My Goal in Blogging

I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Play, Then Eat: Shift May Bring Gains at School

Note: We've had a lot of discussion on this blog about "experimentation" -- and this article strikes me as a good example of the type of data collection and piloting that can reveal important findings for education.

January 26, 2010
The New York Times

Can something as simple as the timing of recess make a difference in a child’s health and behavior?

Some experts think it can, and now some schools are rescheduling recess — sending students out to play before they sit down for lunch. The switch appears to have led to some surprising changes in both cafeteria and classroom.

Schools that have tried it report that when children play before lunch, there is less food waste and higher consumption of milk, fruit, and vegetables. And some teachers say there are fewer behavior problems.

“Kids are calmer after they’ve had recess first,” said Janet Sinkewicz, principal of Sharon Elementary School in Robbinsville, N.J., which made the change last fall. “They feel like they have more time to eat and they don’t have to rush.”

One recent weekday at Sharon, I watched as gaggles of second graders chased one another around the playground and climbed on monkey bars. When the whistle blew, the bustling playground emptied almost instantly, and the children lined up to drop off their coats and mittens and file quietly into the cafeteria for lunch.

“All the wiggles are out,” Ms. Sinkewicz said.

One of the earliest schools to adopt the idea was North Ranch Elementary in Scottsdale, Ariz. About nine years ago, the school nurse suggested the change, and the school conducted a pilot study, tracking food waste and visits to the nurse along with anecdotal reports on student behavior.

By the end of the year, nurse visits had dropped 40 percent, with fewer headaches and stomachaches. One child told school workers that he was happy he didn’t throw up anymore at recess.

Other children had been rushing through lunch to get to the playground sooner, leaving much uneaten. After the switch, food waste declined and children were less likely to become hungry or feel sick later in the day. And to the surprise of school officials, moving recess before lunch ended up adding about 15 minutes of classroom instruction.

In the Arizona heat, “kids needed a cool-down period before they could start academic work,” said the principal, Sarah Hartley.

“We saved 15 minutes every day,” Dr. Hartley continued, “because kids could play, then go into the cafeteria and eat and cool down, and come back to the classroom and start academic work immediately.”

Since that pilot program, 18 of the district’s 31 schools have adopted “recess before lunch.”

The switch did pose some challenges. Because children were coming straight from the playground, the school had to install hand sanitizers in the lunchroom. And until the lunch system was computerized, the school had to distribute children’s lunch cards as they returned from recess.

In Montana, state school officials were looking for ways to improve children’s eating habits and physical activity, and conducted a four-school pilot study of “recess before lunch” in 2002. According to a report from the Montana Team Nutrition program, children who played before lunch wasted less food, drank more milk and asked for more water. And as in Arizona, students were calmer when they returned to classrooms, resulting in about 10 minutes of extra teaching time.

One challenge of the program was teaching children to eat slower. In the past, children often finished lunch in five minutes so they could get to recess. With the scheduling change, cafeteria workers had to encourage them to slow down, chew their food and use all the available time to finish their lunch.

Today, about one-third of Montana schools have adopted “recess before lunch,” and state officials say more schools are being encouraged. “The pilot projects that are going on have been demonstrating that students are wasting less food, they have a more relaxed eating environment and improved behavior because they’re not rushing to get outside,” said Denise Juneau, superintendent of the Office of Public Instruction. “It’s something our office will promote to schools across the state as a best practice.”

Children’s health experts note that such a switch might not work in many urban school districts, where lower-income children may start the day hungry.

“It’s a great idea, but first we’ve got to give them a decent breakfast,” said Dr. David Ludwig, director of the obesity program at Children’s Hospital Boston. “A lot of kids skip breakfast and arrive at lunch ravenous.”

And for a seemingly simple scheduling change, it can create some daunting logistical problems. Children often have to return to hallways and classrooms after recess for bathroom breaks and hand washing and to pick up lunch bags. The North Ranch Elementary School regularly fields calls from schools in colder climates with questions on how to deal with coats, hats, galoshes and mittens. “In Arizona, we don’t have to deal with that,” said Dr. Hartley, the principal.

Many school districts say such problems make them reluctant to switch. A 2006 study in The Journal of Childhood Nutrition & Management reported that fewer than 5 percent of the nation’s elementary schools were scheduling recess before lunch.

