Princeton elementary school teacher withholds recess as a punishment, angering some parents

Jennifer Cohan was surprised to hear from her son Wednesday that seven minutes of recess were taken away from the entire fifth grade at Community Park Elementary School in Princeton because of an incident that took place at the beginning of the school day as one teacher’s students prepared to head from the gymnasium to class.

Fifth grade students had to stand outside and stay still for the seven minutes during recess because some students from one class were talking in line while waiting to go upstairs to class.

A teacher clocked the seven-minute time out at the start of recess, and students were informed that they were not allowed to talk or walk around, according to Cohan’s fifth grade son. Some students were moving around to keep warm, and some of the children were not properly dressed for standing outside, her son said said. One student only had a t-shirt on, so another student gave him his sweatshirt. According to Cohan’s son, the students were told if they spoke or moved, they clock would re-start.

According to data from Weather Underground, the temperature was in the mid to low 40s at noon on the day of the incident.

“My son was upset that this kind of punishment was used, and that some of his classmates were cold,” Cohan said. “I can’t imagine how teachers and administrators think this is okay.”

Troubled by the incident and other incidences of recess being taken away from individual students at various grade levels, Cohan emailed teachers, the principal, and the superintendent on Thursday. She wrote an email to other parents as well, and found she was not the only one questioning the practice. In spite of her attempts to talk to the school officials about the matter, as of Saturday morning she received no direct response to her email. Planet Princeton also reached out to the superintendent of schools and school board leaders Thursday about the issue, but never received a response.

More than a dozen states and hundreds of school districts across the country have adopted wellness policies banning the practice of taking away recess to discipline misbehaving students. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Association for Sport and Physical Education both stress the crucial role of recess, and argue it should not be taken away for disciplinary or punitive reasons. Research also has shown that taking away recess or other physical activity as punishment does not make classroom behavior better. It could make things worse, because some students who misbehave are doing so because they are bored, restless, or have excessive energy. Taking away recess only compounds problems for such students.

The Princeton Public School does, in fact, have a wellness policy, passed in September, that says recess shall not be taken away as a disciplinary action unless the child from whom recess will be taken away poses a physical threat or danger to him/herself or others.

“The docking of recess time has been happening since the start of school, despite board policy. I know that at least one parent contacted  the principal prior to the incident Wednesday to express their concerns, but nothing was done,” Cohan said. “I was glad when the board passed the policy in September, but by not actually enforcing it, it shows there is no follow through, and  that the policy approval was just window dressing.”

Community Park Principal Dineen Gruchacz sent a general email to all parents of fifth graders on Friday night addressing the issue.

“I want you to know that I  have met with / been in communication with the fifth grade teachers regarding the recent recess issue,” she wrote. “We have gone over the board policy surrounding recess and there is now a better understanding of and clarity around the policy and our practice. I do not expect that we will have this situation repeat itself in the future.”


  1. So, it’s against PPS’s policy, it involved punishing all for the “crime” of one, and kids were clothed for the weather in a way that would probably and rightly result in a call from school to home if a parent had sent a child to school in such gear for outdoor play.

    But greater “understanding and clarity” is needed by the teachers? What am I missing here?

  2. When I was growing up in Ecuador, it was common practice and we, the kids, were well aware of it, and it was the whole recess taken, not only part of it. We came out fine, we are not emotionally scared. In Latin America we had, at least when I was growing up, the European system. In this case, in my opinion, the kids should be well bundled up because of the weather; besides that, I don’t think of it as something horrifying. Of course, this is my opinion and none of you have to agree.

    1. I don’t think that one day of lost recess, even if spent freezing, is going to harm the collective class psyche. What *does* bother me is that the board came up with a policy (I happen to like it, but like it or not it is the policy) that the teachers did not feel bound to follow, and were only caught violating because of one very aware student and his activist mother. That is a huge problem, and it’s not an unprecedented one in type in PPS.

      A further bother is that while the group of fifth graders as a whole will be fine, I think it’s incredibly inappropriate to take a discipline problem involving one or a few students, and then impose collective punishment so that the misbehaving kids become social pariahs, and the other fifth graders through ostracism are expected to do the teachers’ job of encouraging discipline for them. There can be no other goal for collective punishment.

  3. I can’t believe this is even worth enough to make an article about. You go on and on about how terrible it is to take recess away from kids but that’s recess as a whole. Not 7 minutes. Is that really going to effect the health and safety of kids in the grand scheme of things? I don’t think so. Babying the kids instead has more of detriment to their heath and safety as they get older and have to face the real world without mommy helping them out. When we were in elementary school we had to have consequences for misbehaving and losing ALL OF RECESS was the consequence but this reaction (contacting a reporter?? Ridiculous) is typical of parents these days. Congrats to this mom for making a more than useless mountain out of a mole hill.

    1. Collective punishment violating board policies is not a mountain out of a molehill. This came to light because of one mom and one kid. I’m wondering what else might be going on that hasn’t come to light.

      1. Yes, like I said…board policy about ALL of recess…i can’t imagine 7 minutes of no recess in 5th grade effecting the rest of the lives of these kids…I honestly don’t know how I made it through the rest of my years having missed a few days of recess. God forbid.

        1. I’ll ask with a different phrasing: Do you think it’s a big deal that teachers do or don’t flagrantly violate board policy? Do you think it’s reasonable to wonder that if they do it in one area, they might do it in others – and those might matter more to you?

          1. Nope, I believe teachers are teachers for a reason and parents like you guys should let them do their job. If kids misbehave, then I believe the teachers are allowed to do what they see fit to make the kids have consequences for those actions. You guys can sit on your soap box and go on and on but but myself and a lot of others won’t ever agree with what either one of you have to say because it’s just THAT ridiculous. Oh. And it’s funny the main “source” of this unnecessary article is an upset 5th grader who lost 7 minutes of his recess. But sure, let’s call on a reporter because my 5th grader is upset. I think I’ve voiced enough of my opinion and I’ve definitely read enough of all yours so I’m not wasting my time on here any further..

