-energy kids who can’t control their bodies. It’s the last punishment they need.”

Similar arguments were made in August when the Grand Island school board in Nebraska approved a revised wellness policy that allows a child to be removed from the playground if he or she gets in a fight with another student, but denies the use of restricted recess as punishment for misbehavior during other parts of the school day.

The new rules in Berkeley are similar to several in policies adopted by a host of other California districts and less restrictive than some others, including Palo Alto, which in October rewrote its student discipline rules to ban the practice of taking away recess time as a disciplinary measure “unless the safety and health of the student or other students are at risk.”

Berkeley Unified’s policy allows recess restriction only after the teacher or administrator seeks alternative disciplinary actions “consistent with our positive behavioral support systems,” and requires all schools to create guidelines within their individual PBIS plans to “create a positive recess behavior plan which analyzes behavioral function, additional environmental supports needed and/or alternative consequences.

Other regulations in the policy include:

  • Recess restriction shall not be used as a penalty for incomplete homework.
  • The student shall remain under employee supervision during the time of the consequence.
  • The student shall be given adequate time to use the restroom and get a drink or eat lunch, as appropriate.
  • Teachers shall inform a site administrator in writing of any student who has their recess restricted. When a student has their recess restricted either two times per week or three times a month, parents or caregivers will be notified and the site Response To Intervention team or the administrator will review that information and seek alternative means to address the needs of the student.
  • A student will not be restricted for more than half of any given recess period wherein the consequence is assigned, and a maximum of 10 minutes of restriction per day should be adhered to in all uses.
  • Recess participation may not be restricted for students where such a consequence is explicitly prohibited by a student’s IEP or 504 plan.
  • Data will be reviewed annually following the passage of the policy and data will include data disaggregated by ethnicity.

“Staff is not putting forth a policy to encourage the use of recess restriction as a corrective action,” Berkeley’s Scuderi wrote in a memo to the board and district superintendent Donald Evans. “However, a clear and thoughtful policy being put in place will allow teachers and administrators some discretion to apply the consequence in a limited way where it is reasonable and appropriate to do so.”

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