But at the Sharon Elementary School, the principal, Ms. Sinkewicz, says the challenges have been worth it. In the past, children took coats, hats and mittens with them to the lunchroom, then headed outside. Now they have time to return coats to lockers so they don’t have to carry them to the lunchroom.

“For some reason, kids aren’t losing things outside,” Ms. Sinkewicz said. “The lost-and-found mound has gone down.”


Ed said...

I would like to see a study of the cohort with ADHD (etc) and outcome -- my guess (and I am also taking this from the reference to "the wiggles" in the text) is that there would be a SIGNIFICANT improvement.

0r in other words, you could save a lot of money in the SPED budget by not needing SPED resources, how many aides no longer needed, etc...

In other news, in the context of school districts being stupid, I know of one that has decided to eliminate recess outright.

Yep, kids inside all day with no reprieve. These people don't understand children...

When I was driving a school bus, one run was the fourth grade (a full bus of 72 kids) into town to then be re-distributed for the ride home. I had an understanding - they had to be quiet as I was navigating out of the parking lot because if someone shouted for me to stop, I would need to hear it. But once I got out onto the state highway, they could be just as loud as they wanted to be - and they were, not intentionally, they just were...

I am all for children to be well disciplined. But there are a lot of child development things that a lot of people are forgetting. There are people far better able than I to say why children are this way, I just know they are. Boys in particular.

And I will kick over another hornets nest with this: when we have an increasing number of boys being raised by single mothers and then educated by a largely female faculty (although districts are now hiring some men in those grades), well, there are issues...

Michael Jacques said...

"0r in other words, you could save a lot of money in the SPED budget by not needing SPED resources, how many aides no longer needed, etc..."

Ed I am not following you here. Could you be more specific. When it comes to saving money I love to hear new ideas. Thanks.

Michael Jacques said...

I asked my kids about recess first. It turns out that one of my children at Fort River did this in the 3rd and 4th grade. She did feel more relaxed at lunch and also felt like it was easier to go back to the class room. When asked which was better she still says like so many of our kids "whatever" they are both fine.

Anonymous said...

When my kids were little, I had them run around or go to the park before preschool and regular school. Nothing like a little self-help to help them and their teachers.

Ed said...

"0r in other words, you could save a lot of money in the SPED budget by not needing SPED resources, how many aides no longer needed, etc..."

Ed I am not following you here. Could you be more specific. When it comes to saving money I love to hear new ideas. Thanks

I am making up numbers here - and I am making them round for comprehension.

You have 10 kids diagnosed with ADHD (etc.). Each child has an IEP/PET (MA calls it one, ME the other, it is the same thing and I never remember which state uses which) and there are human resources required by law.

Lets say that 3 of the kids need a 1:1 SPED aide, 6 need the combined assistance of 3 aides, and one is OK on his own.

So you have to hire six aides and lets say hypothetically at $20K each, or $120K total.

Now lets say that rescheduling recess helps the kids with ADHD focus better, etc, etc. Lets say that you now have 2 kids needing a 1:1 aide, 3hree who no longer need assistance and the remaining cadre of 6 (remember 2 out, 2 in) now only need the combined services of 2 aides.

That means that you have 4 rather than 6 SPED aides needed. You thus save 1/3 of your budget line here - spending $80K rather than $120K.

Remember that these are all fictitious numbers to demonstrate a point. It would all come down to improvement in outcome and how much, if any, you had.

And also remember that the kids would be DOING BETTER, learning better, needing fewer drugs, etc, etc. But there is a very real cost savings here too.

In other words - and this is my point - if you can help children encountering difficulty -- SPED, ESL, whatever -- overcome those difficulties and be able to function independently in a regular classroom, you not only are meeting the legal goal of "least restrictive environment" and the social justice goals of kids doing well, you also don't have to keep paying for the SPED (etc.) resources that the kids no longer need.

Anonymous said...

As Ed said, he's making it up. As the parent of a child with ADHD I can tell you that switching lunch may help with the ability to sit through lunch but I can't imagine it helping enough to eliminate help for the rest of the day. I'm not saying switching lunch is good or bad, just not a budget buster like he proposes.

Anonymous said...

