“Recess represents an essential, planned respite from rigorous cognitive tasks. It affords a time to rest, play, imagine, think, move, and socialize.”
– The American Academy of Pediatrics
Recess and ADHD
As an ADHD coach and former teacher, I often find myself reflecting on the immeasurable value of recess for children with ADHD. With IEP season in full swing, I am often finding myself discussing – occasionally ranting – about why recess should be essential for all children, particularly those with ADHD. It may seem trivial to some, but for the children who frequently miss this invaluable time of play, social interaction, movement and fresh air, it is everything.
Picture this: A bustling classroom, lively discussions, and the continuous ebb and flow of learning. Amidst this, imagine the experience of a child with ADHD – the sensory overload, the exhausting effort to focus, and the hurdles of social interaction. It can be incredibly challenging and overwhelming. And then, the anticipated ring of the bell signals the beginning of recess. It’s more than a break; it’s a sanctuary, an essential period of rejuvenation and connection. But so often this break is taken as a consequence for behaviour or catch up time.
I know that recess can feel like the only bargaining chip, the only tool in a teacher’s toolbox to give students that haven’t finished work, extra time, or to serve as a consequence for a child that appears to never listen.
But, I argue that recess is a learning environment and an essential learning support in itself. For this reason I always recommend that parents request to include accommodations around recess in their child’s IEP or learning plan. I simply ask for the language, “recess will not be used as a consequence or removed for any reason.” Below, I am sharing more on what we know about recess and its impact.
A Sanctuary of Social Interaction
Recess serves as an informal classroom, a place where children practice and hone their social skills. For children with ADHD, who often grapple with social nuances, the playground is a nurturing ground for developing friendships, resolving conflicts, and learning to navigate the social world. We know that social skills can be more challenging for children with ADHD, which means that they need more time for practice and not less. If children are struggling with the unstructured component of recess then my recommendation is direct social skills training and support along with strategies for navigating recess. So often we just remove and avoid, instead I like to reframe that these behaviours are indications that a child needs more practice not less.
Breathing Room for Busy Minds
The classroom environment, while enriching, can be particularly overwhelming for children with ADHD. The sensory stimuli, the concentration demands, and the social dynamics can be taxing.
Recess offers a breath of fresh air – literally. It’s a time to unwind, to process, and to just be. Recess provides the opportunity for children to engage in their choice of activity, this freedom allows children who need sensory stimulation to engage in physical activity and get the input they need and those that need a break to wander by themselves and take a breath. The goal is that children with ADHD learn what their unique regulation tools are and how to use them.
Movement as Medicine
The benefits of exercise are universally acknowledged. However, for our ADHD learners, physical activity is akin to a dose of focus and attentiveness. Movement amplifies the levels of neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine – the very elements that are often in short supply for those with ADHD. Numerous studies affirm that a burst of activity during recess can significantly enhance focus and productivity.
As an ADHD coach, anecdotally I have seen time and time again an increase in challenging behaviour from ADHD symptoms (especially impulsivity) when children with ADHD move from elementary to either middle or highschool. What often happens is that our young teens aren’t given playgrounds and play equipment during their breaks after this transition and instead of running and moving they sit and chat. Losing this movement break leads to less focus and more executive dysfunction in the second half of the day.
The Road Ahead: Nurturing Positive Behaviors
Managing a classroom and supporting diverse learners is no small feat. I’ve been there, and I’ve felt the challenges. But I urge my fellow educators to view recess as a non-negotiable element of the school day and to approach classroom management with a lens of understanding and support.
Let’s focus on fostering positive behaviors, offering individualized support, and empowering our students with self-regulation tools. Not to mention, Using recess as a punitive measure can be counterproductive. It may lead to resentment, reduce motivation, and does not address the root of behavioral issues. Positive reinforcement and supportive strategies are more effective for long-term behavior modification.
If you are looking for support on HOW to nurture positive behaviours in the classroom as a parent or a teacher, here is how I would love to support you:
> My ebook “Supporting ADHD at School” is coming soon. This resource shares a bit about the WHY behind ADHD symptoms and challenging behaviours and is full of strategies, accommodations, and support tools that can be implemented in the classroom setting. If this sounds like something you’ll want to get your hands on, make sure you’re subscribed to my bi-weekly newsletter and I’ll let you know when it’s available.
> My parenting group program is accepting applications now for later this fall. This is a 6-week program for parents of children and teens with ADHD. Details below:
Parenting Group Program
This is a 6-week program for parents of children and teens with ADHD. We will meet on a weekday evening for 60-90 minutes 6 times in a small group. These are truly small groups, I keep the sizes very limited! The goal is to create community with other parents navigating a similar road and learning together. Some of the topics we will be covering include:
- Understanding ADHD and Brain Basics
- Supporting School
- Creating Calm at Home
- Escalations and Meltdowns
- Sensory Sensitivity and ADHD
- Overwhelm, Anxiety, and Rejection Sensitivity
- Parenting in the Digital Age – Screen Time and ADHD
If you are interested in joining the waitlist for this fall’s program sign up here: