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There's harm in taking away recess for elementary schoolers as a form of punishment


Recess is probably one of the most exciting parts of being in elementary school. It's usually a time for kids to let loose a little bit and play. But taking away recess time is often used as punishment. Class was too noisy, didn't do your homework - then no recess for you. This has some parents furious, saying that the punishment doesn't actually help improve the child's behavior. And in places like Minnesota, some parents are advocating for change at the legislative level. Maren Christenson Hofer is one of those parents, and she joins us now from Minneapolis to tell us more. Welcome.

MAREN CHRISTENSON HOFER: Thank you so much for having me.

RASCOE: Your 11-year-old son was punished at one point while in school by having his recess taken away. Can you tell us about, like, what happened with that?

HOFER: My son is autistic. You know, he does have some struggles with keeping his body still sometimes in the classroom or just kind of blurting out some words, maybe at a time when the teacher would like the class to remain quiet. So we suspect that may have been what was going on. But to be honest, we don't really recall. I will say that it did happen on more than one occasion.

RASCOE: How did it affect your son to not get recess?

HOFER: Well, he described feeling sort of depressed about it. He felt that it certainly didn't help him to improve his behavior, and it made him feel sort of singled out as if he were the bad kid who did something wrong.

RASCOE: And so did you talk to your teachers and did they have any response to you raising concerns about it?

HOFER: Absolutely, and, you know, we did have a good conversation about it at that point in time. But the thing that I think really led me to act further is just how pervasive it was in other schools across Minnesota. I run a support group for parents of autistic children, and I did a very informal poll. And 50% of those parents reported that their child had recess withheld at some point in time. And, of course, you know, one of our major concerns is that this recess detention, like most forms of punishment, are used disproportionately against kids of color, kids with disabilities and especially kids with intersecting identities.

RASCOE: Some people listening may think, OK, if a child does something or is, quote-unquote, "acting up," then what's the harm in just, you know, keeping them from recess? Why is it a big deal?

HOFER: We know that recess is a really important part of a kid's day. It gives them that unstructured time. It gives them that opportunity to just release and run and use their energy. It also provides a really important opportunity for social interaction, and it also gives kids that time away from adult demands. And, you know, there's tons of research that tells us kids do better in school when they have that recess. So if we're taking away that opportunity from them, we're really just kind of shooting ourselves in the foot.

RASCOE: I know, like, when I think of my son, he doesn't like to sit down, you know, you'll - or even my middle child - like, I might talk to her and she'll do a cartwheel out of nowhere. Like, this is the way they express...

HOFER: Yeah, that's how kids are.

RASCOE: Yeah, they're constantly moving. So how - OK, if a kid won't stop talking, how do you get them to practice not talking?

HOFER: Yeah, well, I think you give them opportunities to talk and let them know, you know, these are the times when that's OK and make sure that they have those plenty of breaks. You know, like let's save this conversation for lunch time or let's save this conversation for recess time. But teaching them those skills and modeling those skills I think is the really important thing.

RASCOE: And so you've been working with other advocates to draft bills. Can you tell us about those efforts? And are you facing a lot of pushback?

HOFER: So the language that we have today directs schools not to withhold recess unless a very narrow set of conditions are met, such as, you know, imminent harm to a student or a teacher. It provides an opportunity or requirement for parental notification when a recess is withheld. And then it also has that reporting requirement so that schools are required to document that and make that information available to the public.

RASCOE: And so that gives the parent the ability to know what is happening with their child. And it also would presumably give people the ability to see how often this particular punishment is being used.

HOFER: Absolutely. We can't solve the problem if we don't have transparency to how often it's happening. It is something that's happened for decades, and nobody's really asked the tough questions about does this actually work? And, of course, you know, the science tells us the exact opposite - it doesn't. And it often does more harm than good and makes it more difficult for children to comply with adult demands. So we really, you know, are grateful to have this conversation and to really give our teachers some tools in their toolkits that actually work for both them and for our kids.

RASCOE: Maren Christenson Hofer joining us from Minnesota, thank you so much for being with us.

HOFER: It is my pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe
Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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