Care and Feeding

Playtime Penalties

I’m sick of my child losing recess time because of a few bad kids.

Photo illustration of a teacher pointing thumb down behind a crying toddler.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Khosrork/iStock/Getty Iimages Plus and JackF/iStock/Getty Iimages Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:

Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut
Katie Holbrook, high school, Texas
Carrie Bauer, middle and high school, New York
Cassy Sarnell, preschool special education, New York

Why do teachers take recess time away from the entire class when it’s just a few bad actors? The school year is barely underway, and I’m already seeing our school continue to do this thing where if some kids are rowdy they delay the entire class from going out to recess. Everyone has to be lined up and quiet. It’s been going on for years and both my kids and I are sick of it. They already have a short recess—only 30 minutes a day—so even taking away five minutes is a big deal to them. How do I keep my kids motivated to be respectful if there is zero incentive for them since they will be punished regardless of their behavior? Is this practice of taking recess time away even an effective strategy to elicit calm, quiet behavior? I feel like kids are naturally going to get excited at the prospect of getting outside to play. Expecting them to be perfectly quiet all at the same time is both cruel and ridiculous. Aren’t they entitled to that time? Is it mandated?

—Wanting the Rundown on Recess

Dear Rundown,

It is terrible to hear that teachers are taking away recess time from an entire class for a few bad actors. Yes, it’s an ineffective, unjust, and possibly illegal policy that should never happen. I’m annoyed on behalf of your children for these teachers’ rotten decisions.

And yes, children are absolutely entitled—at least in my mind—to an opportunity for free play every day. Not only is it good for them to exercise, but recess provides children with the opportunity to socialize, problem-solve, find and solidify friendships, learn new sports and games, and so much more.

Whether recess is mandated depends upon your district and/or state. I teach in Connecticut, which mandates 20 minutes of recess for every child, every day, and the district in which I teach mandates 30 minutes. But every district and state are different, so you’ll need to inquire about the laws specific to yours.

Teachers will tell you that taking away recess is a reasonable and effective consequence for inappropriate behavior or a failure to complete an assignment. I would argue that taking away recess is a reasonable and effective way of identifying teachers who are unwilling or unable to identify and implement more appropriate consequences for children.

I’m of the mind that if the only way a teacher can punish students is to take away recess, then their classroom must be a joyless, humorless place bereft of fun and games. Teachers should give their students many things to love. If they do so, then they’ll have any number of things to take away as punishment if needed.

—Mr. Dicks

My daughter is 4 years old and began pre-K about two weeks ago. She loves school and her teacher. She’s already quickly gaining confidence and social skills, where in the past she has often had anxiety in new situations.

There’s more happy news! Her teacher is visibly pregnant and obviously expecting a child soon. Very soon. So my question is: How do I prepare my child for the day that her teacher is suddenly gone on maternity leave without stressing her out? I’ve already told my daughter that you sometimes have different teachers throughout the year, and she seemed to take this news in stride. I fear that if I explain to my child exactly what is going on, she will obsess about it and likely bring it up to her teacher and other students.

I am not sure if this will be addressed at all in the classroom, or if the children will have any advance notice or introduction with a replacement. I am worried that one day her amazing teacher won’t be there, and my daughter will be devastated, but I’m not sure if it’s appropriate to ask the teacher how, or if, this is being addressed?

Any advice on how to avoid stressing out my daughter so soon in her school experience? Am I overthinking this? I still remember how upset I felt during a similar situation in my first year of school.

—Unsure Mommy

Dear Unsure Mommy,

Congratulations! It sounds like your daughter is off to a great start. I am confident that her teacher has a plan to prepare students for her leave. As a teacher who has taken maternity leave twice, I can tell you I thought of little else for weeks until I secured a replacement and prepared my curriculum. She has probably taken proactive steps for a smooth transition.

I think you should wait for her to announce her leave to students and families. She would definitely be frustrated if the class learned about her absence from a peer. Once the teacher has told her students, you can gauge your daughter’s feelings on the change. Be careful when doing so not to project your own bad memories onto your daughter. It’s entirely possible she will be just fine with a new teacher! After all, much will remain the same. She will have the same classmates, the same classroom, and the same routines in which she has already thrived.

