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Order in the Cafeteria:
Tips for Improving Behavior and Supervision

Some principals have nightmares about "cafeteria time." But with rules for traffic flow and behavior firmly in place, many principals say lunchtime can run hitch-free. Included: Tips for improving student behavior, training monitors, and planning trouble-free recess time.

What would visitors to your school think as they walk by the cafeteria at the height of the lunch period? Would they be impressed by the order and manners being displayed? Or would they mistake the lunchroom for a branch of the local zoo?

Lunchtime can be one of the most difficult times of the school day to manage. Besides the great organization required for feeding 500 to 1,500 students in a short window of time, lunch is also a time when principals are torn between giving students the opportunity to relax and socialize in the middle of a long school day and the need to maintain order at a time when there could be mass confusion.

We asked our "Principal Files" principals to offer their thoughts about maintaining order in the cafeteria, and below you'll find their ideas about cafeteria logistics and organization, rules, monitoring the cafeteria, improving behavior, rewards that work, scheduling recess, and more.


Principal Addie Gaines considers herself fortunate to have a brand new, state-of-the-art cafeteria at Kirbyville (Missouri) Elementary School. "We were able to think through traffic flow and select furnishings as we designed our cafeteria, and our cafeteria's higher ceilings with acoustic tiles are much better than our old cafeteria with its lower-than-standard ceiling was," Gaines told Education World.

And the flow of classrooms through the lunch lines was carefully thought through too. "Students arrive in the cafeteria one class at a time, at 5-minute intervals," explained Gaines. "That way, students are not in line very long. We can usually serve and seat a class in 3 to 5 minutes."

"Halfway through the lunchtime, we added a 10-minute interval so we can get caught up if needed," added Gaines.

With a Theme

In order to make the cafeteria attractive and fun for students, teachers at Kirbyville Elementary decorate it "to the nines."

"The teachers and I spend a day before school starts creating the environment," said principal Addie Gaines. "This past year our theme was 'Building a Kingdom of Character' and the cafeteria was decorated to resemble a dining hall in a castle. We had simulated castle walls around our entry and exit doors, large rock-framed windows, and 'flaming' wall sconces. Large, colorful banners with our monthly character traits were hung from the ceiling.

"For our summer theme, 'A Pirate's Life for Me,' we transformed the cafeteria into the deck of a pirate ship with railings, sails, and a pirate flag hanging from the ceiling. In the back of the 'ship' we had a colorful parrot with our superintendent's face on it and two portholes with photos of our teachers [taken with a pirate template] peeking in.

"This coming year, our theme is 'Everyone's a Winner With Good Character' and we're using a racing-car theme. We haven't figured out the design just yet... Maybe the cafeteria will be a pit stop? Character traits might appear on racing flags?...

"It is so fun to see the kids' faces when they enter the cafeteria for the first time after it has been decorated. They are in awe. They love it."

Students are seated at tables in the order they get their food. Each class sits at the same table everyday. The tables have plenty of walkway between them and around them, and there is an established traffic flow for seating and dismissal.

"Our cafeteria is easy to supervise, because you can see the entire room at a glance with no obstructions," said Gaines.

Many other principals have found that scheduling is the key to reducing problems in the cafeteria. While serving classes at 5-minute intervals might not work at the high-school level, adjusting the schedule has resulted in some positive changes at Jackson (Georgia) High School, according to principal Duane Kline.

"The best thing we've done in the cafeteria is to move from three lunches to four," said Kline. "In a school of about 1,000 students, having less crowding, shorter lunch lines, and less commotion in the lunchroom has been way worth the extra time we added to our fourth-period class to accommodate that change.

"We've seen a reduction in the negative interactions between students," said Kline. "Having a calmer lunchtime in the middle of the school day has helped us to reduce significantly the number of physical altercations. That number decreased from 56 fights in 2001-02 to 12 this past school year."

And there are other benefits too: "The change offers us a modified block schedule that teachers can use in a variety of creative ways."

Organization is also the key to a smooth-running cafeteria at Oakridge Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia. Two grades -- one primary and one intermediate -- eat at the same time, according to principal Lolli Haws.

"We do not use assigned seating because we believe lunch is a period for language and social development, and children should be able to choose their seating partners," explained Haws.

Students sit at long, rectangular tables in a large space, added Haws. That helps keep order and makes behavior easy to monitor.

