Photo: Nick Kenrick
Berkeley is discussing the pros and cons of taking recess time away from kids as a form of punishment. Photo: Nick Kenrick

Two years ago, Berkeley parent Sinead O’Sullivan got tired of hearing from her kindergartener that he was missing recess for misbehaving. She knew he wasn’t a saint, but she didn’t think taking exercise away was going to improve his behavior.

“It’s not effective,” O’Sullivan said. “ The kids who get (recess taken away) are the high-energy kids, who can’t control their bodies. It’s the last punishment they need.”

“Many kids who get recess taken away have behavioral challenges. I say, deal with a behavior problem the way you deal with a reading problem,” she continued. O’Sullivan complained to the school, which then tried other solutions to help her son manage his behavior, she said.  But the next year, he was losing recess again.

O’Sullivan did her homework. She found the following in California’s educational code:  “The governing board of a school district may adopt reasonable rules and regulations to authorize a teacher to restrict for disciplinary purposes the time a pupil under his or her supervision is allowed for recess.”

Berkeley Unified did not have such a policy and is now crafting one that the board is expected to approve at its Nov. 19 meeting. The document limits recess restriction to 10 minutes – or half of recess. Still, a policy allowing for any recess restriction wasn’t the outcome O’Sullivan was hoping for.

O’Sullivan’s research also turned up that both the American Academy of Pediatrics and Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program advise against taking recess away from kids as a punishment.

“The American Academy of Pediatrics believes that recess is a crucial and necessary component of a child’s development and, as such, it should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons,” reads a policy statement from the AAP:

O’Sullivan and several other parents filed complaints about recess restriction with the district. This fall, district officials told principals to put a stop to the practice of withholding recess until a policy could be written. The first draft of the policy (see p. 75) came to the board Nov. 5.

So did quite a few parents, many holding “No recess restriction” signs. A half-dozen parents, including O’Sullivan, asked the board not to approve the policy to allow recess restriction. (Others were unable to speak due to time constraints.)

Parents had their horror stories of recess lost over minor infractions. One parent said that “black and brown boys” are disproportionately affected by this. (Watch the comments on video footage.)

But several teachers spoke up as well.  They explained that recess is the only time during the school day that they can meet one-on-one with a student to discuss problems. It’s a chance for students to reflect, they said.

“I have never restricted recess more than five minutes,” said Jefferson Elementary teacher Barry Fike. “Kids need to run around during recess.”

BUSD Superintendent Donald Evans told the parents: “Staff really does understand the importance of physical activity.” Asistant Superintendent Pasquale Scuderi said: “This (policy) gives middle ground between teachers’ needs and access to recess.”

Board members asked staff to make the policy more specific: to be clear that restricting recess is about teachers conferencing with students, and that parents be notified when their children are losing recess time. No-one on the board spoke in favor of eliminating recess restriction. (Watch the board comments on video footage.)

Although only teachers are supposed to be able to restrict recess, it was clear from comments that, in the past, playground and lunchroom supervisors have done so too. If the new policy restricts the classified staff (non-teachers), board member Karen Hemphill asked. “I’m wondering how that’s going to play out in reality. What are noon directors going to do?”

Board President Josh Daniels made it clear that he was far more concerned about the disproportionately high suspension rates of African-American students than about recess restriction. After the meeting, Daniels told Berkeleyside, “This is a good opportunity for us to be a little more thoughtful in how we do this [restrict recess], and more deliberate.“

The Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund sent a letter to the School Board on Nov. 3 urging the board to reject the policy. The letter said that a study “showed that ‘levels of inappropriate behavior were consistently higher on days when participants [with ADHD] did not have recess, compared to days when they did have it.’ The District’s proposed recess restriction policy may be counterproductive in terms of encouraging positive replacement behaviors in students with ADHD.”

A local pediatrician with the  California Chapter 1 of the American Academy of Pediatrics also wrote to the district to protest the policy. (Read that letter.)

The new draft of the policy was posted online (p. 37) Friday [Nov. 14]. The two additions to the policy are:

  •  “Recess participation may not be restricted for students where such a consequence is explicitly prohibited by a student’s IEP or 504 plan.”
  • “Data will be reviewed annually following the passage of the policy and data will include data disaggregated by ethnicity.”

The policy does stipulate that parents be notified, but does not require that teachers be “conferencing” with students during recess restriction.

A further wrinkle in the issue is that, according to the California Schools Boards Association, the education code does not require districts to have a recess policy in place in order to restrict it, it only authorizes districts to create a policy.

The new version of the policy will go to the board for approval on Nov. 19, 7:30 p.m.  It is on the consent calendar, meaning there will be no further discussion.

O’Sullivan is disappointed that the board appears ready to pass a policy. “I feel like they’re working on what’s in front of them. I don’t feel like they’re stepping back and saying ‘why are we doing this?’”

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Mary Flaherty is a freelance reporter who has lived in the Berkeley area for since 1994. She earned a masters in journalism from UC Berkeley, and has reported for several local papers and copyedited for...