The benefits of free play and physical activity during the school day are undeniable. Study after study shows that children who receive 20 or more minutes of recess a day perform better academically and behaviorally in the classroom. After years of reductions in recess time at schools across the country, parents, teachers, and lawmakers are taking notice and are pushing for mandatory recess in all schools. To date, at least five states have mandatory recess laws on the books, and more states are currently considering adopting mandatory recess laws in the future.
Yet, despite increased awareness about the positive impact of recess on physical, emotional, and cognitive functioning, I continue to hear from parents that their child is losing recess as a punishment at school. Sometimes the punishment is related to disruptive behavior in the classroom, but more often, it is due to the child’s failure to complete their assigned classwork.
Parents frequently ask me if it’s okay for the school to take away recess as a punishment. They’re concerned because as any parent of a child with ADHD knows, kids with ADHD need physical activity. Without it, their symptoms only become worse, and their behavior inevitably becomes more difficult to manage. So, my answer to this question is unequivocal. No, it is not okay for a child with ADHD to lose recess as punishment for disruptive behavior or for incomplete work.
The reasons are two-fold. First, kids with ADHD are the kids who need recess the most. Second, taking recess away as punishment is not effective. If the goal is to have a child with ADHD complete their classwork more efficiently, taking away recess will not motivate them to work more quickly. Instead, it will cause the child to feel hopeless and defeated since they know they will probably not be able to finish their work on time. Taking away recess is also not effective at reducing disruptive behavior in the classroom. Instead, kids with ADHD will only become more disruptive once their free play and physical activity time are taken away. So, the problems that a recess punishment was meant to address simply continue even after recess is taken away.
Then the big question is, “What should teachers do instead?” It’s not okay for a child to be disruptive in the classroom or to have incomplete work regularly. The best response is one that addresses the underlying cause of the problem. This may mean providing academic accommodations (potentially including a reduced workload) for a child who isn’t able to complete their classwork on time. It may mean using a behavior chart to help motivate a child who struggles to complete work or manage their behavior in the classroom. It might involve frequent breaks for a child who struggles to stay in their seat and therefore becomes disruptive. For many children with ADHD, it may mean taking a medication that helps effectively manages their ADHD symptoms during the school day.
There may be times when punishment is needed, but this punishment should not be related to recess unless the disruptive behavior includes something unsafe that occurred during recess time.
Recess is an essential part of the school day for all kids, and especially for kids with ADHD. If your child is losing recess as a punishment, talk with your child’s teacher, school counselor, and school administrator. Request a meeting to discuss alternatives that will support your child in meeting their daily academic and behavior goals, and when possible, have these strategies built into an IEP or 504 Plan.
Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.
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