Let’s Do Lunch!

Photograph by Jeff Woodward.All too often, the caring, cooperative, responsible, friendly behavior that is expected, practiced, and seen in the classroom breaks down when the children hit the lunchroom.

To truly change the dynamics of the lunchroom environment, schools must address the issues through a schoolwide effort involving all staff and an examination of the overall structures of the lunchroom. I highly recommend the educational and social value of “reforming” the lunchroom. Many schools involved in implementing Responsive Classroom practices schoolwide have taken this pivotal step, and the positive effects are powerful.

My intention here is to suggest some strategies that the individual teacher can use regardless of the overall structure of lunch. These are steps that one teacher can take to make lunch a more positive experience. Certainly, strategies could be used as well by all teachers in a schoolwide lunchroom reform.

Lunch Has a Purpose

In order for children to successfully meet behavior expectations and willingly work for a more positive lunchtime, teachers must first lay a foundation for meaningful purpose.

Preparing children for success

You can prepare children for success by discussing with your students the purpose of lunchtime. With this as a reference point of meaning, children can see the connection between their behavior and what they hope to achieve at lunch. Some questions to ask are: How will we take care of ourselves and each other so that we enjoy our lunch and our friends? How does the cafeteria rule “Stay in your seats” help us to do this?

Through discussing such questions, children clearly understand the meaning behind the rules and structures of lunch and the expectations for their behavior. Ultimately these discussions lead to the final step of naming, modeling, role playing, and practicing the specific behaviors that will prepare children for success.

Practice “doing lunch”

You can begin the practice of “doing lunch” in your classroom. For example, after a discussion about what you might say and do to be successful in the lunchroom, you can model lunchtime behaviors for your students. The children identify your actions, your words, possibly your thoughts and feelings, and your affect.

Next, a few children model how they will act at lunch while the others notice their positive behaviors. Finally, you practice lunch as if you were all in the lunchroom. Continue this process until you have modeled and practiced all the important segments of lunchtime behavior from getting ready to go to lunch to returning from the cafeteria. Now, you can move to practicing in the cafeteria itself, not during lunch periods but at another time of the day. Whenever possible, enlist the help of the cafeteria workers as well.

Lunch Is Fun

When you set up structures and events that keep the quality of fun and enjoyment in lunchtime, children are better able to see a purpose to working cooperatively and managing some of the more challenging expectations. Here are some ideas from teachers who use the Responsive Classroom approach.

Lunch partners

The structure of “lunch partners” can have many positive effects on what happens during lunchtime. It eliminates a great deal of anxiety and competition around the issue of who sits next to whom and it gives children an opportunity to get to know all of their classmates.

Some structures and routines that have worked for lunch partners:

  • Each day children are responsible for inviting or accepting an invitation from another classmate to be a lunch partner. This means they proceed through all the routines of lunch together from beginning to end. Each day of the week a child has a different partner.An important consideration: In order to prepare children for this structure, a teacher must be sure to proactively address in discussion and then with modeling: Why might it be important to have different lunch partners? How does inviting and rejecting affect others? Can we say “no” to someone if we don’t have a partner yet? What are our responsibilities to one another in being friendly classmates and lunch partners?
  • Some days of the week can be pre-set as “new friends” day which means that children partner with someone whom they don’t usually work or play with.
  • Partners can be designated by random drawing or through game or category identification (e.g., matching puzzle pieces, boy-girl, children reading the same book . . .). The children can have great fun themselves establishing ways of identifying partners.
  • Partners/can be given the responsibility of giving each other a compliment at the end of lunch or at the “after-lunch” meeting to share something new that the partners found they have in common.
  • Partners can also be put into groups of four or six who then fill in a complete table. This group can be self-selecting or established by the teacher. A fun activity is for the group to try to figure out what category the teacher used to define their group.
Topics for conversation

This is a positive way to build children’s capacity and interest in having productive and socially skilled conversations with one another. Begin by exploring why we talk with friends and classmates and what makes a conversation or talk between people interesting and worthwhile.

From this discussion the class should be able to create a list of possible ingredients that would make a successful conversation. The children then can refer to this list as they practice and evaluate their skill of conversing.

With these ingredients in mind, the class can brainstorm a list of topics that might be interesting, worthwhile, and/or fun for them to use as topics for talking during their lunchtimes. Some examples of topics: things to do on an overnight at a friend’s house, favorite desserts, what makes a hero, favorite activities in the summer/winter . . .

Here is a sampling of activities that can be done with these topics:

  • Have the children write the topics on separate cards and then put them all into a box. Periodically a topic can be drawn from the box in order to establish a “Conversation Topic for the Week.” During that week it is the children’s responsibility to have conversations about the topic with their lunch partner or group.
  • Children can be asked to report back at the “after-lunch” meeting something that they learned about another person from their conversation.
  • The results from a single conversation topic or a number of them can become the focus of a display that a class exhibits in the cafeteria—“What we learned about each other from our lunchtime conversation.” This can provide a model and stimulus for other classes to begin lunchtime conversations.
  • The results of conversation topics can also provide the content for some wonderful community-building books back in the classroom.
Lunch games

A simple but powerful strategy is to teach children some fun and appropriate games that can be used while waiting for lunch to be done. Again and again, we see children losing their self-control because of overly long “wait times.”

Brainstorm a list, make sure everyone knows how to play, post the list, and then each day before leaving the classroom remind children to pick a game that they will use if necessary. Many of the activities that are used in Morning Meeting or on car trips are excellent for children to use in the cafeteria (Aunt Minerva, 20 Questions, Guess the Number, I See Something . . .).

Reflection and Evaluation: The “After-Lunch” Meeting

You can begin each afternoon with an “after-lunch” meeting in which you reflect on the events of lunch and celebrate success. You might choose one behavior each day and have children share how they’re doing and what new strategies they’ve learned to be even more successful! Sharing compliments with each other about the specific ways they’ve noticed each other “being successful” is another way to build in a positive focus to the reflection. After sharing the successes, you can also use this meeting to do some problem-solving if some behaviors weren’t successful.

Advocating for cafeteria reform

Preparing the children in your classroom for a peaceful and successful lunchtime is possible and can bring powerful results for your class. As you help your children to be successful at lunch, others will begin to notice that success. The first steps to reforming lunchtime practices and procedures lie with the individual teachers.

With a growing awareness among teachers, a school can begin to explore and address more broadly the overall cafeteria environment: use of space and furniture; the scheduling and class mixes; the routines and discipline; the supervision and signals; and the structures to build and practice social skills that will create a peaceful and enjoyable lunchtime experience for the entire school community.

From the Responsive Classroom Newsletter: February 1997.

Tags: Lunchroom