Taking it back to the basics
New research shows that recess is an important tool in combating bullying in schools and an overall better school environment.
A national initiative called Playworks aims to stop bullying before children reach their teen years at at-risk elementary schools in 23 cities nationwide. Schools in low-income neighborhoods are chosen, and most of the students happen to be African-American and Latino.
The program has prevented and decreased bullying by teaching conflict resolution through games. The teachers note that Playworks reinforces positive behavior and increases focus in class, even right after recess. They also feel that the students are safer during recess and choose less exclusive play.
Enter Mohammed. He is a New Orleans youth who went from craving the center of attention, fighting and getting into trouble, to helping younger children solve a schoolyard brawl with a game of rock, paper, scissors. Things changed once a Playworks coach took him under his wing and gave Mohammed the responsibility of being a junior coach.
“[One of the Playworks coaches] sees these two kids getting into a scuffle,” explains Jill Vialet, CEO and founder of Playworks. “Then, he sees Mohammed making his way over to the group of kids. Mohammed makes his way closer. Then, the coach hears oohs and ahs.”
Concerned that Mohammed had joined the brawl, the coach got closer. Funny enough, “the oohs were because they both kept throwing out paper,” Vialet says. “He found a way to be the center of attention in a positive way.”
However, educators and parents have expressed concern for programs that control free time such as recess.
“We found no negative impact on the extent to which students enjoyed their recess time, or their feelings of ownership,” says Susanne James-Burdumy, associate director of research at Mathematica Policy Research, who, along with Stanford University, conducted an independent evaluation of the benefits of Playworks, sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Vialet recalls her times playing in her Washington, D.C. neighborhood.
“It was, [ironically], one of the most structured things I’ve ever been a part of,” she says. “The older kids created structure and the little kids learned.
She adds, “There’s a real priority in [Playworks] for kids to develop their own leadership, giving them the skills. It’s only one grown up on a school ground with hundreds of kids.”
To Smith, it makes sense.
“When schools create a zero tolerance atmosphere for bullying and actively encourage positive behaviors, academic success and respect, bullying seems to be at a minimum,” she says.
Vialet is clear: “If you want to stop bullying, you should be paying attention to recess.
Protecting the wounded
Smith also stresses the importance of caring for bullied children before suicide becomes an option.
“Therapy or counseling targeted at problem-solving skills, building self-esteem and coping with the distress of being bullied can be helpful,” she says.
In more extreme cases, where the child experiences a very strong emotional or psychological reaction to bullying, Smith says medication may be indicated.
However, contrary to the instincts of some parents, “changing schools to avoid bullying typically does not solve the problem for the youth.”
The ABCs of Bullying: Addressing, Blocking and Curbing School Aggression also has scientific data to support its benefits. It’s a program run by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a governmental entity.