Before arriving at Oakridge, Haws was principal in a suburban St. Louis school. "The best thing we did there in a very small and very loud cafeteria was to use round tables with individual stools attached," she said.

Using the round tables transformed that cafeteria and solved a lot of problems, said Haws. "It reduced the crowding and shoving that sometimes happens on bench seating. By keeping each table to only 8 kids who could see each other, and making it a rule that kids could only speak to others at their round table, we greatly reduced noise."

At Clinton (Michigan) Elementary School, "students are required to sit with their classes, but each week we have a 'Free Friday' when students can sit anywhere they want," said principal Marcia Wright, adding, "We find that when we are diligent about insisting on being seated and using indoor voices, that makes a real difference."

At Weatherly Heights Elementary School in Huntsville, Alabama, students are responsible for their behavior and more. In the cafeteria there, principal Teri Stokes sees an opportunity to teach students good citizenship habits.

"Every class has an assigned table, and each class is responsible for wiping off and sweeping under the table so the next class to sit there has a nice clean space," explained Stokes.


"Procedures, procedures, procedures... expectations and practice..."

That's how Addie Gaines describes her school's success with keeping cafeteria noise to an acceptable level. Simple rules are posted in the cafeteria

Eat only your own food. No trading.
Raise your hand if you need help.
Use positive, helpful words only.
Use voices that can only be heard at your own table.
Eat with appropriate table manners.

and the rules and procedures are reviewed and practiced as needed.

"We have a building-wide discipline procedure based on the BIST (Behavior Intervention Support Team) approach," Gaines explained. "When there is inappropriate behavior, students receive a verbal prompt. If the misbehavior continues, the student is moved to a 'safe seat,' which is a desk away from the group. That works almost all the time, but if it doesn't work the student can be assigned additional lunch periods in the safe seat or time in their classroom's safe seat. If students persistently present a behavior problem, we come up with an individual plan."

While some adults might think our cafeteria's noise level is high, "I think that kids need the opportunity to socialize and enjoy themselves at lunch," said Gaines.

At Kent Primary School in Carmel, New York, three rules are clearly posted in the cafeteria:

  • Talk to your neighbor in an inside voice.
  • Raise your hand to get out of your seat.
  • The last 5 minutes is quiet time.

"During the first weeks of the school year, those rules are reviewed daily by me or the cafeteria monitors," explained principal Joan Pinkerton. "If a problem occurs, students fill out a 'slip-slip.' They write what they did wrong and how they plan to change their behavior."

In addition, the monitors talk with the student's teacher about what happened.

For Kathy Crowley, principal at Ponderosa Elementary School in Meridian, Idaho, the key to keeping the lid on in the cafeteria is visibility. Rules and cafeteria/recess schedules are clearly posted. That way, kids always know what to expect and questions like Can we go to recess now? are kept to a minimum.

An inside recess schedule is posted for days when the weather is not suitable for recess, added Crowley. The schedule clearly shows when and where students go on those days.

At Oakridge Elementary School, large, colorful framed posters remind students of the cafeteria rules and what constitutes good manners. "From time to time, I review the rules on our in-school TV news show," said Lolli Haws.

Mixing It Up
At Lunch

From time to time, students at Victory Christian School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, participate in lunchroom scrambles. "We mix up our students from their normal seating assignments and give them the task of learning something new about someone new," explained principal Steve Whewell. "Later, we ask them to give a report about the new person with whom they sat."

"It was never on our mind to use this as a strategy to quiet down the cafeteria, but the students are significantly quieter on scramble days," added Whewell. "As we get the students engaged in the task of expanding their circle of friends, it has actually resulted in a more pleasant cafeteria environment."

Principal Marguerite McNeely says that rules help control the noise level in different areas of the cafeteria at Hayden Lawrence Middle School in Deville, Louisiana. "While in line the students must speak in a very quiet tone. Once they enter the serving line, no talking is allowed between students so that cafeteria staff can hear and communicate with them. Once in the cafeteria seating area, students are allowed to whisper."

McNeely credits the school's Positive Behavior System -- where cafeteria rules are posted and taught as part of classroom instruction -- for the success of the cafeteria routines. In addition, "we give rewards for good behavior daily, weekly, and monthly," said McNeely.

Good behavior and good manners are taught and expected at Weatherly Heights Elementary School. "We call our lunchroom the Roadrunner Cafe [the roadrunner is the school mascot] and we emphasize caf behavior rather than lunchroom behavior," explained principal Teri Stokes. "We stress using good manners similar to those expected in a nice restaurant."

