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How to Build Social Emotional Learning into your Cafeteria

Updated: Dec 15, 2022

In this blog, we will discuss conversational skills and why they are essential for students to develop in school, some research behind the importance of mealtimes and routines, and how to create mix-it-up days at your school!

From the time I was in kindergarten up until 12th grade, our extended family and distant relatives would ALWAYS ask my cousins and me the SAME question over the holidays; ‘What is your favorite subject in school?’ Some would answer with math, art, or social studies… but the wittiest ones of the bunch (and possibly the most honest…) would always quickly respond with one answer; lunchtime.

It's funny because “lunch” isn’t technically a subject in school, it's a mealtime where students are meant to eat and take a break from their studies. But this got me thinking, what if lunchtime WAS considered a ‘subject’ in school? Not by taking away the fun and relaxing nature of cafeteria time, but by infusing lunch (some days) with a sort of structure or activities to increase the overall socialization between all of the students… and not solely the ones that sit together every day! And what about the qualities that students learn from lunchtime within their own circles, that aren’t necessarily facilitated by teachers?

Many people would tell you their lunch times at school were more of a stressor than a form of relaxation. In a world that seems to be more and more isolated with increased phone usage, some students tend to steer clear of lunch altogether to avoid the embarrassment of sitting alone. To aid ‘cliquiness’, many schools have implemented Mix-it-up days into their school calendar year to promote judgment-free socialization between their students. Read more about Mix-It-Up days below!

Mealtime Benefits

When researching the importance of mealtimes for children, I came across a lot of articles and papers pertaining more to the benefits of family mealtimes, not necessarily in school. But the structure is often the same, and besides the obvious differences between the two, the positive effects it has on children are equivalent! Michigan State University published an article in 2016 entitled The Importance of Mealtime, which gives a concise list of the benefits family mealtimes can bring to your child. I pulled the relevant ones for this blog, and I tried to make it relevant for schools, not parenting;

  • Building Relationships- The most obvious here is the ability for students to have some autonomy within their day, where they decide where and who they would like to spend their lunch period with. It is a great time for them to build on the friendships that are seeded in the classroom.

  • Sharing Skills- Students conversing in a relaxed environment where they can share their stories freely gives them an outlet to understand the dynamics of conversation and social cues, and simply get their energy out before it is time to get back to concentration on schoolwork.

  • Exposure to New Food- This was brought up in Michigan State’s article, but it made me think of being at lunch and being so intrigued by what other kids were bringing for lunch. Not that I necessarily tried their food, but I think getting exposed to new foods from a young age, benefits in staying open-minded and more adventurous in the future.

Importance of Students’ Circles

Many of the papers written on the importance of both the nutritional value and social aspects of school lunch for students very often assume an ‘ideal’ lunch setting. But, we know from experience as a student or a teacher that most lunchtimes don’t consist of perfect tables of 8 sitting, eating, and calmly conversing with friends. Many lunchtimes (especially at younger ages) can be considered complete mayhem! Fights, food being thrown, gossiping with friends; it all happens at this social hour. I am speaking from experience here! Many students, not all, do feel the need to push the boundaries in terms of authority at lunch.

“Mealtimes may afford more substantial opportunities than the playground, for children to swap stories, joke and have fun together, to share attitudes, to provide and receive social support, to manage conflict, and for discussing activities and social and moral issues of importance to them – in short, the sharing and development of child culture.”

-UCL Institute of Education, London UK

The study written UCL Institute of Education in London, UK supports past research suggesting that most kids enjoy lunch because of this ability to coordinate and socialize with friends. It's almost like socializing is the whole point of going to lunch for most students, besides eating of course! Through one-on-one interviews with students across 8 different schools, it discusses the “frustration expressed when they were prevented from coordinating due to lack of space or adult intervention [which] further speaks to the meaningfulness of this time for children.” In addition to this, the study also highlights the strategic ways for students to ensure they can sit with their friends. This sort of deliberate behavior- thinking outside the box, coordinating with their peers, and ensuring they say goodbye to them once lunch is over- makes the lunchroom seem like a place that is fostering leadership, communication, and cooperation!

