No More Lost Recess: 3 School Districts Across the Country Effectively Using Alternative Methods to School Discipline

“That’s it. You’ve just lost recess for today.” It’s fairly common for elementary school teachers to take away recess time to discipline students. The rationale behind this method of discipline is that withholding playtime:

  1. Clearly communicates to students that their misbehavior is unacceptable and
  2. Serves as a deterrent for the rest of the students in the class.

A common practice in many NJ school districts is to withhold recess for
incomplete assignments ormissed homework. In doing so, students internalize the idea that recess is a luxury that must be earned with compliant behavior.

But more and more, innovative schools are doing away with withholding recess for disciplinary reasons, pointing to research findings that unstructured play and exercise benefit students both inside and outside the classroom. Schools around the country have implemented policies that limit or eliminate teachers’ ability to take away recess time.

Supporters of those changes say it’s counterproductive to punish defiant or overly active children
by taking away the their unstructured playtime. Free time supports students’ cognitive functioning by giving them a “reset button” for their brain. And districts that have made the policy switch say recess gives children a chance to explore social and emotional concepts that are increasingly emphasized in the classroom—like self-awareness and respect for others.

Let’s take a look at a few of the innovative practices that school districts across the country are using to reshape their discipline policies:

Mindful Meditation
Baltimore, MD

Meditation has been found to lessen disruptive emotions as well as improve a person’s memory, attention span and focus–and an elementary school in Baltimore, MD has taken note. Instead of punishing students who are being disruptive or sending them to the principal’s office, the Robert W. Coleman Elementary School has created a space called the Mindful Moment Room.

The room is filled with lamps, decorations, and plush pillows. Students are encouraged to sit in the room and go through breathing and meditation practices in order to calm down and re-center. They are also asked to talk through what happened.

Since setting up their Mindful Moment Room, the results have been astounding There have been exactly zero suspensions for the past two school years. Meanwhile, nearby Patterson Park High School, which also uses the mindfulness programs, said suspension rates dropped and attendance increased as well. Kudos to this school district for using research to create a truly student-centered learning environment.

School Climate
Columbia Heights, MN

High rates of teacher turnover complicate the ability of schools to plan and implement new programs, conduct professional development, and provide support systems for school faculty. Low rates of staff turnover may increase the capacity of schools to plan over time, implement new programs, and strengthen collaboration and teamwork among staff members. Elementary and middle schools in Columbia Heights, MN prioritize school climate in order to reduce behavioral issues. Teachers take the time to get to know each student and are supported by administrators who appreciate the detriment that comes along with a high teacher turnover rate.

Teachers are encouraged to form deep connections with their students, knowing that these meaningful connections are what keep students engaged, happy and productive at school. Bravo to this school district for prioritizing school climate and relationships with students  above all else.

Restorative Circles
Sonoma County, CA

Students at Rohnert Park’s Evergreen Elementary School regularly participate in “restorative circles,”  where they discuss their feelings and worries and practice positive behavior and communication skills, like giving and accepting compliments. The aim is to build trust and understanding in order to reduce misbehavior. Teachers have noted higher levels of concentration in their students as a payoff. Teachers also feel more in tune with their students and therefore more sensitive to what may be going on in their lives that could be triggering certain behaviors.

This practice continues into middle school where students are not sent home for misbehavior. The district recognizes that removing a student from a classroom creates a disruption. Instead, middle schoolers take part in weekly sessions where they discuss their feelings as well as any harm they may have done. They’ll also get to meet with school administrators, fellow students and parents in an effort to make amends.

Since implementation, school suspensions have decreased by over 60 percent districtwide. Congratulations to this district for their efforts to foster a student-centered approach to discipline by building school climate and applying the use of restorative justice.

Many educators withhold recess as a punishment because they simply don’t know what else to do. In a classroom full of twenty five or more students, some teachers feel that taking away recess is one of their few options for maintaining control. However, if a school is equipped with strong leadership and a discipline plan shaped and backed by research, then teachers will no longer feel the need to leverage recess in exchange for compliance. We can look to these 3 innovative school districts across the country as models for a more student-centered approach to school discipline.

Does your school district use an alternative method to school discipline? Share in the comments below.

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