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Don't Take Away Recess!

I recently posted an article from The Telegraph about how children have greater energy levels greater than endurance athletes. Immediately parents in my IEP/504 Assistance group on Facebook started complaining that their child has/had lost recess due to having a behavioral issue in school. Often I find out these children have been diagnosed with ADHD and/or Autism. Why, oh why, do schools do this? As a friend said, it is like cutting your nose off to spite your face! In this post, we are going to look at the science behind recess, why schools determine this is an effective form of punishment, and what you can do about it.

The Science of Recess

Did you know there are peer-reviewed journal articles out there discussing the importance of recess? Recess is a lot more than just “playtime.” It is a bit of freedom and autonomy, it is a time to practice social skills, it is a sensory break, increases cognitive ability, helps with eyesight, increases overall health, and it is a time to burn off excess energy!

Children with ADHD and/or Autism often have executive functioning impairments. Recess is critical for executive functioning control. A 2018 study published in Scientific Reports shows that moderate to intensive bursts of exercise are shown to increase response inhibition (not to get distracted and off-task) and task switching (multi-tasking) in children with ADHD. A 2017 article in Learning Environments Research found an increase in sustained attention after recess. Increased sustained attention benefits learning!

A 2018 article in Autism Research, showed physical activity interventions to have a moderate or large effect on a variety of outcomes, including for the development of manipulative skills, locomotor skills, skill‐related fitness, social functioning, and muscular strength and endurance. The authors conclude that physical activity is needed for youth with Autism. In a 2016 journal article in the Hammill Institute on Disabilities, the results of the study indicate facilitating positive, public social experiences of students with autism may promote positive attitudes and social acceptance by peers. Then a 2017 article in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders describes how independent assessors observed children’s social functioning on the playground while children with ASD and their peers completed a survey to measure peer friendships and rejections. Overall, poorer executive functioning was associated with increased playground isolation and less engagement with peers. This suggests that metacognitive skills such as initiation, working memory, and planning and organization are associated with children’s social functioning. So why would teachers want to take away recess and have a child with a disability lose their opportunity for recess and social interaction?

So what is considered best-educational practices?

There is a lot of information out there on what is considered the “best educational practices” in dealing with a child who has executive functioning (EF) delays as we see in a child with ADHD and/or Autism. When a child is having an issue with behavior is in class the RTI process for positive behavioral interventions and support (PBIS) should be instituted. There are three Tiers to PBIS. Tier I supports focusing on trying to stop behaviors in their tracks by early intervention. Tier 2 focuses on support and is designed to provide intensive or targeted interventions to support students who are not responding to Tier 1 Support efforts. Interventions within Tier 2 are more intensive and is for children engaging in more serious problem behavior and need a little more support. Tier 3 intervention was originally designed to focus on the needs of individuals who exhibited patterns of intense problem behavior that may disrupt the quality of life across multiple domains (school, home, community). Tier 3 prevention involves a process of identifying and providing highly individualized supports for youth with high-level needs.  Tier 3 interventions include intensive evidence-based interventions such as function-based behavioral interventions (FBA-BIPs) and person-centered plans such as wraparound.  FBA- BIPs are comprised of individualized, assessment-based intervention strategies, including a wide range of options such as: (1) guidance or instruction for the student to use new skills as a replacement for problem behaviors, (2) some rearrangement of the antecedent environment so that problems can be prevented and desirable behaviors can be encouraged, and (3) procedures for monitoring, evaluating, and reassessing of the plan as necessary. In some situations, the plan may also include emergency procedures to ensure safety and rapid de-escalation of severe episodes (this is required when the target behavior is dangerous to the student or others), or major ecological changes, such as changes in school placements, in situations where more substantive environmental changes are needed.

The newest database of information, unveiled by OSEP on October 15, 2018, is the High-Leverage Practices in the IRIS Center. The IRIS Center is supported by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) and located at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, the IRIS Center develops and disseminates free, engaging online resources about evidence-based instructional and behavioral practices to support the education of all students, particularly struggling learners and those with disabilities. These resources, designed to bridge the research-to-practice gap, are intended for use in college teacher preparation programs, in professional development (PD) activities for practicing professionals, and by independent learners. The array of IRIS resources includes modules, case studies, information briefs, course/PD activities, a high-leverage practices alignment tool, and an online glossary of disability-related terms as well as supporting products to enhance their use in coursework and PD activities.

This means the IRIS Center is considered to have the most current information on what is considered “best practices” in education. In the High-Leverage Practices, there are 26 modules in the Social/Emotional/Behavioral tab on the web page. Some of the modules include:
  • Conduct functional behavioral assessments to develop individual student behavior support plans.
  • Establish a consistent, organized, and respectful learning environment.
  • Provide positive and constructive feedback to guide students’ learning and behavior.
  • Teach social behaviors.
These modules were made for teachers but it can be really informative for parents so they can understand how the school should be approaching issues concerning executive functioning and behavior.

