15 March 2012

How do you advocate to change a school's recess policy? Talk amongst yourselves.

Amazon: Swing-N-Slide Ring / Trapeze Bar Combination SwingSarah's question caused steam to build up behind my forehead:

I'm trying to change my children's public school's recess policy. The reason: the students are sometimes punished for academic problems (such as failing to turn in assignments) by having to walk laps during recess time.

I feel that the social time and stress reduction at recess are crucial parts of the learning process, and that there should be some other way to hold students accountable.

I need advice as to what works when talking with teachers and administration. Has anyone successfully changed a policy? What's the best way to get results?

As parent who has been communicating with public school teachers and administrators for years, I've got some advice. I haven't changed any policies, but perhaps this will get you started.

My general strategy is to find out as much information as I can about a school situation before I speak to anyone at the school. You want to have all your ducks in a row so you can speak with confidence, and address the person who can make a difference.

  • Is this a district-wide or school-specific policy?
  • Is this is a formal policy enforced by the school's administration, or is it an informal practice among teachers?
  • Can you speak to parents of kids who have had their recess taken away? Find out, in a neutral way, what happened. Avoid finger-pointing and outrage if you can -- you're just gathering information.
  • Who, at the school, is the person who could effect such change? This is the decision-maker you want to reach.

Take notes, including dates, names, and contact details.

Once you have a good sense of the situation, email the decision-maker to ask for a brief appointment. Your tone should be pleasant, non-combative, and direct. I find people are MUCH more willing to talk when I tell them when I have "questions" rather than "concerns" or "issues."

At the appointment, be causal but to-the-point, ask your questions, then listen to the response. Really open your mind to the perspective of the person talking. Express appreciation for the difficulty of the job and the limits on staff time and resources. You might hear something you weren't expecting.

Once you've taken in this person's perspective, begin a conversation. Not an "Okay, but..." negation of what they've said, but an "I see what you're trying to do. I wonder if there's another way to accomplish it. Here's my thought." Make absolutely clear you're there to help and problem-solve, not to accuse. See where it goes.

If you find yourself getting nowhere, thank the person, let them know that you care about this deeply and that you're going to give the situation more thought and attention. That way, when you attempt to make inroads with other school staff, you won't be doing an end run around this person.

That's where I would begin. No guarantees in terms of results, but at least that should give you a framework for beginning the conversation.

Parenthackers, what's your school policy change advice for Sarah?

More: Hacks about learning and behavior

Your comments

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Turning physical activity into a punishment sounds like a terrible idea. I have no advice, but just wanted to wish you good luck.

I'm afraid I don't have any advice, I just wanted to comment that I'm happy they aren't taking away the recess as punishment, like they did when I was in school (eons ago!) The kids who were most likely to lose recess were the ones who most needed the wiggle break.

Since the general policy at my daughters' school is to assign "timeouts" during recess - having the child sit out for 5-10 minutes, I think at least having them walk laps is an improvement. As the previous commenter said, the children most likely to receive the punishment (often boys) are frequently the ones that most need that physical time to enable them to pay attention better the rest of the day. I have noticed this year that my daughter's kindergarten teacher seems to have changed from assigning timeouts at recess to having the kids miss their "center" or indoor play time in the afternoon. I don't think this would work for other grades, but I seems to me like an improvement at least for the K's.

I'm an elected member of our city's school board in a largish Midwestern city and I have four boys in our schools. I second finding out if this is a district- or school- specific issue, because that will impact your next step.

Districts vary so much in their size and administration, so if you have an elected board representative, that would be my first call. Part of our job is to respond to constituent concerns and help navigate the administration. Not only would I submit the concern if I worked for you, but I would also take it personally to the Superintendent.

But again, we're a large urban district, and things are different in the suburbs. If no one is elected in your district, look for a Parent Liaison, a School Safety Director (as it's ostensibly a discipline issue), or call the Superintendent's office directly and ask them who deals with concerns from parents and community members.

If it's a school-specific policy and you are getting resistance from the principal, again depending on district size, there should be someone above the principal but below the superintendent (regional supe, chief academic officer, something like that) who could intervene if parents are concerned and the principal won't budge.

