State Politics

Lawmakers considered forbidding teachers from withholding recess. Not this year.

Kindergartners make plea for recess

Kindergartners at Miami Gardens Elementary School seem to have all the facts down about the benefits recess can bring. These energetic 5 and 6-year-olds feel the need for some sunshine and fresh air.
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Kindergartners at Miami Gardens Elementary School seem to have all the facts down about the benefits recess can bring. These energetic 5 and 6-year-olds feel the need for some sunshine and fresh air.

An elementary student acts up in class. No recess for him.

Another student didn’t turn in her homework. Five fewer minutes of recess for her.

While some school districts, like Miami-Dade, Hillsborough or Pinellas, ban such practices, no state law prohibits public school teachers from dangling recess time before their students — a carrot to keep them in check and, if necessary, revoke as a tool to discipline them.

Florida lawmakers in 2016 considered prohibiting teachers from using the threat of limited or no recess as a punishment, but that detail isn’t in the conversation at all this year as the Legislature again contemplates making daily recess mandatory in public elementary schools.

IN-DEPTH: “Quest for daily recess: Moms renew fight for more free play in Florida Legislature”

The provision was stripped from this year’s legislation (SB 78/HB 67) — at the request of two, now powerful Republican House members who were the only ones who voted to oppose the recess bill last year.

Both House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Miami Rep. Michael Bileca, the education policy chairman, say teachers should keep the flexibility to withhold recess.

“We shouldn’t be tying the hands of good teachers,” Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, said in a statement. “They should have all the tools necessary to do their jobs effectively, and I trust them to balance the need for activity with achieving educational excellence for every child.”

But Corcoran’s and Bileca’s personal philosophy directly contradicts guidance from national health experts who say the practice of withholding recess to punish a student is “both inappropriate and unsound.”

It’s also ineffective in changing child behavior patterns and is potentially detrimental by counteracting efforts to encourage healthy habits for life, said Michelle Carter, senior program manager for the Society of Health and Physical Educators, or SHAPE America.

“We want children to have as many positive experiences around physical activity as they can,” Carter said. “Taking away recess is only considered to be like a ‘quick fix’ by behavioral experts; it’s not something that’s really, permanently, going to solve a behavioral issue that’s going on with a student.”

Christie Bruner, a mother of three and a "recess mom" from St. Petersburg, explains why she's advocating for a statewide requirement for 20 minutes a day of elementary school recess.

At least eight states and the District of Columbia bar teachers from withholding physical activity, including recess, as a way to discipline a student for misbehaving. Florida isn’t one of them — and the state Department of Education offers no guidance to districts on the topic, department spokeswoman Cheryl Etters said.

Each school district, under state law, has the authority to set its own disciplinary policies, so practices can vary.

The physical activity policy for Miami-Dade Public Schools — the state’s largest school district — explicitly states: “Recess and brain breaks should not be withheld as punishment for students.”

“We find other ways of handling that. That’s just something we don’t do,” Miami Gardens Elementary School Principal Kathleen John-Louissaint said.

But the students don’t know that, which still gives teachers some leverage.

Genevieve Paul-Henriquez, a kindergarten teacher at the school, said just the threat of taking away 5 minutes of precious recess time is enough to get her students to calm down and focus. She said she tells them: “ ‘When you go outside to recess, that’s the time you have for yourself.’ They understand.”

You wouldn’t punish a child and say, ‘You can’t do reading today.’

Shana Rafalski, executive director for Pinellas County public schools’ elementary education

Both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties also prohibit using recess time to discipline students.

Pinellas County treats recess as “health education” time offered at least two days a week, so it’s “part of the curriculum,” said Shana Rafalski, executive director for Pinellas schools’ elementary education.

“You wouldn’t punish a child and say, ‘You can’t do reading today,’ ” Rafalski said.

Hillsborough schools spokeswoman Tanya Arja pointed to national research and standards for physical education, which — like the CDC and SHAPE America — discourage withholding recess to punish a child.

“It doesn’t teach self-discipline and it doesn’t address the behavior problem that the teacher is trying to solve,” said Carter, of SHAPE America.

Last year’s recess bill included this line: “Free-play recess may not be withheld for academic or punitive reasons.” Both Corcoran and Bileca have said it was primarily that provision that kept them from supporting it.

8 states, as well as the District of Columbia, bar teachers from withholding physical activity, including recess, as a way to discipline a student for misbehaving. Not Florida.

Sen. Anitere Flores, the Miami Republican who’s sponsoring the Senate bill this year, said “it was a House request” to remove the line for the 2017 session, but she added that she personally would’ve been OK if it had remained.

Rep. Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando, said he mirrored his House companion bill after Flores’ version to expedite the debate and because the Senate is taking the lead this year. He said he was “never directed by anyone or instructed by anyone” to write his House bill a certain way.

“I would have filed whatever the Senate filed just to make it easier,” Plasencia said, noting that lawmakers can amend bills during the committee process. “I’m not overly concerned on what a bill looks like in the beginning, compared to what it looks like at the end.”

Corcoran and Bileca — both fathers with several young children — have cited their own parenting experiences as among the reasons they support allowing teachers to withhold recess time. For instance, Bileca said that with one of his children, “the teacher has to use the threat of recess quite a bit or have them sit for the first couple of minutes.”

“I don’t think we should dis-empower the teacher to not be able to use that as one of their tools for classroom management,” he said.

We shouldn’t be tying the hands of good teachers.

Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes

Broward County Rep. Shev Jones of West Park, the top Democrat on the House Education Committee, said he remembers the restriction in last year’s bill but said “I don’t think it’s a deal-breaker” that it’s absent this year.

As a former educator in at-risk schools, Jones said he supports daily recess, because “that was that one thing that allowed a child to decompress. But I can totally understand why that [punishment provision] could give someone some uneasiness.”

Kate Asturias, a Miami-Dade parent and member of the local Recess for Miami Students group, agrees with Bileca and Corcoran that teachers should have the option to revoke recess, if they need to.

“I love our public school teachers and I trust their judgment,” she said. “If they feel they need to use that in their arsenal, I respect that.”

Angela Browning, an Orlando parent who helps coordinate fellow “recess moms” across Florida in advocating for daily recess, said removing the line from this year’s bill was “a compromise” to garner Corcoran’s and Bileca’s endorsement. (Even with the line removed, though, Bileca is hesitant to support the statewide mandate.)

“We were willing to compromise because we want these kids to get a break,” Browning said. “We are hopeful that there is so much research that shows that that is not an effective practice, that once the bill passed, we could work with the Department of Education and the districts to at least offer guidance to their teachers.”

Miami Herald staff writer Kyra Gurney contributed to this report.

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095,, @ByKristenMClark

Angie Gallo, legislation chair for the Florida PTA, explains why PTA members want a statewide requirement for 20 minutes a day of elementary school recess.