Why Taking Away Recess Is a Counterproductive Punishment
When teachers deny recess for poor classroom behavior or late work, they hurt not only their students with ADHD, but the whole classroom. Learn why ‘losing recess’ is a terrible punishment — and how you can change the teacher’s mind.
Seven-year-old Scott, who has attention deficit disorder, can’t go out for recess because he speaks up in class without raising his hand. Rachel loses two days of recess because she hasn’t earned enough points on her behavior chart for completing classwork on time. Matt’s teacher keeps him in the classroom because he gets out of his seat.
When recess is withheld as a punishment for misbehavior at school or for incomplete academic work, teachers and children suffer. Teachers who know the benefits of recess for kids with ADHD never withhold it.
First, “acting out” behavior is less frequent among children who go to recess. Students, with or without ADHD, show improved attention, working memory, and mood after physical activity.
Second, playing with classmates helps children develop and sharpen social skills. Recess is the pause that refreshes.
Activity for All
Recess shouldn’t have to be “earned” by kids with ADHD and other disabilities. A report by the Centers for Disease Control, which analyzed dozens of studies about how physical activity affects classroom performance, found that recess and physical education contributed positively to the academic and behavioral performance of students.
A study that appeared in School Psychology Quarterly underscored the importance of recess for kids with ADHD: “Results showed that levels of inappropriate behavior were consistently higher on days when participants [with ADHD] did not have recess, compared to days when they did have it.”
Instead of denying recess to children who underperform, school administrators, teachers, and parents should figure out the underlying reasons for their challenges and find strategies to address them. The culprit may be executive skill deficits or slow processing speed, or not enough medication.
Veteran teacher Jackie Minniti never takes away recess from a student with ADHD. In fact, she finds creative ways to increase activity levels during the school day. She assigns some students to go on “in-house field trips” to the supply closet or to another teacher’s room. She also schedules five-minute activity breaks, during which children do jumping jacks or dance to music. These activities settle children down. Minniti rewards timely work completion with five minutes of extra recess time.
Talk with your child’s teacher about trying these strategies first, instead of punishing your child by taking away recess. If she isn’t receptive to your suggestions, get a doctor’s note stating that your child must have recess each day.
And if that doesn’t work, tell her what the Centers for Disease Control says: “Exclusion from recess for bad behavior in a classroom deprives students of physical activity that can contribute toward improved behavior in the classroom.” That might change her mind.
Recess: It’s the Law
Neither the federal special education nor the disability law explicitly addresses recess at school. But there are a number of provisions in those laws that support the right to recess for kids with ADHD:
- Every child who has been identified with a disability is entitled to an individual program designed to meet his needs, including accommodations and special supports. If an activity helps him learn in the classroom, as recess does for kids with ADHD, it should be provided.
- Under federal special education law, an IEP should include “positive behavior interventions and supports.” If a student needs recess to help him stay on task or burn some of his excess energy, that should be written into the IEP. The IEP could also suggest finding opportunities for frequent movement or breaks for alternative activities.
- When schools develop behavior plans or administer discipline, they are supposed to examine the relationship of the student’s disability to the behavior. The school staff should look for things that trigger inappropriate behavior and identify those that promote positive behavior. Depriving a student of recess is unlikely to promote positive behavior. In fact, depriving a student of physical activity may trigger inappropriate behavior.
- Section 504 requires that students with disabilities be given equal access to the programs and activities of their school. Excluding students from recess for behavior relating to ADHD, arguably, is a form of discrimination — they are being punished for a disability.
Chris Zeigler Dendy, M.S., is a member of ADDitude’s ADHD Medical Review Panel.
Updated on March 23, 2021