Saturday, May 22, 2010

Recess Coaches: Do they stop bullying?

A recent trend among schools has been to hire recess coaches, people whose job is to basically run recess, organizing games and generally supervising the kids. Now, I’m all for anything that reduces the workload on teachers (if recess is supervised by a recess coach, that means it’s one less duty that teachers have to do). But, that’s not the purpose of recess coaches. Recess coaches are there to “curb bullying and behavior problems, foster social skills and address concerns over obesity. They also hope to show children that there is good old-fashioned fun to be had without iPods and video games." There are valid criticisms regarding whether a recess coach is enough to achieve any of those goals, but I want to talk specifically about how effective recess coaches are at curbing bullying.

It would be pointless to argue that recess coaches do nothing to curb bullying. Increased supervision does stop bullying--in the immediate area of the supervisor. Most bullies aren’t going to do their bullying in a place where they’re going to be observed (Eddie Haskell springs to mind). But stopgap measures like increased supervision do nothing to address the root causes of bullying, and kids who want to will still have plenty of opportunities for bullying. If nothing else, the bullying can take place outside of school, either in person or online (completely unrelated note--the word bullying starts to look really odd when you write it a bunch of times).

Bullying happens because some kids feel the need to exert power over other kids, and because witnesses are either afraid to intervene, or don’t have the tools to do so. Stopping bullying requires giving bystanders the tools to intervene when they see bullying happening, and changing the culture so that certain kids don’t feel that need to exert power. One of those is relatively simple, if not always easy. The other will take a bit longer. But no one ever said social justice work was easy.

So how do we work with bystanders (who, after all, make up the majority of kids) to give them both the tools and willingness to step in? As you might expect, I’m a firm believer in theatre techniques. Things like Boal work, mantle of the expert activities, and even basic improv techniques can be used to encourage students to talk about the bullying they’ve witnessed or experienced, which develops the sense of group cohesion necessary to make students want to intervene. Those same techniques can be used to help students develop tactics and tools for intervening. And, theatre and other art programs can be used to help young students develop empathy, which helps discourage bullying at its source, the bully (I’m also interested in the Roots of Empathy program, which I plan to write about soon).

So, do recess coaches help curb bullying at recess? Yes, probably. Do they do anything to stop bullying as a societal phenomenon? I have to say no. For now, curbing bullying means that students themselves need to formulate their own reasons and tactics for stopping bullying on the ground. Actually ending bullying will take a major cultural shift--until we eliminate the hierarchies that exist in our society and our schools, bullies will continue to have the desire and the means to bully.


  1. Recess coaches won't work. I know this because I can safely say, in all honesty, that my school tried this. 20 years ago.

    Here's another problem: who are the schools hiring to be recess coaches (we called them "playground monitors.") At my school, it was mostly

    parents of bullies.
    They just happened to be actively involved with school business. You see a conflict of interest there?

    The monitors' kids personally targeted me and a few others for bullying, so it happened right in front of the monitor's faces. And I couldn't say anything about it, because *I* was the one who was punished. If I cried, I'd get the time-out and lose recess privileges. I certainly couldn't fight back.

    In the end I spent the last year or two of recess holed up in the Nurse's office. It was safer there.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your story, and also for raising a really good point--that recess coaches won't necessarily do anything to stop bullying at recess, either. It's frustrating to see schools latching onto these supposed "solutions" without really considering how effective they are.

  3. Recess coaches are there to “curb bullying and behavior problems, foster social skills and address concerns over obesity. They also hope to show children that there is good old-fashioned fun to be had without iPods and video games."

    Yup...because systematically singling out the fat kids about how they're doing recess wrong will change the attitudes behind bullying right quick.

    Crickets on a motherhumping cracker.

  4. Seriously. The whole panic over the supposed "obesity epidemic" really burns my gears in general, anyway. Not to mention, as someone who's notoriously bad at any sport that requires equipment, I can't imagine how hellish recess would've been if I'd been forced to play basketball or whatever the whole time.