As a behavior interventionist, one of my greatest joys is seeing a GenEd teacher work with a behavior student in a proactive, patient way. On the flip side, one of my biggest disappointments is when a GenEd teacher sees a behavior student as a nuisance who disrupts everyone else’s life. Usually, when the second happens, the teacher stops giving emotionally neutral consequences and starts giving emotionally charged punishments, instead.

And the first punishment to be thrown out? “No recess!”

(NOTE: Let me be clear here that it can occasionally be effective to take recess away from a student to bring about a behavior change…. if that student is typically functioning…. and if they can handle losing out on that physical activity for half the day… and if they have a strong internal desire to do what’s socially acceptable. Without those strong IFs, it won’t work. You’ll end up taking away their recess over and over and over again to no avail.)

For the most part, I think teachers who take recess away as a form of behavior modification are doing it with good intentions. Sometimes they do it because they’ve experienced success with it before, sometimes they’ve learned it from someone else, and sometimes they’re simply exasperated and can’t think of a better option.

But here’s the thing.

Kids who have behavior disorders NEED physical activity in order to regulate their bodies. Without it, there’s no hope of them being able to control their impulses enough to follow the instructions their teachers have given them. There’s also not much hope of them being able to regulate their own emotions or use their coping skills effectively.

Taking away their opportunity to full-body, gross motor movement sets them up to continue failing for the rest of the day. There are at least 100 other ways to modify behavior that are more effective for children than taking away their physical activity, but I’ll save that soapbox for another day.

I can hear someone out there right now saying, “But I can’t let this student go to recess. He’s physically unsafe.”

My response to that is … how does removing their physical activity keep others safe? Isn’t it the removal of proximity to others that would keep them safe?

In other words, if they’re unsafe around their peers on the playground, allow them to still have physical movement in a different place or at a different time. Don’t take away the movement – just change the way it happens.

And now I’m hearing someone say, “There’s no way I can take a single student out to have recess on his own. Who will watch the rest of my class? And what would I do with the behavior student while everyone else is at recess?”

If you have a student who is too physically unsafe to be around their same-grade peers, that child needs to have accommodations made for them through either an IEP, a 504 plan, or administrators in your building who will help you rearrange things. The school has an obligation to shift when a student requires something different than what is typically available.

People shift around. Schedules alter. Paras help. Classrooms combine for a bit. Principals and counselors provide extra hands.

I’ve worked with principals who’ve taken behavior students for 20 minutes each day because there was no one else to do it. Is it ideal? Of course not. But does is it worth it if it provides the child with what they need to be successful? Absolutely.

My plea to every education professional is to PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE stop taking recess away from students with behavioral issues. Even if they’re not diagnosed with an official behavior disorder, even if you think they’re just a brat, even if you can’t stand the smug satisfaction on their face when they’re allowed to still have recess after they’ve been “bad”….. please still let them move around.

Without it, they’re still going to annoy the heck out of you, and no one will ever find any relief.