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Use of school recess time in the education and treatment of children with autism spectrum disorders: A systematic review

Posted Jun 13 2011 8:45pm

Use of school recess time in the education and treatment of children with autism spectrum disorders: A systematic review is, as you will see, a small study on what is a relatively unstudied area: recess as part of the educational day for autistic students. This caught my eye for a simple reason: I think a lot about recess. I think about special education kids, kids who are working really hard, who need the break that recess provides as much or more than anyone.

Here is the abstract:

School recess is an opportunity to include students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) with their typically developing peers and is a setting in which instruction can occur. However, the educational opportunities for children with ASD within recess are often overlooked and recess time is being reduced or eliminated in the United States. This review involved a systematic search and analysis of 15 studies that utilized recess to implement academic, social, or behavioral interventions for students with ASD. Each identified study that met pre-determined inclusion criteria was analyzed and summarized in terms of: (a) participant characteristics, (b) intervention procedures, (c) dependent variables, and (d) intervention outcomes. This review has three main aims: (a) to evaluate and synthesize the evidence-base, (b) to inform and guide teachers interested in utilizing recess time for educational purposes, and© to stimulate and guide future research in this area. Results demonstrate that recess time can indeed be used to teach target behaviors to students with ASD.

Here is the first part of the conclusion

Systematic search procedures identified 15 studies that used recess time to deliver intervention to preschool and elementary school students with ASD. Summaries of the studies revealed that a variety of different interventions have targeted a range of behaviors including challenging behavior, social skills, play, and communication. The most common dependent variables were social skills, and the most common intervention component involved typically developing peers serving as models of target behavior or as therapists with an active role in prompting and reinforcing target behaviors (e.g., McGee et al., 1992). Overall, the existing literature base is perhaps best described as limited given the paucity of studies and the relatively low number of participants (N = 46). However, despite these limitations several important points do emerge.

Baseline levels of dependent variables across the included studies demonstrate that, prior to intervention, students with ASD engaged in high levels of stereotypy and challenging behavior and low levels of appropriate play and social interaction. Therefore, unlike typically developing students who benefit simply by being given access to recess (e.g., Pellegrini & Smith, 1993), students with ASD may need additional supports in order to benefit form educational and social opportunities on the playground ([Lang et al., 2009a], [Lang et al., 2009b] and [Lang et al., 2009c]). Consequently, if a student lacks the skills necessary to meaningfully participate in recess, goals and objectives related to recess should be included in their individualized education plans.

OK, even as a review, where they pool data from multiple other studies, this is small: 46 participants.

The authors note that (a) recess is important for kids, especially younger children and (b) recess time seems to be declining in general (possibly due to the no child left behind laws in the U.S.).

I really have to pose the question: how much is recess valuable precisely because it is self-directed time? How do you define if “a student lacks the skills necessary to meaningfully participate in recess”? If a typical child spends recess in a corner of the playground reading a book or doing homework, is that a meaningful participation in recess? If an autistic kid needs that time to blow off steam in some other way, is that “meaningful”? Who defines “appropriate play”? If a child, say, spends recess screaming—is that “inappropriate play” or is that a sign that the classroom environment may be overstressing the child? Sure, if a student has the desire, but not the skills, to use recess for social interaction, let’s see about supporting that. If a child enjoys working on play skills, again. But I have a bit of a reservation about making recess into more time for work.

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