• Laura Mooiman, LCSW

How to Tame a Chaotic School Cafeteria: Do's & Don'ts for Managing Lunchroom Behavior

Updated: Aug 1, 2019

Have you ever been in an uproarious, ear splitting cafeteria with clanging and shrieking echoing from every shiny surface?

Recently I visited a cafeteria in an elementary school where students were rushing into the cafeteria in clumps and groups, with no teachers or staff in sight. They were allowed to sit anywhere they wanted and I watched kids mill around in uncertainty, some appearing distressed. Other students were racing from table to table in hyperactive glee. Students shouted louder and louder to be heard while others covered their ears to the deafening noise. Students got up, sat down, walked around, dropped food, changed seats. Finally, two boys grabbed and pulled each other to the floor. Staff sent them to sit at the “red cone table” (aka the “naughty table”). All of a sudden, kids began to stand up and throw their untouched food away and swarmed to the doors waiting to be released by the staff to go play. The supervisors began to put the tables away with loud clanging blasts WHAM WHAM WHAM!! I about jumped out of my skin.


Is this what lunchtime is like at your school?


Here are a few simple suggestions to make the cafeteria or outdoor eating area better for both kids and adults:


1. TIMING MATTERS

Supervision staff should be on time so the teachers and kids can eat. Even 2 minutes late and the whole system begins to fall apart. If a supervisors schedule prevents a staff member responsible for supervision from being on time the schedule needs to be changed. Food should also be served on time. Food service workers should not serve kids until an exact time that everyone has agreed upon and only when there are adults there to supervise the students.


2. LINES ARE GOOD FOR KIDS

Students should learn and practice walking in straight lines with hands at their sides and facing forward. Try having teachers walk students in a single file line from the classroom all the way to the cafeteria (not just stand and watch them go). When they see that there is staff ready to supervise the teacher may leave to get their lunch.

It may sound rigid to have kids walk in lines, but an orderly school means peace, calm and safety to kids.

Eventually when a class shows they can transition in line independently from their teacher they can earn the privilege of walking without an adult. This privilege can easily be revoked if the class demonstrates that they cannot handle this.


3. ASSIGNED SEATS

In order to reduce social anxiety and noise, try having students sit at a designated table with their class.

When kids know where to sit they don’t need to struggle through the social minefield of asking peers if they can join or to shift over and risk rejection.

If you are a fan of social mixing just add some structure like put one class on one side of the table and another class on the other side. As long as it is assigned most kids anxiety can stay in check.


4. VOLUME TRICKS

If volume is an issue in the cafeteria try seating the kids only on one side of the table. A lot of the volume problems come from kids yelling across the table to their peers, trying to be heard over the din. Talking to the person next to you is much quieter. If you do not have space, just put students of different grade levels across from each other. You don’t often see 3rd graders having a deep discussion with 1st graders.


Be mindful of students with sensory needs. The echoing capacity of a cafeteria with regards to voices is amplified when you add slamming tables and trays and doors. Is there anything you can do about reducing these activities until students are dismissed?


5. PLAY THEN EAT

By changing the order of when kids play and eat you can encourage students to eat more of their lunch, eat more fruits and vegetables, have fewer upset stomachs, and return to class calmly and ready to learn. Play Before Eat (also here) means that students have recess first, then go to eat lunch. Students take more time to eat and even can practice conversational skills at the table. When lunch is over, teachers pick them up directly from their lunch tables to transition them back to class.


6. VISUAL CUES (INSTEAD OF YELLING)

I once knew an elementary school custodian who managed an entire lunch routine with 200 students at a time using only hand signals. I am not sure how this particularly gifted individual became the lunch monitor, but the staff did not stand in his way. Students watched him and responded to cues to clean up, be seated, quiet down, and be excused all with hand motions. It was remarkable.

In the absence of a talented custodian, I have found the Cone System to be replicable at most any elementary school. It allows supervision staff to use visual cues of red, yellow, and green cones at the end of each table. While students are eating the cone is set to red. Supervisors move up and down the aisles delivering positive contact and positive reinforcement, sometimes correcting behavior. When it is time to clean up the supervisor changes the red to yellow . Kids see the yellow cone, even if they did not hear the instruction. They can get up only with the yellow cone and clear their area. They pick up any trash on the floor. Finally, when the supervisor decides the students have cleaned their area and are sitting respectfully the supervisor switches to the green cone. Now it is time for the teacher to walk the students quietly back to class in a line.


7. TRANSITIONS ARE NOT YOUR FRIEND

Probably the most common issue I see in lunchtime routines is too many transitions. For example, students are sitting to eat, then are excused to clear their tray and return to the table. Then they are excused to line up somewhere, then they walk to a mid-way point and wait for the yard supervisor to release them to the playground.

Anyone who has worked or lived with kids any length of time knows the hardest thing to do is to get them from Point A to Point B - whether it's from dinner to bathtime, or from their desk to the pencil sharpener.

Transitions by nature mean a lack of structure, a lack of supervision and an increase in chaotic interactions with peers. When we ask kids to transition too many times it taxes their patience and their coping skills. They make poor choices, engage in peer conflict and generally make more behavioral errors. The solution is to eliminate any unneccessary transitions. For example, excuse them from the table to walk directly to the playground in a single file line. Better yet, have the teacher come to the table to pick them up for class (if you play before eat).


These are just a few ways to calm down this crazy space in schools so that children are able to focus on eating and socializing without stress. What are other tricks you have tried in your school cafeteria or outdoor eating area that help kids?


Next week we will talk about the best ways to 10 Steps for Responding to Problem Behavior in the Cafeteria. Comment below with some of your Do's and Don'ts and tell us how you tamed your cafeteria!



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