For now, find opportunities to talk with your daughter about new situations. There is an episode of Daniel Tiger called “No Red Sweater for Daniel/Teacher Harriet’s New Hairdo” where Daniel learns to cope with the unexpected. In the first episode of The Magic School Bus Rides Again, Arnold struggles to accept the new Ms. Frizzle. Watching shows like this with your daughter will help you start a dialogue about change. Or, if you prefer, check out books about change from your local library.

I realize the transition is nerve-wracking for you, but it’s an experience that is sure to be repeated throughout her education. Teachers have babies, teachers get sick, teachers relocate to other cities. While you’re right that there are times that these transitions get bungled—whether by administration, the long-term sub, or early labor—more often than not they go smoothly. Learning how to adapt is an important skill for children to develop, and take solace in knowing she’ll get some practice with that this year. Good luck! I hope for both your sakes this doesn’t faze her at all.

—Ms. Holbrook

I live in a small rural area. Our school district is a “seed project” for our state and is in the process of implementing a personalized learning program across all grades (K–12). I’d love an outside teacher’s take on this kind of a program.

My understanding is that students won’t receive letter grades on individual subjects or courses anymore. Instead, they will receive a number (1–4) upon completion of a lesson. Once a child receives a 3 or a 4, it indicates the student has mastered the concept and can move on to the next lesson. Students move at their own pace, although there are policies in place to make sure no one gets too far behind. Students get to work as far ahead as they’d like, and it sounds like many of the high school students are taking college-level courses.

Is this a good program? Will it hinder kids that transfer in and out of the school? One of the administrators says that this kind of program has been implemented in other states, and it’s the way our education system is heading. Is he correct?

—Looking for Intel

Dear Looking,

I wish I could offer you more insight into this specific program. I’ve never taught in a school with a structure like this, nor even heard anecdotes through the teacher grapevine. Personalized learning is indeed a hot concept at the moment, but it’s also a broad one, and I think your administrator’s framing is a reach. That said, I have undergone plenty of introductions to an Exciting New Initiative, and I can speak to that experience.

I think the question you should ask is not necessarily whether this program is a good one. Lots of programs are, in theory, good. Whether it’s block scheduling or 1:1 Chromebooks or a novel approach to behavior management or a personalized learning program, what really matters is the coherence and strength of the implementation. In my experience, when an Exciting New Initiative debuts and then flops, it’s usually because of human failings, rather than flaws in the program’s design.

For example, administrators sometimes get very excited about the promise and potential offered by the Exciting New Initiative but fail to adequately strategize on the nitty-gritty of executing it. They then offer a rollout long on vision and short on logistics to their staff, who may be predisposed toward cynicism in a field that’s fond of short-lived fads and buzzwords, and who are largely responsible for the labor of bringing the Initiative successfully to life. If the entire school isn’t unified and prepared to enact a systemic change—if school leaders can’t offer the necessary clarity, guidance, and consistency, or if teachers feel unprepared or uninvested—the whole house of cards will tumble by November.

In short, your school’s program will be as good as your school’s team. The most brilliant, cutting-edge, research-backed innovation will die on the vine if the system upholding it isn’t functional, and the most modest changes can have an outsize impact if they’re carefully strategized and faithfully upheld. As your school approaches this change, I’d look at how you’ve previously experienced the district’s organization, communication, and preparedness for an idea of what to expect. If you want to ask more questions, I’d ask about their plan and their commitment to it. So: How has the school trained the staff and ensured their buy-in and trust? What benchmarks for program implementation do they hope to reach at points throughout the school year? What evidence of effectiveness and success do they plan to examine? How will they revisit and troubleshoot the program as problems inevitably arise?

Good luck. I hope it works out. If you’ve been with this district for a while, you’ve got more information than you realize about how this will unfold; I’d look to that for the answers you’re seeking.

—Ms. Bauer

My son is entering his second month of kindergarten, and no one is happy. He loved going to his preschool (it’s at the same public elementary school), and he never complained about it. He learned so much and his enthusiastic nature about learning flourished. But kindergarten is a completely different story.

