How not teaching academics improves learning

As NCLB steps aside in favor of ESSA, some changes that were ushered in during the NCLB era seem to be on their way out. One of the unintended side effects of NCLB’s intense focus on reading and math achievement was a loss of focus on other, less academic skills. Not unexpectedly, subjects and skills that were not tested got pushed out as schools looked to include more time for math and reading instruction. In many schools, this additional time came at the expense of activities like lunch, recess, and other social events. Recent research, however, has found that non-academic pursuits are more important than NCLB gave them credit for.

Duke University did a study on long-term impact of an intervention specifically targeted at students identified by their teachers and parents as “being high risk for developing aggressive behavioral problems” (Shallcross 2015, para. 2). The longitudinal study found that participants had fewer arrests and were less likely to use mental health services than their peers who did not participate in the program. The program, call Fast Track, focused on building peer relationships and providing social skills training, both for the students and their parents. Researchers found that the social and self-regulation skills that students learned in the program had a substantial impact on their future behavior.

It can be difficult to find time in the school day for the curriculum, let alone everything else. As academic requirements have increased, many schools have reduced or eliminated time dedicated to recess. Most elementary teachers know that a large number of students will cite recess has their favorite part of the school day. Any teacher who has tried to delay or cancel recess will likely tell you of the impact on student behavior! A 2013 study sponsored by the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation supported what many teachers had discovered anecdotally, that students who had recess reported less bullying, felt safer at school, and were able to transition more quickly in learning tasks. There is actually substantial research (summarized in this literature review) going back over 30 years supporting the benefits of recess for students. Thankfully, the pendulum seems to be swinging back the other direction on recess. For example, New Jersey has passed a bill requiring 20 minutes of recess for students grades K though 5. After many years of an intense focus on academics, here’s hoping ESSA brings back some balance.


Shallcross, L. (2015, December 17). Learning soft skills in childhood can prevent harder problems later. Retrieved from