Op-ed: Recess restriction is discriminatory and counterproductive

This Wednesday, the Berkeley Unified School Board will vote on a policy that would allow teachers to restrict students’ access to recess. As a parent of a child at Willard, I oppose the recess restriction policy as discriminatory and counterproductive.

K-5 students have two short recess periods, fifteen minutes in the morning and twenty minutes after lunch. Middle-school students have a combined lunch-recess period of 30 minutes. The policy would allow teachers to take away up to ten minutes of recess a day as a disciplinary measure. There is no limit to the number of times a student’s recess can be restricted.

When the proposed policy was discussed at the November 5 school board meeting, many parents spoke out against the policy, including parents of children with special needs. The Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund also opposes the policy. At the same time, several teachers appealed to the board to allow them to restrict recess for benevolent purposes such as assisting a child with homework or having a conversation with the child about his/her behavior.

Teachers need effective classroom management tools – they have an ever more challenging job for which they are under-resourced. I was impressed by the apparent earnestness of the teachers who spoke in favor of the policy. They want to do right by their students and are willing to give up their own break period to help struggling students.

The problem as I see it is this: Teachers, as well as school administrators and district officials, are caught in a cultural paradigm that takes as a given that adults need to control children’s behavior through the use of rewards and punishments. Stickers, verbal praise and class parties for good behavior…detention, recess restriction and suspensions for bad behavior. In the short term, carrots and sticks may (sometimes, not always) help teachers maintain classroom order, but there’s a cost: Children subjected to behavioral conditioning become extrinsically, versus intrinsically, motivated, behaving in whatever way will bring them rewards and avoid punishments.

This dynamic hit home when, a few weeks into first grade, I asked my son to put away his Pokemon cards, and he responded, “What will I get for it?” Our family had never used rewards and punishments yet had a cooperative child. But after a year in school, his orientation had begun shifting from the intrinsic satisfaction of cooperative interactions with his family to an expectation that he could cash in on his good behavior.

For a child, losing ten minutes of recess is a big deal, and it’s usually perceived as punishment unless the child asks to meet with a teacher during this time period. Because school-age children are already habituated to the reward and punishment paradigm, they will be unable to see the undesired loss of recess as anything other than punishment. They learn to see themselves as “bad” and this shame-based state of mind makes it even harder for them to learn and behave appropriately.

During the school board discussion, board members suggested changing the language of the policy from “restriction” to “conferencing” and removing words like “detention” that imply that recess restriction is a punishment. But changing the wording doesn’t change the meaning – recess restriction is a form of punishment, and a very harsh and ineffective one for students who have trouble sitting quietly behind their desks for hours every day.

Recess is a right, not a privilege, and its value cannot be overstated. The American Academy of Pediatrics says, “Recess is a necessary break in the day for optimizing a child’s social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development. In essence, recess should be considered a child’s personal time, and it should not be withheld for academic or punitive reasons.” In Japan, students get a 10-15 minute break every hour based on the observation that children’s attention spans wane after 45 minutes of instruction.

Kids need to run around and play outside. For many students, particularly low-income apartment dwellers, recess is their only chance to play outdoors. The students most in need of recess are those most likely to have it taken away—students struggling with ADHD, trauma, and other special needs. Some students have emotional and physical conditions that make it difficult-to-impossible to comply with the classroom’s behavioral strictures, and they will frequently be “benched” under the recess policy.

In addition to discriminating against special needs students, the policy could have a disproportionate impact on African-American students. As board president Daniels mentioned during the board hearing of the proposal, 60% of suspended BUSD students are African-American (though they comprise only 20% of the school population). It’s likely that African-American students will also be disproportionately impacted by the recess policy.

I encourage the board to try to see recess deprivation through the eyes of a young child who feels truly confused, sad, angry and ashamed when the people who are supposed to take care of him take away what is probably his favorite part of the day. From a child’s perspective, recess deprivation is, in a word, cruel.

I’d love to conclude with a list of five things teachers can do instead of taking away recess, but I’m not an educator. I do know, as a longtime Berkeley resident, that our community is caring and innovative. We were the first city to pass a soda tax, the first to voluntarily integrate our schools, and we could be among the first to develop disciplinary practices other than the old standbys of table points and detentions.

The district’s adoption of the social and emotional learning curriculum, “The Toolbox Project”, is a constructive first step—now it’s time to extend the Toolbox principles of self-awareness, conflict resolution, empathy, patience and forgiveness throughout all BUSD practices, including discipline. We should also find ways to incorporate more frequent breaks into the school day, a practice that would improve student behavior and decrease the need for discipline.

State law allows but does not require school districts to have a recess restriction policy. For the sake of consistency, clarity and fairness, BUSD should have one, but not the one currently on the table.

If you have concerns about the recess policy, contact the school board (boardofed@berkeley.net) or attend the meeting on Wednesday, Nov.19, at 7:30pm, 1231 Addison St.

Erica Etelson is a Berkeley parent, community activist and author of “For Our Own Good: The Politics of Parenting in an Ailing Society.”

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Erica Etelson is a Berkeley parent, community activist and author of “For Our Own Good: The Politics of Parenting in an Ailing Society.”