How to Take Care of Yourself and Your Students in the Lunchroom

Dear Kid Whisperer,

I am just an aide and my question is about our lunchroom, so I don’t know if you will be able to answer it. The kids in my K-5 school are out of control at lunch. They are loud, they make a huge mess and don’t follow the rules. We aides are literally running around the cafeteria trying to clean their messes, and help them with their food, all while they are yelling and acting crazy. How do we make it so the kids act right and how do we make it so that our jobs aren’t awful? Because right now I want to quit. -Cheyenne, Charleston, WV

Dear Cheyenne,

I am able to answer this question because I work with schools who are having the exact same issues that your school is currently having in the lunchroom (and I am assuming in other common areas). I show people like yourself how to be both calm and assertive with students in common areas through comprehensive planning and staff training. In one school in which I have worked, there were 223 negative behaviors in one lunch period before I trained their staff. The next day there were 32. The day after that there were 11. So yes, I can definitely answer your question, but in the space available here I can only give you the first step to making your lunchroom a functional place.

The essence of your lunchroom’s problem is given away in the first five words of your question. You are not “just an aide”. Any person who works with kids in any capacity should be given the respect of being considered a professional who is tasked with the education of students. The reality is that a staff member in a lunchroom can be a waiter or an educator. They do not have time to be both. When a school has a real lunchroom plan, functional expectations are set and enforced that allow you to maintain your dignity and allow you to be an educator. Right now you are a waiter.

The first paradigm shift that needs to happen in your mind and in your lunchroom: Adults may only solve their own problems, not the problems of students.

The practical implications of this are as follows: You will no longer be cleaning up after students. You will no longer be bringing them food, opening anything, peeling anything, etcetera. Right now the students have you trained to serve them. Waiting tables is a dignified profession (I made a good chunk of change doing it) but waiting tables for children who aren’t tipping you is not.

Once you are free of your waitressing duties, you will be able to build relationships, use preventive interventions, and use consequences to create a functional lunchroom. Optimally, you need to be trained to do this, but this first step makes functionality possible.

A couple of hints:

  • Have your school send home a letter to parents stating that they shouldn’t pack anything for lunch that their kids can’t open.
  • Have caddies with plasticware and safety scissors on each table.
  • Suggest once and only once that students ask a tablemate to open anything they can’t.
  • Tell students once and only once of these new policies.
  • Allow students who spill to clean with anything that they have at their seat. If a mess is so big that they can’t sit there anymore, have them sit at another seat until their class is excused. At that point, the student can be given custodial items to clean his mess.
  • Only help when protecting a student from serious danger.
  • When students ask for help with something, simply say, “Oh, no. What are you going to do?”

Now start taking better care of yourself. You deserve it!