Recess is the favorite school activity of many students. For their teachers, who must monitor the activity, however, it often is the least favorite. A highly physical, yet unstructured activity, often characterized by limited supervision, recess typically is fraught with disciplinary problems.
The difficulties a teacher might encounter on the playground run the gamut of behavior problems. Those can include children arguing over the score of a game, a student ridiculing a classmate for poor physical skills, a student intentionally damaging playground equipment, a child crying because she has no one to play with, or a student angrily accusing his classmates of cheating.
The range of issues that arise on the playground, however, also presents opportunities to teach students important lessons about such issues as good sportsmanship, kindness, conflict resolution, and respect for property. Students will learn those lessons most effectively, moreover, if you deal with them immediately, as the problems arise. Tackling recess problems head-on is important for another reason: unresolved playground disputes often carry over into the classroom.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Establish playground rules. If you are responsible for monitoring students on the playground, explain the rules to them on the first day and periodically review them. If another staff member has recess responsibility, make it clear to your students that, even though another person is in charge of the playground, you expect them to follow her rules without exception. In setting playground rules, consider such issues as taking turns, sharing equipment, playing fair, treating playground equipment with care, and putting equipment away at the end of recess. Let them know that recess is a privilege and any student who cannot follow the rules will lose that privilege. If necessary, take your students to the playground and demonstrate recess do's and don'ts. Give special attention to the issue of teasing. Make it clear that ridicule or put-downs of any kind will not be tolerated and that no one is to be made fun of because of their athletic ability. Sportsmanship is another topic you might put on your meeting agenda: specifically being both a gracious winner and loser.
Provide a range of activities. Although most students opt for physical activities during recess, have items for students who prefer quieter activities. Provide a box with such items as games, books, and art materials. Also, consider organizing cooperative activities for students who prefer to avoid the pressures of competition. As an example, a group of students might work together to complete a puzzle or create a mural.
Stay in contact with the playground monitor. Ask the playground monitor to let you know if any of your students have significant or continuing difficulties on the playground. Make sure your class knows the two of you will be talking. Although consequences are most effective when implemented immediately, you might tell a misbehaving student you are disappointed in his behavior and review the rules with him. Also ask the monitor to let you know if a student with a history of playground problems has been behaving appropriately during recess so you can acknowledge his improved behavior.
Talk with misbehaving students about their behavior. Help those students understand why their behavior is inappropriate and how it presents a problem. A student might not understand, for example, that his behavior created a safety concern or hurt another student's feelings. Give brief reminders to students before recess about the importance of following the rules and the potential consequences of not following them.
Coach students with poor playground skills. Some students need guidance on how to handle social situations. Give them help at the time of the problem, but treat the situation as a teaching opportunity rather than a disciplinary problem. If, for example, a student yelled at a teammate "How did you miss that ball? You really stink!" you might take the student aside and help him understand what he might have said instead. (perhaps "Good try. You'll get it next time.") When you see the student handling a similar situation in a more appropriate or sensitive manner, let him know how proud you are of him.
Provide immediate consequences. You will be more effective deterring future misbehavior on the playground if you respond immediately, especially with younger children. If the playground is supervised by monitors, it is more effective for them to assign consequences at the time of the problem than to tell you about it and have you assign consequences later on. Of course, the monitor might still want to inform you, especially if the problem could carry over into the classroom.
Have a misbehaving student complete a playground report. Keep a clipboard and pencil and paper handy. If a student has misbehaved on more than one occasion, remove him from the activity and have him fill out a form asking him to describe what happened, what he did, how his behavior might have affected other students, and what he might do differently next time. Keep the forms to help identify patterns.
Have a problem-solving bench. If students have a conflict on the playground, and can't drop it, have them talk it out while sitting on a bench set aside for that purpose. Help structure their talk by having each student tell his or her side of the story while the other is quiet, and then together figuring out a solution to the problem. Let them know the point is not to figure out who is at fault or who started it, but rather to decide what each can do to solve the problem. Tell them they must let you know how they solved the problem. Keep an eye on them as they try to resolve the conflict and intervene if necessary.
Give misbehaving students a time-out on the playground. If a student is not following playground rules, you might want to have him sit down quietly for five or ten minutes. If he talks or gets up, then the time out period starts over from the beginning. The possibility of being benched, even for a short time, will be frustrating to many students and might be sufficient to get most to comply with the rules. If the misbehavior is serious or continuous, you might want to remove the student from recess for a longer period, perhaps a day or even a week.
Practice inclusion. If a student is playing by himself and being ignored by his classmates, encourage other students to include him in their activities. Keep a watchful eye to make sure they are interacting with him in a kind manner. You also might give the isolated student a fun activity to do to lure other students to play with him.
Give a troublesome student a playground job. You might be surprised to find that a student who can be a hellion on the playground also can be a cooperative and reliable helper. If he is interested, you might make him responsible for giving out or collecting playground equipment. Or you might have him serve as a safety monitor -- some coaching on how to do that in a fair and kind manner might be necessary. Keep a close watch to make sure he doesn't go too far in exercising control over classmates.
Avoid hurt feelings when choosing teams. Here's a simple and effective way of avoiding the hurt of being the last student chosen: Appoint two captains and have them alternate choosing players for their team. When about half the students have been chosen, allow the remaining students to alternate choosing which team they want to be on.
For more information on dealing with playground problems, also see the following columns by Dr. Ken Shore:
Preventing Student Aggression
Dealing with Student Aggression
Students Who Bother Their Classmates
Dealing with Teasing
Dealing with School Vandalism
Preventing School Vandalism