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Bring "Order" to the Cafeteria

With a more relaxed atmosphere, food, and the opportunity to socialize, it may be one of the students' favorite places, but the school cafeteria can be just the opposite for staff and administrators. How can you make the lunchroom an "orderly" place where you and your students love to be? Included: Administrators share their best tips for improving atmosphere, behavior, and manners in the lunchroom.

"I loved being in the lunchroom, interacting with students, staff, and parents," recalls retired principal Ann Porter. "It was a chance for me -- the principal -- to be a coach and teacher and have the students see me as a real person. It was rewarding to see supervisors and students learning and making the lunchroom a better place for all."

As many administrators know, the school cafeteria isn't always a place to love or be loved. Poor manners, loud voices, and a lack of cooperation and respect can make this "downtime" for students a "stress time" for staff members. Porter encountered all of those difficulties when she arrived at Lewis & Clark School in Grand Forks, North Dakota. One of the first problems she noted was that students called lunchroom supervisors by their first names.

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"As my husband says about Casual Fridays, 'Casual dress, casual attitude!'" observed Porter. "Students had the attitude that if they could call the adults who were to supervise them by their first names, they could treat them casually. Using nametags was the first attempt at getting the students to perceive the supervisors in a new and different light. Wearing the nametags was also an attempt to help the supervisors perceive themselves as an important part of the staff with an important role in the learning that took place in the school."

In addition, the supervisors were given aprons that made them easy to find and recognize. The aprons had large pockets that held extra napkins and silverware. Porter even donned an apron when she was in the lunchroom to illustrate that she was also a part of the team.

The most important change she made, however, focused on the atmosphere of the cafeteria. Some students didn't have the opportunity to sit down and share a meal with their families each day, and Porter resolved that they would have that experience at school. To foster that "family atmosphere," she modified the lunch schedule so that students of different ages ate together.

"In contrast to what many schools do, I believe that one of the most helpful things to do in the lunchroom is to have different grade levels eating at the same time," said Porter. "That is the number one way to promote family atmosphere. Older students can help younger students learn the routines of the lunchroom and do a variety of other jobs."

Younger students encounter new routines and new expectations in the lunchroom. In Porter's school, that includes how to stand in line, how to make choices while in the line, memorizing a lunch number, where to sit, how to ask for help, how to return a lunch tray, how to leave the lunchroom, and more. That is a lot to master on the first day of school, so, just as older members of a family guide younger ones, older students in the cafeteria serve as examples for younger students.

"Families are not made up of people of all one age, but different ages, different abilities, and different levels of knowledge," Porter told Education World. "The older more experienced members of the family help to model and teach the younger ones the expectations for behavior and how things are done in the family or school."

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"KIDS' PLACE" CAFETERIA

At nearby Ben Franklin Elementary School in Grand Forks, principal Beth S. Randklev promotes a "restaurant" atmosphere in the cafeteria.

Randklev believes that school is not about practicing for life. School is life, she explained. "We need to help students develop manners and skills that transfer into situations outside of school. That is what is expected in public with families and it should also be expected here."

Randklev and her staff talked about what makes people want to go to a restaurant -- appearance, friendly service, and other reasons. That was the kind of atmosphere that Randklev and her staff wanted to create.

The first step in the cafeteria's transformation was selecting a new name. A contest was held, and "Kids' Place" was the winning title. Parents helped the cafeteria to live up to its name with new dcor. A bright stripe of yellow was added all around the room, and the students made handprints in primary colors on this "border." "Kids' Place" was stenciled in large letters on one wall and a striped awning was added to the windows and over the serving area. On a cinder block wall outside, two parents painted a scene of "looking inside" the restaurant. Workers were given handmade bright aprons to complete the look.

An adjoining smaller lunchroom was named "The Franklin Stove," after the school's namesake. It is decorated with a large painted fireplace and Franklin stove insert, a mural of Independence Hall, and a bust of Ben Franklin. Parents are invited to join students for lunch or breakfast. The cafeteria has a buffet-style serving line with "payment" in a till. Servers greet their "customers," and Randklev thanks each student who has an adult in tow for bringing in more "business." Following breakfast, students may borrow activities from a game shelf to pass the time before school begins.