He asks every day why he has to go, says it’s “boring,” has cried multiple times about not having any friends, and seems unhappy most days when I pick him up. There have also been two incidents of kids being overly physical with him on the playground. He has apraxia, which makes other adults and especially other kids not fully able to understand him. He told me he told the other kids to stop, but I’m guessing they didn’t understand him.

I have talked to his teacher about all of this, and she doesn’t have any ideas, but did say that she would keep an eye on him on the playground. I appreciate her effort, but it’s a big playground and she can’t constantly be looking at my son. I feel like I’m setting him up to get bullied.

The workload has also been tough. It’s like pulling teeth to get him to work on very simple homework sheets, whereas last year he would beg me to buy him workbooks at the store. From what I can tell from the worksheets he brings home, the curriculum also seems horrifically outdated. It seems like every few days something is happening that makes me second-guess sending him to kindergarten. I’ve started to think about home-schooling, at least until we move to another state next year that overall seems to rate better than the state we are in now (charter school capital of the world and always in the bottom 10 for worst education lists).

Am I overreacting? I don’t want him to be bullied, continue to hate school, and think learning is boring, so I’m on the verge of feeling like it’s important to take a stand right now and be that obnoxious parent. I’m more than willing to go up the chain of command if the teacher doesn’t get to choose her curriculum and worksheet amount, but I have no idea how to pose these questions without them being offensive and intrusive. He already has an IEP, but our last meeting was at the end of preschool, and I feel like I now have a very different idea of his accommodations and needs. How clear can I be on his IEP?

I feel like all my effort into changing the status quo could be better spent home-schooling for a year where I know it will be safe, educational, and fun. I fear he would be missing out on socialization (he’s an only child), but it seems like he’s not getting many benefits being around other kids at kindergarten right now anyway. Please send your guidance!

—Freaking Out

Dear Freaking Out,

Stop freaking out. Take some deep breaths. Go do a five-minute meditation, then come back to me. My answer will still be here when you get back.

There. Feeling better? OK, great. Let’s talk about your son’s needs. In some ways, apraxia is a fortunate diagnosis because it’s the only diagnosis for which kids can qualify for speech services every day. That’s an amazing position to be in, and the main reason that I suggest you keep him in public school. As a special ed teacher, I frequently see how valuable it is for students to socialize, learn the norms for schooling, and develop study skills that they will most likely utilize in college, and I personally tend to think that some of that is lost with home-schooling. Also, now that your son is in kindergarten, you’ll most likely find that the state can only provide him with special ed services (including his therapies) if you continue sending him to public school.

Assuming you take home-school off the table, what can you do? You’re right to want to examine your child’s IEP. Your child’s IEP should dictate details of instruction, from how he’ll receive support within the lesson plans to the nitty-gritty of the worksheets. If you feel that he’s struggling, or that his current program doesn’t match his needs while promoting his skills, you are within your rights to call an IEP meeting so that his IEP can be reevaluated and adjusted accordingly.

I would, of course, speak to his teacher first. Describe your concerns as they relate to the IEP. For example, “My son’s apraxia causes him to need directions repeated and simplified to facilitate his auditory processing. I notice his IEP doesn’t detail that.” Or, “I’m concerned about my son’s communication with his peers. Do we have a plan for when to evaluate him to see if he needs an assisted communication device?”

His teacher may tell you it’s still early in the school year and children need time to adjust to a new routine, especially with a jump from preschool (typically play-based) to kindergarten (typically more academic). But she may also suggest some interventions or changes she can make at the school level without going to the IEP, such as asking the school behavioral team about how to change his environment to better suit his needs, or pairing him up with a playground buddy who is good at organizing play between peers. If she does, it’s fine to see how that approach plays out.

I’d worry less about being that parent and instead remember that you are your child’s advocate. Continue to maintain communication with his teacher and with his speech-language pathologist and any other therapists he sees (occupational therapist, physical therapist, counselor, etc.). If he continues to say he doesn’t like school, and you’re not satisfied with his progress in another month or two, ask the teacher about calling another meeting (either within the school or with the IEP team) to readdress his needs.

—Ms. Sarnell

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