At Rock Hall (Maryland) Middle School, principal Nina Newlin notes that a school-wide signal is the key to maintaining decorum in the cafeteria. Students are taught the first day to recognize the signal for silence -- two claps and fingers raised in the peace sign.

"Students get a countdown of ten from the time to signal is given," said Newlin. "If they are not completely quiet in that time, they lose recess for the day."

A lost recess or two usually works to let students know that the cafeteria monitors are serious about the silence signal, added Newlin.

A signal is the key to cafeteria behavior at Victory Christian School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, too. A single raised finger is the signal. "Once any teacher raises an index finger, all teachers on duty respond with a raised index finger," said principal Steve Whewell. "At that signal, students go into silent eating mode."

"We have around 300 students at a time in the cafeteria, so the signal helps us maintain order during the clean-up and dismissal times," said Whewell. "We also use it when we feel the general noise level gets to a 9 or 10."

"It takes a while to get the routine established, but it works quite well," added Whewell.


What is the best system for monitoring student behavior in the cafeteria? The systems used differ from school to school for a wide variety of reasons. In some schools, teachers monitor lunch behavior in classrooms or the cafeteria. In other cases, where teachers are contractually obligated to have a duty-free lunchtime, policing the cafeteria can fall to paraprofessionals, paid parents, or even the students themselves.

At Regal Elementary School in Spokane, teachers spend 15 minutes eating lunch with their students. "They help get their classes settled," explained principal assistant Shari Farris. "They have social conversations with their students that help set the tone for an enjoyable lunch."

After that initial 15 minutes, teachers are free to leave the lunchroom to take their full 30-minute lunch.

"We have found that this system cuts down on the noise, students wandering, and rowdy behavior," said Farris. "Teachers have shared that they like this 'family style' approach and that it has helped them establish a sense of community with their classes."

More Fun Ideas

One event hosted monthly at Clinton (Michigan) Elementary School is a parent luncheon. "One of our grade levels invites parents to eat with them at school," explained principal Marcia Wright. "The events are very popular, and they make a huge difference in cleanliness and quiet."

"We also do 'white table days.' On those days, students dress up, and we have special table decor and tablecloths. That is very time consuming to do, but it works well for good behavior."

In addition, each Friday is "Free Friday" at Clinton Elementary. That day, students can sit anywhere they want to sit. If it gets excessively noisy, students know the privilege might be taken away.

At Weatherly Heights Elementary School, teachers eat with their students three days a week. The other two days are duty-free days for the teachers; on those days, non-homeroom staff -- including special education teachers, the school counselor, or instructional assistants -- supervise the lunchroom.

Teachers have an incentive for "prepping" students to be on their best behavior on days when they don't eat in the cafeteria. "If their class is not appropriate in the lunchroom, they will have to stay with their class for the next two duty-free lunch days," Stokes explained.

In addition, Stokes plays an active role in modeling and reinforcing good behavior in the cafeteria. "I go through the lunchroom several times each day, and I eat lunch with different classes at least three times a week," she said.

"I make it very clear that the principal expects appropriate behavior in the lunchroom," said Stokes, "but I want them to have the social time as well, since that is an important part of the lunch period."

Students who display excellent behavior in the cafeteria are often invited to eat at the special umbrella patio table in the lobby or, on nice days, in the outdoor courtyard, added Stokes.

Dr. Layne Hunt is another principal who believes his presence is important in setting the tone in the cafeteria. "There is no one magic answer to the question of cafeteria behavior, but I have found that the practice of 'close proximity' is very helpful," Hunt told Education World. "That means I try to be highly visible during this time of the school day. Students tend to get more restless when they don't believe adults in the school are paying attention to what they are doing, so I get involved in conversations with students as they eat lunch.

"I also encourage my assistant principals and any other staff members who may be free to come into the lunchroom and engage in conversations. Doing that demonstrates that we genuinely care about our students and it serves as security for all of our students in the lunchroom."

While principal La'Keldra Pride has no problem with students who are making noise when they are actively engaged in learning, a noisy cafeteria is one of her pet peeves.

In the cafeteria at Green Hill Elementary School in Sardis, Mississippi, where Pride is principal, students in grades 3-8 sit together at lunchtime and teachers sit with them. Teachers help maintain a low noise level, said Pride. Paraprofessionals monitor K-2 students while their teachers, who have less planning time than teachers at the upper levels, eat lunch.