"We teach students about eating by using the ideas of how you behave in a restaurant, and we try to treat them like customers," Randklev stated. "Our rules read like they might in a restaurant: Please stay seated. Eat only the food on your plate. Enjoy your table partners in pleasant conversation"

Last year, the school began a full-time all-day kindergarten program. Having both kindergartners and first graders eating lunch for would greatly slow the cafeteria service, so the school implemented a "buddy system." Every fifth grade class was scheduled to eat with a kindergarten class, and fourth grade classes were paired with first grade groups.

"The teachers of those two mixed-age groups got together and assigned a buddy for each student," said Randklev. "At the beginning of the year, the older buddy class went to the room of the younger buddy class, walked the students to lunch, helped them through the line, helped punch in their numbers, and sat with them. With the older students helping and teaching the younger students, the behavior of both groups was excellent. The kitchen continued to run on schedule, and our students loved it."

Proof that the program was working came just a couple of months later when the students were given the option of dropping the program or changing "buddies." The students voted overwhelmingly to maintain the program and keep their original buddies. The older students continued to sit at a table with three other friends of their age and their younger buddies.

"I have been especially surprised at the overall improved atmosphere with the buddies, especially the behavior of the older students," reported Randklev. "When students are asked to help and the work is meaningful -- we really did need their help -- and when they are treated like they can handle the responsibility, they really rise to the occasion."

STUDENT QUANTITY AND FOOD QUALITY

In Whitefish, Montana, garbage left on the playground of Central School led its principal, Kim Anderson, to evaluate the atmosphere of his school's cafeteria and its fare.

"We realized that the candy wrappers were from items being sold from the a la carte part of our lunch program," said Anderson. "From there we started drawing some comparisons as far as behavior in the morning versus the afternoon. We found that behavior concerns rose dramatically in the afternoon and concluded that we were contributing to that because of the junk we were providing."

Anderson invited the PTA, student council, and staff to offer suggestions for ways to improve the lunchroom environment as a whole. First, changes were made to the lunch schedule. Each grade was given its own recess period of 23 minutes, followed by 22 minutes for lunch. Prior to this, students were rushing through their meals and racing to the playground.

"Because of the reduced numbers in the cafeteria, some behavioral issues have taken care of themselves," explained Anderson. "One of the ideas of the students is that we offer more options for them. They have asked for and received microwaves to warm food from home and hot water dispensers for hot soups. We have replaced pop machines with juice and bottled-water machines. Candy vending machines have been replaced with a refrigerated vending machine that vends only healthier snacks such as string cheese, yogurt, milk, peanuts, granola bars, crackers, and fruit."

The healthier food offerings and defined playground and eating times have become a way of life at the school. There have been few complaints from students and none from parents -- even after four years. Beyond improved behavior in the lunchroom, Anderson has noted a drop in afternoon referrals to the office by 200 percent.

"Administrators need to realize that we are compromising the health of our students in the name of making a few dollars from pop and candy vending machines," Anderson stated. "Be patient, stay the course, and you will be amazed what can happen. We have truly not lost any money from our changes."

Improvements in Short "Order"

When Ann Porter first took the helm of Lewis & Clark School, staff members spoke repeatedly about the need to increase the level of respect shown by the students, especially in the cafeteria. How did she do it, and how can you?

Mix Ages
"The number one tool for encouraging better behavior in the cafeteria, in my opinion, is to have children of different ages eat at the same time," says Porter. "Older students can be role models and have more responsibilities such as serving food, wiping tables, and teaching manners. As the young ones learn, they can look forward to more responsibilities in the years ahead."

Hold Special Events
Porter organized "Dress-Up Days" -- complete with favors -- around holiday themes like Christmas and Valentine's Day. Students and staff members wore their best clothes -- the custodian even wore a tuxedo! The events were opportunities for lunchroom staff to bond and plan together and for teachers to prepare the students and review good manners. "Special events create memories and become traditions," she suggests. "Traditions are looked forward to and create bonds between those participating."

Work Together
Getting cafeteria workers to work together is at the core of improving the atmosphere of a lunchroom. Porter advises that weekly (and then monthly) meetings are a good start. Emphasize teamwork, and give the staff the chance to share what is happening in the cafeteria. Take suggestions, and let staff members try new approaches. "They must take ownership for what happens in the lunchroom," adds Porter. "An administrator can't be there all of the time, and they will have to deal with many issues. They must feel confident and know that the administrator trusts them and will back them up."

The idea for this article originated in Best Practices of Award-Winning Elementary Principals, a book by Sandra Harris. Harris, an Education World Administrator's Desk columnist, is also author of BRAVO PRINCIPAL!

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