A More Peaceful Lunchtime

Photograph by Jeff Woodward.Lunchtime used to be chaotic at Garfield Elementary, where students eat in shifts, with up to 180 students in the cafeteria at any given time. Disrespectful behavior was common, and a steady stream of discipline referrals flowed from the cafeteria to the office.

That changed after school leaders prioritized improving lunchtime behavior during the 2006/2007 school year. Their approach: involving children in a rule-making process that clarified behavior expectations and increased student investment in the rules.

Laying the Groundwork in Classrooms

When the school year began, Garfield’s core Responsive Classroom team—eight teachers and administrators who guide the school’s implementation of the approach—resisted diving immediately into lunchtime issues. “We were eager to begin,” says Principal Maureen Marshall, “but we knew we’d be more successful long-term if we got classroom behavior in shape first.”

During the first few months, therefore, the school focused on discipline in the classrooms. In each room, children and teachers generated rules that would help all class members realize their hopes and goals for the year ahead. Teachers actively taught students how to translate their rules into action. They used positive comments to reinforce appropriate behavior and logical consequences to help children learn from their mistakes. “Time out” areas gave students a place to calm themselves when their behavior was beginning to go off track. (To learn about this approach to classroom rule-making, see our book, Rules in School.)

“How Do We Want Lunch To Be?”

Intensive focus on lunch behavior began in December. First Sadaf Khan, the lunch supervisor, and guidance counselor Janet Dougherty visited each class and asked the children, “What would you like lunchtime to look, sound, and feel like?” The children had lots of ideas. Many wanted a less rowdy lunchtime. They voiced concerns about bullying, disruptive behavior, and rules that seemed inconsistently enforced.

Janet and Sadaf listened carefully and wrote each class’s ideas on large sheets of paper. “We learned a lot,” says Janet, noting that an additional benefit of the visits was that students saw Sadaf in a new light—as a teacher. Maureen added that Sadaf also got to know students better and to see classroom discipline practices in action.

Janet and Sadaf took the students’ ideas to the Student Cooperative Association (SCA), an elected group of twenty fourth, fifth, and sixth graders. Using a method similar to their classroom rule-making process, these students organized the ideas into themes. Most ideas fit one of three themes: Respect Yourself, Respect Others, Respect the Environment. These became the new Garfield lunch rules.

Translating Lunch Rules into Procedures

Next, the core team devised lunchroom procedures that would foster the atmosphere of respect embodied in the new rules. Some procedures guided students in how to move around the cafeteria, eat, and clean up. Other procedures told what would happen if students broke the rules. For instance, as in a classroom, a misbehaving student would be reminded of the rules, but only once. If she continued misbehaving, she’d be directed to take her lunch to one of several “time-out” desks around the cafeteria perimeter.

Teaching the Procedure

The core team then taught the new procedures to SCA members and had them role play situations when they’d be expected to make responsible decisions independently—for example, deciding what to do when they’d finished eating but others at their table had not. At an all-school assembly, the SCA modeled the procedures and presented the role plays to the rest of the students. “Having student leaders demonstrate was very powerful,” says Maureen. “The SCA members are popular kids, and their example carried a lot of weight with their classmates.”

Finally, each class visited the cafeteria to practice the procedures and do some role plays for themselves. Every child had hands-on experience with placing trash carefully in the bin, using an inside voice, responding to the “lights off” signal for silence, and cooperating with tablemates. After their practice visit, students were expected to follow the lunch rules and procedures.

Clear Improvements

After formal “lunch training” ended in mid-February, staff saw significant improvement in the atmosphere of the Garfield lunchroom. “It isn’t perfect, but it is much better,” says Maureen, noting that she’s now getting fewer lunchtime disciplinary referrals.

Keeping the Learning Alive

Lunchtime rules and procedures are becoming part of Garfield’s school culture. School newsletter articles have shared the rule-making process and new procedures with families. Table tents summarizing the rules adorn each cafeteria table. And from now on lunchtime behavior will be reviewed early each fall. Since most students will already be familiar with the rules and procedures, Maureen predicts that the Garfield community “should be able to get lunch off to a good start from the very beginning of every school year.”

Garfield Elementary School Demographics

Setting: Large suburban district
Grades: K to 6
Number of students: 350
% of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch: 48%
Number of home languages among student body: 37
Number of classrooms: 17

Tags: Lunchroom

5 Replies to “A More Peaceful Lunchtime”

  • I read a piece about responsive classroom in the cafeteria. Are cafeteria is really loud and kids are out of their seats constantly. There are no consequences and structure. What do you recommend.

    • This article gives a great springboard for you. When the staff at Garfield Elementary saw that lunchtime was chaotic and full of disrespectful behavior they took a look at the whole school environment and began establishing a new culture and climate in their classrooms, then they moved on to establishing rules for the lunchroom (with the guidance of the students themselves) and made sure that the new rules and expectations were clear both for the adults and the children. Form there it is about maintaining consistency.

      • How would you tailor this lunchroom approach to a middle school? (in a very affluent community where the kids treat staff like the hired help).

  • Hi Meg! It sounds like a critical starting point would be to practice the skills of empathy and respect for all individuals in the school (adults and students). This could be done in a variety of ways (please note these are general suggestions and you should choose what might work for your school and students): pose a “kindness” challenge for the students (before the holidays would be a perfect time), have an “employee of the week” where a group of students interviews a member of the lunchroom team and creates a poster of the positive attributes of that individual, ask for parent volunteers to come in and help with lunch so students see other adults in that setting, have teaching staff model being respectful and showing social-interest in their colleagues, have conversations in Advisory (or homeroom) about showing respect to all individuals, and/or use envisioning language to help students create an image of what it would look like if the lunchroom met that ideal. To tailor this plan to meet the middle school setting, you could consider using homeroom or advisory to have the discussions about how the students want the lunchroom to look and you could have the lunchroom staff generate a list of how they want it to look. You could show students what the staff listed to see what the commonalities are and then discuss how to make that come to life. If there are specific procedures that are missing or not being followed, having a time set aside to teach the new procedure would be important – we must teach the expectations before we can ask students to follow them. Through conversation and explicit modeling/teaching, middle school lunch rooms can be a place of peace as well! Hope these ideas help – let us know if you try any of them out and how they work.

  • These ideas sounds very similar to the PBIS approach. I believe that the boosters throughout the year are really critical to the success. I love the idea of table tents at each table.

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