Let's forget budgetary matters for a second and focus on the child's happiness and productivity. And let's return to the numerous studies which show the benefits to the child of starting later in the day.

Anonymous said...

As the parent of a child with ADHD I can tell you that switching lunch may help with the ability to sit through lunch but I can't imagine it helping enough to eliminate help for the rest of the day.

As an adult who grew up with ADHD back in the 1960s when "help" was being told to "sit down and shut up", I can't help but wonder how much of this is the child's disability (which is real), how much of it is the child not wanting/needing to try to focus, and how much of this is parental influence.

Bluntly, I am wondering how many children are being disabled (for life) by well-meaning parents demanding assistance beyond the minimum actually needed for the child.

And I also wonder how many parents encourage the situation to degrade in hopes of outplacement...

Anonymous said...

Ed, the study doesnt say anything about ADHD and all kids get the wiggles at some time. Cant we just see the value of this study without going off on a tangent and making it something bigger?
Its great to see that thinking outside the box made an interesting difference in some cases. Nice article Catherine!

Ed said...

Hey, I stated that there was some research that I would like to see done. Education Research is my field, I was suggesting a subject of inquiry.

And when asked to justify my statement that *if* this *also* created a more favorable learning environment for SPED students, that it would (in addition to improving the educational outcome for SPED students) save the town some money.

Why is everyone so defensive? Improving educational outcome is bad? And what is wrong with saving money?

Basic facts folk: neither the SPED budget nor the larger budget from which it comes is a bottomless well. You drain the well and you go without water...

Anonymous said...


First of all, only a few people in a school building are privy to students' psychiatric and other diagnoses. Believe it or not, school staff can work for years with a child w/o knowing their "official diagnosis" (or if there is one!). We often don't even know if they're on meds or not, and if so, which ones.

The IEP doesn't typically contain that information and it is considered confidential. Gossiping about it is a huge no-no. And people in Amherst actually respect that in my experience.

We describe the behavior we see but can't and don't give it a label.

Eg, my sister (a special ed para) has worked for years with a paralyzed girl (in a school district in another state) in a wheelchair. She has some kind of wasting disease. My sister has never been told the name of the disease.

So we can't easily (or perhaps even legally) separate the ADHD kids that way. It wouldn't be helpful anyway because ADHD (and ADD) come out so differently from one child to another.

I have years of experience in SPED and with kids with behavior issues and I can tell you that letting them run around CAN be helpful but is NOT the answer.

They still have degrees of difficulty (typically) with making transitions, with social interactions, getting started on schoolwork, staying focused on schoolwork, and/or completing schoolwork.

If only exercise were the answer.

kevin said...

Thank you for sharing that article, Catherine. It speaks to our current emphasis on "academics".

As a private music teacher, I get both kinds -- children who learn through their eyes and verbal instructions and children who learn through their bodies and emotional intelligence. Neither one is 'wrong'.

What makes music interesting is combining these two types of intelligence into a "non-dual" experience -- which is what music is, non-dual communication. Trying to accomplish this in a public school environment, however, highlights the... non-difference?

To expect children to remain locked up in the closet of their mind, therefore, while we pursue our "academic" priority will always generate a SpEd population.

In other parts of the world, these children are encouraged/funneled into trade schools, etc. In high school, every year half of the population, 50%, is literally "flunked out", i.e., sent to trade school.

Imagine that. Half of you will not be here next year. That gets their attention.

This seems ruthless but consider that if you took the money you would have spent on college and invested it, and then got a productive job (like a truck driver), you could retire at age 32.

Only here do we expect every child to go to college. And the economic advantage is compelling. But the academic mode is not for everyone and we offer few, if any, options.

In our system, then, the alternative is dropping out, which is much more expensive for us, as a society, than a few SpEd teachers.

When I lived in Aspen, it was a standing joke that you needed PhD to be a dishwasher, there were so many. Based on that, I would have to say a recent study shows that Amherst has the highest population of dishwashers in the U.S.


Anonymous said...

There has been a lot of focus on funding for many school programs/services/etc. Incorporating more recess seems like a no-cost way to accomplish a lot of positive outcomes. Has anyone in the school admin. looked at how the Amherst schools' recesses meet (or don't meet) recommended guidelines?