So what can you do?

If you find your child is being punished for behavior by having their recess taken away there are a few things you can try. The first I would advise is writing a letter to the teacher asking if they are aware that taking away recess is not considered to be “best practices” in education and ask the teacher to please use Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS). If that does not work, then write the principal and say you are aware there have been behavior issues with your child and they are losing recess. Let the principal know you want your child to have consequences for their actions but removing recess is not appropriate. That you are seeking the use of “best educational” practices using PBIS. Then ask to have a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) completed.

If this does not work, then you can call an IEP meeting and ask to have accommodation included where the loss of recess, or physical activity, is not an allowable form of discipline. At the IEP meeting, you will want to use the Prior Written Notice (PWN) Tracker found in the
PWN blog post. The school may try to ignore your request but using PWN to your advantage is possible in this situation along with making sure you bring in peer-reviewed research on the connection between executive functioning and physical activity, between physical activity, EF, and ASD, between recess and autism, and between recess and ADHD. There are other resources from Education Week, Time, the CDC, the AAP, and the Colorado Education Initiative webinar. There really is not a single source of information that condones the removal of recess for a child.

Alternative forms of consequences

The school should develop an FBA and use PBIS. Peaceful Playgrounds have several possible alternatives that do not involve the removal of recess. These are:
1. Sit by friends 2. Watch a video 3. Read outdoors 4. Teach the class 5. Have extra art time 6. Extra music and reading time 7. Homework coupon 8. Coupon for prizes and privileges 9. Enjoy class outdoors 10. Play a computer game 11. Read to a younger class 12. Get a no homework pass 13. Make deliveries to the office 14. Listen to music while working 15. Play a favorite game or puzzle 16. Earn play money for privileges 17. Walk with a teacher during lunch 18. Be a helper in another classroom 19. Eat lunch with a teacher or principal 20. Dance to favorite music in the classroom 21. Get “free choice” time at the end of the day 22. Listen with a headset to a book on audiotape 23. Have a teacher perform special skills (i.e. sing) 24. Have a teacher read a special book to the class 25. Recognition with morning announcements 26. Chat break at the end of class 27. Taking care of the class pet 28. Extra recess 29. Small playground equipment to check out 30. Leading the class to lunch, recess, library or other adventure 31. Music concert at school 32. Walk break from class 33. Have lunch or breakfast in the classroom 34. Private lunch in the classroom with a friend 35. Show-and-tell 36. Play favorite game 37. Teacher performs special skill: cartwheel, guitar playing 38. First to line up. 39. Teacher’s Helper. 40. Select a paperback book 41. Enter a drawing for donated prizes 42. Take a trip to the treasure box 43. Get stickers, pencils, and other school supplies 44. Receive a video store or movie theater coupon 45. Get a set of flashcards printed from a computer 46. Receive a “mystery pack” (notepad, folder, sports cards, etc.) 47. Certificate/trophy/ribbon/ plaque 48. A gift certificate to local food merchants 49. Free pass to a sporting event or play 50. Pencil toppers 51. Stickers 52. Pencils 53. Stars or smiley faces 54. GAME DAY: Students earn letters to spell game day…after the letters have been earned, we play reading or phonics-type board games. Kids love Game Day!” 55. FRIDAY FREE TIME: Students have thirty minutes at the beginning of the week and they can earn or lose free time according to their behavior. Use a timer and turn it on (they can hear it) if they are too loud working, lining up, etc. Add time when their behavior is good. Adding time is the most effective. You will save time by not waiting for them to settle down to their free time is really reclaiming time that would have been lost. 56. Write a letter of apology to the person who has been wronged and Discuss with teaching the importance of apologies 57. Write a letter to parents/guardians explaining why behavior is inappropriate or disruptive and stating what student will try to do to change behavior 58. Take away the privilege of choice for class or individual activity when a choice is built into activity 59. Do makeup work during free choice time 60. Have students sit away from the group to do classwork and have them “earn” their way back into the group activities 61. Have student work with the teacher to develop a plan for behavior change tied to incremental privileges 62. Create a behavior charts with students that identify a target behavior and agreed upon reinforcements and rewards for chronic behavior issues.
I hope this post has been helpful and gives you all the help you need to rebut any argument presented by the school to take recess away from your child!  Please take the time to click on the links in the post to all the reference material. As always, you are welcome to join us for more discussion on the importance of recess in the educational environment at our FB groups, IEP/504 Assistance for parents of public school students from all over the United States. 
AESA also runs a special needs homeschool group, Homeschooling Special (Needs) Kids, and we also have a group for all parents and caregivers of special needs children called Special Needs Parenting Advice and Support where we discuss ALL things related to special needs care and Educating Gifted Children is where we discuss topics concerning gifted children and those that are twice exceptional (2e).  I hope to see you there!  

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