Controlling Behavior in School Cafeterias
Lunchtime chaos: Any educator will tell you that the worst behavior in a school setting usually takes place in the cafeteria. Students released from morning classes are hungry, have stored up energy and are looking forward to socializing with their friends. Ranging from deafening noise levels and pushing and shoving in lines, all the way to food fights and fist fights, inappropriate behavior in the cafeteria has been an ongoing problem for decades.
Solutions: Many creative solutions to improving school cafeteria behavior have been tried, some have been dismal failures, others have worked marginally. The most workable options seem to be putting in place a clear set of expectations and rules that are consistently enforced and establishing a system of behavioral consequences and rewards. In order for these systems to be effective they need to be adapted to the grade level of the students, as well as the size and culture of the school. One size does not fit all.
Traffic flow: At any grade level, kindergarten through high school, traffic flow is key to eliminating some behavior problems exacerbated by impatient students waiting in long food lines. If possible, staggering lunch times will shorten long waiting times. Logical traffic flow patterns directing students to serving areas, then to seating areas and finally to trash disposal areas cuts down on chaotic roaming. Minimizing the need for students to return to the serving line for a forgotten item can be addressed by keeping extra napkins, utensils or straws in a container on each table.
Seating: For convenience reasons most school cafeterias are equipped with long rectangular tables with bench seating. At the elementary level most students are required to sit with their classes and fill in the bench as the line files in. Often there is some wrangling in line or some pushing and shoving leading to spilled food and short tempers as students try to position themselves to sit with friends. A cafeteria monitor can assist with controlling the line and settling the students peacefully in their seats.
At the middle school level more freedom is allowed to choose seating and a cafeteria monitor is used to control noise levels, bullying, fighting, name calling, and the proper disposal of trash. High school students should be allowed to sit with their friends at any table. High school students allowed to have a voice in food choices, seating options, wall decoration and possibly music in their school cafeteria have a sense of ownership and behavior problems decrease. However, when problems occur on the high school level they tend to be more serious. A cafeteria monitor, teacher or sometimes a police officer is always present to step in if a situation gets out of control.
Consequences: In most cases, removal from the cafeteria and the privilege of social time with friends carries the most impact. Whether at the elementary level where a student behaving badly is removed from a table and banished to a designated discipline table, or at the high school level where a student is barred from the cafeteria and required to eat in a detention room, isolation from classmates works. Other consequences could consist of loss of recess or free time, extra work such as writing an essay, community service hours within the school or being banned from a school activity.
Rewards: A rewards system is much more pleasant to administer and is most effective on younger students. Rewards for individual positive behavior demonstrated in the cafeteria or for the good behavior of the entire table or class are easy to provide. Tickets to be accumulated and spent at the school store, a special dinner at a special table where you are served by a teacher or cafeteria worker, extra free time, a pizza party or ice cream social, special privileges, or free admission to a school sporting event or dance are all worthy of working toward and can improve cafeteria behavior. Behavioral rewards at the high school level are harder to provide. Perhaps a semester free of serious cafeteria problems earns students a party with a theme of their choice. Involving high school students in the process of setting up a rewards system means they will be more likely to participate and the rewards will be more appropriate.
Summary: Although consequences are necessary to control behavior in school cafeterias, reward systems work well. When crowds of hungry students with pent up energy are released from their morning classes and show up at the cafeteria, give them something positive to focus on and work toward. Cafeteria behavior may always be a discipline challenge in schools, but with some creative systems put in place it can be minimized at all grade levels.