There were many other findings in this exploratory study that are definitely worth looking through. I found the above arguments to be quite novel, in that the actual ‘stress’ that kids put themselves through to sit together at lunch- something that to the naked eye might seem inconsequential- is actually beneficial for their social development and can breed positive attributes in students.

Mix-It-Up Lunch Days

This idea of mixing up lunch days is an international campaign created by the Southern Poverty Law Service in 2001. If you're interested, check out the link above for a guide on making your Mix-It-Up lunches. I will let the guide describe in detail the sheer variety of mix-it-up days you can create, but for the blog, I will include the statistics for you on just HOW valuable these lunch days can be;

According to a Mix It Up Survey conducted by Quality Education Data in 2008

with a mix of different organizers;

  • 97% said students’ interactions were positive during Mix It Up at Lunch Day.

  • 95% said Mix It Up at Lunch Day prompted students to interact with people outside their normal social circles.

  • 92% said Mix It Up at Lunch Day increased awareness about social boundaries and divisions within school.

  • 83% said the event helped students make new friends.

  • 79% said students have heightened sensitivity toward tolerance and social justice issues as a result of Mix It Up.

  • 78% said students seem more comfortable interacting with different kinds of people as a result of Mix It Up.

An article written for Education World describes the effect of Mix-It-Up days on bullying prevention. It gives a concise explanation of the whole concept, as well as the positive effects it had on students from the example middle school they wrote about, in Old Lyme, CT. They use a lot of student accounts, who most say they liked sitting with new people and having the opportunity to broaden their horizons and sit with people they never would usually sit with at lunch. The article ends on a good note, with a quote from the school principal mentioning, “Just having them buzzing about it is good," he said. "At least they know it is something we value. This brings it into their psyche." I love this because it shows a huge part of the beauty behind mix-it-up lunches; Even if at first students are uncomfortable, they can warm up to these mix-it-up lunches over time, with more exposure.

Why Longer Lunches Are Important

In my pursuit of finding some literature on the importance of mealtimes in school, I came across an article written by the Harvard Institute of Politics, discussing the problems that arise when students are faced with shorter lunch times, entitled Starved By the Bell (very clever name). It states that some schools have lunch periods that are as short as 15 minutes! We could get into the nitty gritty on why schools must provide nutritional meals for their students, but since we aren’t necessarily discussing nutrition, I will attempt to summarize some important points to take away from this piece.

Longer lunch times are crucial to making sure students are both eating enough, and are not rushing through their meals. The shorter a lunch period is, the more likely students are to adapt to a ‘rushed’ eating style. Research confirms that rushing through lunch (like most of us do, stuffing our salads into our mouths at our desk), actually causes people to eat more, on top of the sheer fact that you can’t take a social break while eating either! This article cites a great paper, discussing the correlation between the length of a lunch hour and how healthy the students' food choices were. The article remarks that “giving students more time to eat lunch is key to decreasing waste, meeting nutritional goals, and emphasizing the value of healthy eating both in and out of the cafeteria.” So yes, we have healthier- maybe not as appetizing- food… but with insufficient time to eat it kind of sounds like something has backfired here.

“Providing healthier meals is meaningless unless it comes hand in hand with efforts to ensure a sufficiently long time for kids to eat them.” -Harvard Institute of Politics

There was quite a melancholic ending to the article, not giving any hopeful outcomes to this ongoing situation. Still, there were some things to focus on moving forward like “[striving] towards recasting schools as environments that are conducive to learning what to eat and how to eat it well.” It appears that there is much more that is left up to state and federal legislation regarding the length of mealtimes and nutritional value of school lunches than we’d all like to believe. But this does not discredit the health and social benefits that longer lunch times can provide students in school.

Kikori Activities for Lunchtime:

Are you ready to bring eSEL activities to YOUR cafeteria? Download this Starter Pack Printable to help you get started!

eSEL Cafeteria 5-day Planner Printable
Download PDF • 311KB

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