6 Ways to Discipline Students Without Taking Away Recess

Cutting out recess is actually harmful to your students’ well-being and education.

You know the scene: a student is acting up, and their behavior is so disruptive that it affects the rest of the class. The knee-jerk response is to punish or discipline the child by taking away recess. After all, why should the student who misbehaves have the privilege of goofing off with their friends? It turns out, this point of view may sound logical, but it’s the wrong way to look at recess. That “goof off” time isn’t a privilege—it’s  a necessity for any child’s health and well-being.

According to a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, “safe and well-supervised recess offers cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits that may not be fully appreciated when a decision is made to diminish it.” They reinforce that recess is such a necessary part of a child’s development that it should never be withheld for “punitive or academic reasons.” Yet, a Gallup study show that 77 percent of school principals reported taking away recess as a punishment. Other studies show similar findings.

The students who get recess taken away are the ones who need it the most. With a society that’s hooked on screen time, recess is the only chance many of these students have to “unglue” themselves from the device that sucks them in at home. As administrators, you should feel empowered to work with your teachers to come up with alternative and creative forms of discipline.

We asked school leaders across the country to share what alternative punishments they’ve implemented on our Principal Life Facebook page. Here are six of the best solutions we found for how to discipline a misbehaving student. We encourage you to try them at your school.

1. Create an “Early Intervention Room”

“For minor behaviors, we have an Early Intervention Room (EIR). There, students are required to fill out a think sheet about their behavior and how they can do better. We also use lunchtime detentions where they go to the EIR with their lunch instead of allowing them to eat with their peers.” —Martha W.

2. Ask students to be leaders

“Sometimes for consequences during recess time, I give students [social oriented] goals such as invite three new friends to play or help organize a game.” —Liz G.

3. Make the consequences fitting

“I feel the consequence needs to relate to the offense. So, a student throwing trash out the bus window spends an hour picking up trash on school grounds. Or, a student constantly using profanity has to take sandpaper and rub a block of wood I’ve written the word on until it disappears. I’ve asked parents to come in and sit right beside their child for the entire day if the student is a constant disruption. Students have written apology letters to their classmates and read them out loud to the entire class. Sometimes you have to get creative, but know it’s on a case-by-case basis. I always run my ideas by parents to get their support before doing anything. Nine times out of 10 they tell me to go for it.” —Monet S.

4. Set expectations right away

“We don’t take away recess for behavior outside of recess. We first practice the behavior needed to be successful. Then, we front load at the beginning of year using morning meetings, circles, classroom constitution, protocols/rituals, and routines on expectations. I’m very involved in behavior management and hold monthly principal chats/assemblies. If the behavior extremely impacts the learning of the student and others, we stop focusing on academic and focus on learning new behaviors.” —Mary P.

5. Take a restorative approach

“We do a lot of positive reinforcement. Kids that struggle in school are paired up with somebody for a check-in/check-out program. I never take away recess because the kids that have issues in school, usually need time to decompress, play, and practice socialization in an unstructured setting. If it’s a severe infraction, we meet with the family to make a behavior plan. Each kid is different and requires a different approach and/or plan.”
–Kristen L.

6. Determine what need isn’t being met

“If it’s attention seeking behavior, we find an appropriate and positive way for the child to receive attention. That has included things like a regular school job such as reading the menu choices over the intercom daily. —Bird B.

Join our Facebook group Principal Life for more conversation about and insights into the challenges of school leadership.

Posted by Lauren Brown West-Rosenthal

Lauren West-Rosenthal is a senior editor at WeAreTeachers. In the fourth grade, she started writing "bonus chapters" to her favorite books. Her teacher was impressed -- and encouraging -- and a vast writing career was born!

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