Here's Why I Say No to Recess Detention, and You Should, Too

Sep 3, 2019 12:00:00 AM


Recess Detention. The low-hanging fruit of punishments. The easiest thing to take away from a child because they owe us something. At best, it’s a punitive measure that denies young students the opportunity to spend time in nature, build social skills and regulate themselves with physical activity and play. At worst, it’s humiliating when students are lined up on a wall scarlet-letter style for the world to see. When those students against the wall are more often a particular gender or color, it can be a racist and biased practice.

Why is Recess detention a widely used and accepted practice?

Recess detention is easy. When students don’t hand in homework, pay attention in class or complete assignments, we can easily say, “You owe me,” and fill in the blank with an amount of time spent off-task, a missing assignment, whatever. It’s not hard to do. 

[pullquote position="right"]Recess detention doesn’t require that we dig into underlying causes or drivers of behavior.[/pullquote] It doesn’t demand we spend time sleuthing what is going on at a deeper level. It doesn’t insist that we work with kids to help them change their behavior.

With all that teachers have on their plates, it’s easy to see and understand why teachers go for the easy solution. In a tit-for-tat world, recess detention makes sense, especially if educators are taking behavior infractions personally.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. All students need and deserve a break. This is especially true for our students struggling with regulation and school success.

What are some alternatives to recess detention?

We need to think differently. This begins with teacher mindset. When educators are stuck in a particular practice that doesn’t serve our students well, we need to disrupt the thinking. Here are two ways to do it.

  • Think restorative, not punitive. In "The Restorative Journey" by Dr. Malik Muhammed, Ed.D., he writes there are two paradigms. The first is the Punitive Model. “This has been the dominant model of discipline and use of authority in many power-based societies for a very long time ... A major advantage of this model is that it is expedient and fairly simple ... Restorative Practices provide an alternative response to wrongdoing ... the infraction is identified and much more attention is given to who was harmed and how.” For example, if homework has not been completed, restorative practice starts with a conversation about the homework not being completed, exploring what happened. The student would need to review what happened, identify the harm caused and engage in a process of restoration, taking responsibility for the infraction and repairing with the person harmed, the teacher. Recess would not come into the picture. 
  • Think about student needs, not the behavior itself. In "Relationship, Responsibility and Regulation," Kristin Souers and Pete Hall write, “Every behavior is an expression of a need ... Usually, children’s needs fall into one of four areas: emotional, relational, physical and control. When we start to look at the behaviors as a means to an end—an attempt to get a need met—then we can begin to respond with more patience and tolerance. A singular focus on the behaviors can result in negative interactions, thoughts and outcomes. Shifting our lens to answer the question ‘What need is this child trying to meet?’ can lead us to practice empathy.” 

When recess is a problem, bring kids into the solution 

For students struggling during recess itself, it makes sense to take a break, analyze the situation in an unbiased and non-punitive way and come up with a plan to help develop a successful recess experience. 

Logical consequences and collaboration make sense. Students should revisit norms for all areas including the basketball court, playground area, kickball, soccer field, etc. when necessary. Then students should work with a buddy or shadow students successful at recess, taking notes of what they see others doing and saying. Then they could come up with a plan of what they need to do at recess. Progress can be celebrated, rewarded in small ways and gradually students should be more successful over time.

Let’s commit to never ever taking recess away from our kids again 

When I screw up, no one takes away my planning time and makes me stand in the front hallway for everyone to see. Yet we think it’s OK to do this with kids and then expect them to like school.

[pullquote]Behavior management through humiliation is never the right option.[/pullquote] Changing our mindset and practice around recess detention takes time, effort and attention. But just as we expect students to grow, change and evolve, we must demand the same of ourselves. One of my mantras is “Try Harder.” Through hard, intentional and focused work, we can say good-bye to this harmful practice. 

The key to this evolution is fostering social-emotional learning by the adults in the schoolhouse. The first step requires us to focus on CASEL’s social-emotional competency of self-awareness. Next, we must use relationship skills with our kids to understand their behavior. Finally, it’s our job to engage in responsible decision making when we respond to student behavior. Following these steps will help us grow, change and evolve to the point where recess detention is a policy of the past.

Join me today.

Wendy Turner

Wendy Turner teaches second grade at Mt. Pleasant Elementary School in Wilmington, Delaware. She is passionate about connecting learning in the classroom to the real world. Deeply committed to social-emotional learning, she guides her students to embody respect, empathy, citizenship and growth mindset through dynamic classroom experiences. She advocates for educating the whole child, trauma invested learning, and equitable school breakfast practices. She is a 2016 Presidential Awardee for Excellence in Teaching Science, the 2017 Delaware Teacher of the Year, a 2018 NEA Foundation Excellence in Education Award Recipient, a 2019 NEA Foundation Global Fellow and a No Kid Hungry School Breakfast Fellow.

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