What Struggling Learners Don’t Need

A study published in 2009 in the journal Pediatrics studied the links between recess and classroom behavior among about 11,000 children age 8 and 9. Those who had more than 15 minutes of recess a day showed better behavior in class than those who had little or none. Although disadvantaged children were more likely to be denied recess, the association between better behavior and recess time held up even after researchers controlled for a number of variables, including sex, ethnicity, public or private school and class size.
The lead researcher, Dr. Romina M. Barros, a pediatrician and an assistant clinical professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said the findings were important because many schools did not view recess as essential to education.
“Sometimes you need data published for people at the educational level to start believing it has an impact,” she said. “We should understand that kids need that break because the brain needs that break.”
--excerpt from a New York Times article by Tara Parker-Pope

You should read the whole article – it's great. It did hit a nerve with me, however, because of how recently I was teaching in the classroom. I immediately recalled several instances that bear out how desperately children need regular breaks from formal classroom instruction, and how doing more and more of the same in order to remediate just doesn't prove to be effective.

Wednesday Evening Math Sessions

One semester, I volunteered to teach remedial math to a group of third graders late in the day once or twice a week. I looked forward to being able to help these kids and boost their confidence by being able to spend quality time with them in a small group setting. The school, which was a failing urban school, was so happy to be able to run this program in order to offer their failing students some extra help.

We had excellent motives. Having the right heart doesn't always a remedy bring, however.

The kids enjoyed the math games, they enjoyed the new pencils I had, and they loved the chance to be in my room instead of their own. But did the semester of more math yield happy results? One girl was so exhausted that she fell asleep on the desk night after night. I remember looking into glassy eyes wondering if anything was “going in” or if it was all bouncing off. Post tests confirmed my suspicions. No one scored higher than on the pre-test, and some of the kids actually scored lower.

The problem was two-fold. The kids were exhausted and brain dead after a long day in school. They had no more resources from which to pull. Additionally, the math material was exactly the same as the material they already didn't get in their classroom. It was just in a different format, differently illustrated, and differently packaged. What had not worked the first time with the kids, did not work then.

No time for nap time

I was teaching in another urban school. The administration decided that kindergarten should not be allowed to have afternoon rest time because they were in a failing school and we had to take action to raise test scores at the earliest level. In spite of the impassioned appeals of the kindergarten teachers, the ruling went through.

What the administration forgot is all the research and knowledge we have about exactly how many minutes a small child can focus on formal learning. Also forgotten was what we know about how children develop, how much rest they need, how much time they need for free play and discovery. I don’t have to tell you that scores did not improve because of cutting out nap time. What did happen was more and more children fell asleep on the floor before the end of the day. More and more little kids became cranky and uncooperative.

Something that will definitely help

I could talk all day about how children learn most easily and how that coordinates so beautifully with the ways in which young children develop naturally. We are not lacking in research. We don’t need new information. What we must do is begin to bring our practices in line with the knowledge we already have about children. What was true about how children develop 20 years ago is still true today. If children are failing it is because we have not adapted our teaching materials or our teaching style to what we have learned about kids.

As I read and re-read the article, I kept thinking each time the author cited new research and new studies, “But we know this already! Why are we still studying? Why can’t we return to what we knew about children 50 years ago? That they need to play and run and shout to be well developed.”

Next time, rather than disciplining a rowdy student by withholding recess, why not take that child outside and get him or her involved in a really physical running game? I guarantee the situation will improve if you take the child away from the classroom desk for a little while. Time taken out to do what is best for the child will mean time saved in the learning process afterwards. What children don’t need is more desk time!

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