Serving lunch to 550 students in 90 minutes can be a big challenge, added Pride. The school's safety officer helps ensure that all classes enter the cafeteria in a timely fashion.

At Coldstream Park Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore, principal Tracey Thomas has experienced all the "typical" problems when it comes to managing cafeteria time. She has asked for parents to volunteer their time to help keep things under control, and she has held meetings with staff members to request more aggressive "help." Some teachers have even volunteered to take their students back to class to eat with them.

When you're talking about the large number of students who come together at a single lunch seating, "it always helps to not have as many children in the cafeteria," added Thomas.

Marcia Wright uses volunteers to support her cafeteria efforts too. In her case, high school students, including members of the varsity football team, help supervise the cafeteria for pay.


TV or Music
Calm the
Cafeteria Crowd

At Ypsilanti (Michigan) High School, principal Layne Hunt aims to respect the students' free time while maintaining safety and security when large groups of students are together in the cafeteria. "We turn on the TV monitors to the sports center channel or we turn on appropriate music on a very low volume," said Hunt. "Those things can help keep the noise level low."

"I have found that those things work best with the middle school students," added Hunt.

Visitors to El Capitan Elementary Elementary School in Roswell, New Mexico, often comment to principal Mona Kirk-Vogel about how quiet the cafeteria is during lunchtime.

Kirk-Vogel begins the school year with an assembly where she informs students of her expectations and the school rules. While she does not insist on assigned seats in the cafeteria, she does have rules. For example, there is no talking when students are standing in the hallway leading into the cafeteria. "If I catch someone talking, I make them go to the end of the line," said Kirk-Vogel.

"That works like a charm," she added.

Once students are served, another teacher seats them at long cafeteria tables, ten students to a side. The fifth student on each side is appointed table monitor.

"I let the student monitors do the work for me," Kirk-Vogel explained. The student monitors watch for talking and playing around. The monitor reports infractions by holding up three or five fingers, depending on the grade level. K-1 students caught misbehaving must sit against the wall for 3 minutes, and students in grades 2-5 must sit for 5 minutes.

"I have tried every gadget or method known and this is the only system I have found that really works," Kirk-Vogel told Education World. "In fact, when I came to this school cafeteria behavior was one of the teachers' biggest complaints, and now it is not even an issue."

Karen Mink, principal at the O.C. Allen School in Aurora, Illinois, spends time teaching proper lunchroom behavior but, she adds, getting the lunchroom monitors on board can be a challenge.

As a PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) School, "we have lots of great proactive tools in place for encouraging good behavior. For example, we have a sticker system where students can earn extra recess. I have asked each lunchroom worker to give at least three 'Panther Paws' [reward slips named for the school's mascot] a day, but it seems they prefer to write discipline referrals."

"My assistant principal has found that things are better if he stays in the cafeteria through all the lunchtimes but, unfortunately, that means he is there for 2-1/2 hours a day," said Mink.

"Indoor recesses were always a particular problem, but we have initiated stations for the kids with movies, crafts, and other activities, and that has been working out much better," Mink added.

"One of the most successful things we have done over the past two years is to have monthly meetings with our cafeteria monitors. Together, we use this time to offer suggestions and strategies on how to handle things in the cafeteria and on the playground."
--Joan Pinkerton

The cafeteria at Kent Primary School is under the supervision of monitors too. "The same monitors supervise students on both the playground and in the cafeteria," explained Joan Pinkerton.

That helps students know that expectations will be the same inside and outside, she explained.

"One of the most successful things we have done over the past two years is to have monthly meetings with our cafeteria monitors," added Pinkerton. "Monitors meet with me or our social worker about 'cafeteria issues.' The meetings bring us all together and provide an opportunity for monitors to express concerns and brainstorm solutions.

"Together, we use this time to offer suggestions and strategies on how to handle things in the cafeteria and on the playground."


Principal Kathy Crowley reports that the lunchroom at Ponderosa Elementary School "is organized and runs smoothly, although no one could say it's quiet."

Students sit in classroom units at designated tables. Each table has a sign that lists the class that sits at the table during each of the 5 lunchroom shifts. Nested green, yellow, and red cones are placed at the end of each table. "The cones are used as visual cues to help students self-monitor their behavior," explained Crowley.

