How I solved my daughter's lonely recess problem

Yesterday my first grader came out of school with her shoulders slumped and her head down. "How was your day?" I asked.

She lifted her hand and gestured so-so. This is a kid who is usually bouncing with enthusiasm about every last activity in her life, so I figured something specific was bugging her.

She was noncommittal about the details of her day at first, but then she explained that recess was the problem.

Ahh, yes. Recess. Also known as the jungle. It is the bane of every neurotic parent's existence, the nagging worry in the pit of a school's stomach, the dreaded and longed-for unstructured play time.

Apparently, every day at recess, my daughter spends the whole time sitting on a bench watching others play. "Why don't you join in?" I asked her.

She said sadly, "Because XXX told me I cannot play with them, and she tells other kids that they are not allowed to play with me, and they listen because she is the boss, and I have to sit alone on the bench."

"What did you say to XXX in response?" I asked.

"I said that I really want to play too, but she said that the game is full and that I can't join."

Deep breath, mama. You know the drill. This is normal social conflict -- the same crap that kids go through every single day -- and you know that kids switch roles all the time. My little one is on the receiving end of some unkindness, but there is no doubt that there have been times when she is the one acting like a queen bee. Don't rush in to fix it; work together with her to find a solution. Don't demonize another child, because in two weeks, they may be best buddies.


"Do you like sitting on the bench at recess?" I inquired.

"Not one little bit," my daughter told me.

Okay then. Time to enact THE PLAN, the same one I advise other parents to do every time I speak about social conflict and bullying!

1. Have my kid describe exactly what is happening. Help her to name the specific behaviors of the aggressor, rather than just accepting the general statement, "XXX is being mean to me."

2. Focus on kid-initiated solutions. Work together to make a plan of action.

3. Role play with my kid to help her practice for the next unwanted or hostile interaction.

4. If necessary, advise adults of the situation.

5. Follow up and monitor. Check back in with my kid several times a week, but not every single day. Do not interview for pain.

Based on the five-step plan, here is what has happened:

1. My daughter labeled the specific behavior that is upsetting her: "XXX is discluding me." (I think that is the first-grade version of excluding and dissing, all mixed up together).

2. At first, my daughter wanted me to speak to XXX and to the teacher. I pointed out that she would not have a role in fixing the problem if I were the one to talk to everyone. Together, we decided that she would explain what was happening to her teacher, and she would also be more assertive at recess. "Just because someone tells you to go sit on a bench doesn't mean you have to do it," I told her. We also picked some alternative activities that she could do during recess if she couldn't find anyone to play with: 1) make daisy chains; 2) make fairy houses; 3) play on playground equipment.


3. We role played, and my daughter practiced what she would say today at recess if XXX refuses to let her play with other kids. "I'll tell her that everyone is allowed to play, and that she can't tell other kids not to play with me. If I want to join, I will join." Then we also talked about the importance of hanging out with people who want to hang out with you, and I encouraged her to identify allies who make her feel welcome.

4. My daughter did want to talk to the teacher, so before school this morning, we found her first-grade teacher. The teacher knelt down to eye level and listened as my little one explained very carefully and in precise detail what was happening. "The rule at our school is that everyone can play," Teacher reassured my daughter. "We will be talking a lot about this at school in the next few weeks, and we will help everyone to understand."

5. No follow-up yet! This is the hard part. Parents often want to smother their kids with questions every single day, yearning to know, "How did today go? Were the kids nice? Did you feel included? Are you secure? Happily attached? Do you feel resilient and competent and prepared to be a productive member of society????" Despite the angst we feel, it is best to check in sporadically, not constantly, and avoid asking painful questions. Instead of saying, "Were the other kids mean?" try asking, "What did you choose to do at recess today?" Allow kids to tell a story of strength.

Okay, mama. Hang in there.

This post first appeared on 8/29/13 on Carrie's blog, Portrait of an Adoption. Carrie is the author of BULLIED: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of FearFollow her on Twitter and find her blog on Facebook.