Obviously, I can talk about this for awhile, so feel free to email me if you'd like more pointers 4boysunder4 -at- gmail.com

Am I the only one who doesn't see this as a bad punishment? Sure, I agree that kids need the social and decompression time, but missing it occasionally isn't going to harm them, and might be just enough hardship to make it effective. If it's MORE than occasionally, there's a bigger problem that should be addressed than the punishment. I think it's GREAT that they found a way to let kids move about while still getting a point across! Look teachers don't have all that many discipline options available to them. What should they do? Assign extra homework? There's already too much. Maybe they should sit them in the corner with a dunce cap like the "good" old days?

You must do your research!!! Contemplate positions that might be taken during the meeting and have facts-from known sources-printed and ready to show them supporting your position or research showing negative impact of their position. There is so much money doled out each year in Grants and research done by students and teacher for continueing education that you should have no problem finding what you need. I have gotten school policy changed, it is usually a long and arjuent process-be persistent. I've found the easiest way to get school policy changed is to present the negatives to the policy from published sources, like causing kids to have an overtion to exercise relating it to punishment, followed by alternatives used by other schools from published sources showing positive results. Good luck!!!

P.S. I'm typing this on an iPad and it insists on misspelling words, sorry.

I think you'll find the teacher more open to your viewpoint if you have some alternative suggestions. I used to teach and one of the things I found out is there are very few things you can do to "punish" a student who is misbehaving, so that may be the only consequence they are able to give a student.

I would tend to agree with Meagan, because the kid is still getting to move and there are many other social opportunities in school (collaborative learning, lunch time, and specials) where they can learn.

I don't have any advice on how to make the change, but I agree with Melissa and Tonia. While I don't know that I agree with making kids walk laps during recess I think it is a big improvement from taking recess away like they still do at my kids school. So far, my kids haven't had to deal with this, but my fourth child likely will when his time comes to enter kindergarten and he is the one that most needs distraction and physical activity. So I may be dealing with trying to make changes in the next couple of years! Good luck!

I am also a teacher and I agree with Ticia when she suggests that you attend the meeting prepared with some of your own suggestions for ways to improve the discipline situation. This is especially useful if you are specifically concerned with your own child rather than the policy in general. Personally, finding effective and appropriate consequences for my students is becoming harder and harder. At my school not only are we not allowed to keep students in at recess to make up missing work, we also are not allowed to use writing as a punishment (such as writing a reflection letter about the indiscretion or copying lines). Of course we cannot use valuable class time to dole out consequences, either. At this point I have to rely mainly on the parents to enforce their own consequences at home. Sad to say in many families this does not happen, so we teachers are left with little to work with and still have to explain to our superiors why certain students are not achieving to their highest potential. All in all, I highly respect and encourage parents to advocate for their children, but the only way to really make it productive is to approach the situation as a partner who has ideas to offer.

My relative's kids go to a private school that has NO RECESS at all. They say it overstimulates the kids and it's too hard to get them to sit still afterwards. "Playing is for home", they say. *&^!@(%#^*$%)!!!!! That's so awful to me!

On the other hand, my kids go to a charter school that uses the French National Curriculum and they have TWO recess periods, plus a gym class daily. Very different approaches.

I'm inclined to side with the school for the following reasons: a) punishment needs to involve something the kids actually value, and b) I doubt it needs to be used all that often, so kids should rarely miss normal recess (a point made above).

If a child is missing recess often, I think that says more about the root cause than the punishment.

One other thing I think will be important: is the punishment actually changing behavior? Punishments are intended to correct behavior, so if this is making kids miserable without changing anything then I think the reason to change it is not its inherent goodness/badness, but its lack of effectiveness.

And concur with the other posters to go to the meeting with "recommendations for change" rather than just negative observations.


In my experience, sometimes the threat of losing recess time is the only effective means to motivate a child with disruptive behavior to pay attention to the effects of his/her choices on the other people in their class.

I would rather have an overweight kid who has good self-control and consistently pro-social behavior, than a physically healthy kid who expects to always have his way and whose temper tantrums prevent the other kids in the class from learning. A recess-deprived child can lose the extra weight eventually. But will a limit-deprived child ever lose their attitude of entitlement and being above the rules? I'm not so sure.

Very nice argument. I agree. There is no way for parent's to find out if their kids and getting in trouble, and what they are actually doing wrong!

My primary concern is why are we penalizing the students who are already responsible more than those who aren't? What I mean is this: the students who care about missing recess are the ones who are already conscientious. Those who don't care about missing once in a while are those who already have problems.

I am happy to read the post about the school. Really, i think this is great post for us. Hopping you will write more article soon. Thanks

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