            1. Teachers should follow best practices for the discipline. The national teaching organizations and their experts say recess should never be withheld. Good teachers already follow these recommendations. It’s either old-school teachers or teachers who haven’t been properly trained at fault here.

    2. I’m the “Mommy” in question who blew the whistle on the policy violation, I’m Jennifer Cohan. What is your name, anonymous? I’m also one of the biggest advocates for teachers in Princeton (where they are often treated like servants or a means to an end – Ivy League school admission). I spent countless hours as an activist/volunteer keeping the contract issue alive in the press, and took many hits in the community while teachers they were battling for a new contract. I did it because I value public education, and I know that teachers are the heart of things, the people on the front lines. Nothing about this situation is excusable, but let’s unpack your sexist, outdated comment anyway:

      – the rights of the children were violated – what happened was violation of Board of Education Wellness policy. Some of the children knew this. Most of them NOW know this – what kind of lesson, exactly, is this to impart to students?

      – underdressed kids out in the cold, expected to be motionless for seven minutes. This endangered their health and welfare.

      – teachers were giving a real-life lesson in children being taught to shut up and take unreasonable punishment. That they should accept maltreatment.

      – the principal already had prior notice that this policy was being violated, but it kept happening. Who is policing the principal? The superintendent?

      – Latinx kids in the 5th grade – their community is reeling from the recent raids that took three people. Standing out in the cold, in a line, under the orders of a white male authority figure. This is added trauma. PPS can say they care about equity, racial literacy and more, but doing this to these kids in particular is beyond cruel.

      – not all kids are the same – some are very sensitive, have ADHD and need exercise, some have trauma in their lives and look to their teachers as potential sources of continuity and refuge.

      – abuse of our trust, as parents, that policies and procedures are communicated and best practices are followed. I already know this not to be the case in Princeton Public Schools, but why not throw it in here.

        1. Believe me, she was during contract negotiations. Based on my child’s experiences in PPS I had no sympathy with negotiations to increase already expensive teacher comp, but Jennifer really waved a banner on behalf of the teachers. We happen to agree on this issue though: teachers should be held accountable for following policy, period. I’m hard-pressed to understand why this would be a problematic position for anyone.

    3. Agreed, ridiculous article. “the rights of the children were violated”??? ” Latinx kids in the 5th grade – their community is reeling from the recent raids that took three people. Standing out in the cold, in a line, under the orders of a white male authority figure. This is added trauma. PPS can say they care about equity, racial literacy and more, but doing this to these kids in particular is beyond cruel.” Cruel?? Get a grip, it was a whole 7 minutes!!!

  4. Eh, this article is a bit of mess. My reaction after reading was “Whaaa…?” Where’s the follow up with the school, or other parents? If Planet Princeton reached out to the school for clarification of events I would expect at least a “no comment” referenced. The title states “school teacher withholds recess.” First off, recess *was* had, less seven minutes. Secondly, which *one* teacher make that call? Or was it a group of teachers? How was this decision reached and why? The policy being touted does say recess cannot be taken away, but that same policy doesn’t say recess cannot be trunicated. That seems a grey area. If a student is in the bathroom for 5 minutes at the start of recess does the school owe them that five minutes, else they are violating school policy? Lastly, the people being walloped on aren’t bad people. Despite the picture painted by this article fueled by one parent’s take, they do truly care about the wellbeing of their students. It is only my opinion, but I think as it stands the piece would be better suited as a letter to the editor. Planet Princeton usually does a good job handling local news, but this reads as sloppy to me.

  5. I wonder if the teachers even knew about the policy. I have a child at CP and know that at times a teacher will withhold part of recess as a consequence. I wonder if the district communicated this policy to the teachers. It doesn’t seem to be so outlandish that the teachers should be able to give the kids a consequence for bad behavior. Further, if this is an article I think that more then one side should be presented. It seems like a parental report rather then an actual news article. I believe the teachers and the school deserve better then that.

    1. What would be a “good” consequence for kids? Shouldn’t we teach them consequences for behavior?

      1. There should definitely be consequences for bad behavior. The issue is that withholding recess is counterproductive as it doesn’t result in the educational outcomes that one wants.

        The American Academy of Pediatrics writes “On the basis of an abundance of
        scientific studies, withholding recess for punitive or academic reasons
        would seem to be counterproductive to the intended outcomes and may have
        unintended consequences in relation to a child’s acquisition of
        important life skills.”

        Children can be punished, but withholding recess isn’t a good way to punish them.

  6. For goodness’ sakes, it’s the policy. It should be communicated and followed. The children broke a rule and were punished by inappropriate means. So next time punish them by appropriate means. I would support that.

    But, so long as we are taking about consequences for wrong behavior, maybe the official at the main office (if not communicated) or the teacher (if communicated but not followed) should be made to stand outside in a tee shirt in 40 degree weather prior to the commencement of a scheduled break.

    But I’m not quite sure the tee shirt angle has much credence.

    When my children were at the PPSs, I noticed that many kids attend school during the winter months in tee shirts and even shorts.

    Later I saw me a wonderful Roz Chast cartoon that made me recall that and laugh. “Heroes of the Clothing Wars” was the title. The drawing depicted statues of children – in the style of Civil War heroes – who stubbornly insisted on dressing in ways contrary to their parents` wishes and, more importantly, common sense. There was little Johnny who insisted on wearing a T-Shirt to school in sub zero degree weather.

Comments are closed.