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J Sch Health. 2013 Aug;83(8):533-41. doi: 10.1111/josh.12062.

Withholding recess from elementary school students: policies matter.

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Institute for Health Research and Policy, University of Illinois at Chicago, 1747 West Roosevelt Road, M/C 275, Room 558, Chicago, IL 60608, USA.



Recess is a key aspect of a healthy elementary school environment and helps to keep students physically active during the school day. Although national organizations recommend that students not be withheld from recess, this practice occurs in schools. This study examined whether district policies were associated with school practices regarding the withholding of recess for behavior management or academic reasons, as well as the use of physical activity (eg, running laps) for behavior management.


Data were gathered from administrators at US public elementary schools by mail-back surveys conducted during the spring of the 2008-2009, 2009-2010, and 2010-2011 school years. Corresponding school district policies were gathered and coded. Each year's sample was nationally representative and data were analyzed as a stacked cross-sectional sample. A total of 1,919 surveys were received (61.2% response rate).


Averaged over the 3 years, students were not withheld from recess for poor behavior or academic reasons at 28.3% and 26.7% of elementary schools, respectively. Strong district policy was associated with an increased odds of not withholding students from recess for poor behavior (adjusted odds ratio [OR] = 2.27, p < .001) or completing schoolwork (adjusted OR = 1.99, p < .001). Withholding recess was less common in the South versus the West, Midwest, and Northeast. Use of physical activity for behavior management was rare and not associated with district policy.


Strengthening district policies may be an effective strategy for changing school practices pertaining to withholding of recess, and to ensure that all students have opportunities to be physically active during the school day.


law; obesity; physical activity; school district

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