Duty personnel change the cones from green to yellow as a warning to get ready to leave or if a table is messy. The cones are turned to red if a table is not ready or the behavior of the students is unacceptable. Students quickly change their behavior and clean their table if their cone is red.

Many schools have found success using a "stop light" to help students monitor behavior.

Read the Education World article on this topic: Signaling an End to Classroom, Cafeteria Chatter.

"We used a stop light in the cafeteria for years," said principal Diane Petty of BCLUW Elementary School in Conrad, Iowa. "I inherited it when I arrived 14 years ago, and it had been in place for many years before that."

Over the last few years, Petty said she had encountered an increasing number of complaints from parents who said the noise of the stop light was worse than the student noise. So, this past year, the stop light was turned off and the volume of student noise increased.

"We also tried green/yellow/red flip cards at each table, but we ended up dropping that as it was hard to determine exactly which of the tables was being very loud, and it was difficult to watch the clock for one minute of quiet for a single table while monitoring other behaviors in the lunchroom.

"So we have accepted some very loud lunchtimes in which supervisors give verbal reminders to individuals or groups of students."


Do rewards work? Can they be a useful tool when it comes to improving cafeteria behavior? Some principals think not; such rewards might work in the beginning, but the novelty soon wears thin, they say.

But principal Marguerite McNeely has found that rewards have their place at Hayden Lawrence Middle School. Giving students first-in-line privileges can be a motivator. In addition, "we have given tokens to shop in the school store, coupons for the canteen, weekly recognitions posted in the hallways, monthly recognitions handed out at our school-wide award ceremonies, end-of-semester lunches with the principal, and even drawings for bicycles at the end of the year."

Tracey Thomas has used school funds to purchase board games and card games for students to play at their tables if they earn the chance to have that free time. "They must follow certain cafeteria rules and procedures in order to earn the right to play with the games," said Thomas.

Shari Farris reports that the custodian at her school works hard to support the rest of the team in promoting a calm lunchroom by randomly handing out certificates and fun erasers when he "catches" students being good citizens in the lunch room.

"We have found that, if we all work together, our lunchroom becomes a place that provides an enjoyable lunch experience for all students as well as the adults who supervise them," added Farris.


At Oakridge Elementary School, students have recess before lunch instead of after. "Teachers love it," reported principal Lolli Haws. "They used to pick up kids after recess, and they had to solve the typical insults, struggles, and tattling from the recess period. Now, by the time kids have eaten lunch with friends they've calmed down and teachers report having to do a lot less peacekeeping and dispute settling.

"When the kids come into lunch from recess, they are hungry, ready to rest a bit and eager to eat and talk... and calm down prior to returning to class."

At Kent Primary School, half of the students have recess before they eat and the other half have it afterward. "We cannot see any noticeable difference if they eat before or after recess," said principal Joan Pinkerton.

Recess at Coldstream Park School has taken on a new dimension since the P.E. teacher there organized a PlayWorks program. "All students go outside for recess to play 'organized' sports supervised by the P.E. teacher," said principal Tracey Thomas.

And the motivation seems to be working. "In order for students to move to recess time with the coach, they must follow the rules and procedures in the cafeteria," Thomas explained.

"Indoor recesses are always a particular problem, but we have initiated stations for the kids with movies, crafts, and other activities. Those things seem to work well."
--Karen Mink

Kirbyville Elementary School is another school with a unique approach to recess. "Recess is not scheduled immediately before or after lunch," principal Addie Gaines told Education World. "It used to be after lunch when I first came to the school, but the second year I took the lunch recess time and split it between morning and afternoon recess and eliminated lunch recess all together."

Gaines explained her reasoning: "I found that lunch recess after lunch caused the kids to rush through lunch. Also, I had the most discipline referrals from lunch recess [and] two longer recesses rather than three shorter ones also eliminated 2 transition times, preserving more class time.

"Plus, everyone knows that the stuff that goes wrong always happens the 'last five minutes' of recess, so the change from three to two recesses eliminated one of those 'last five minutes' opportunities each day."


So what is the best advice for creating a cafeteria that is safe and orderly? As our "Principal Files" principals would attest, there is no single solution. What works in one school might not work in another. But the lunch period is a time that all principals might wisely take time to evaluate. Perhaps there is a place for revising rules for behavior, introducing rewards, or revising the plan for monitoring the cafeteria or recess.

But none of those things are issues for principal Brian Hazeltine. Students at Hazeltine's school eat lunch with their students in their classrooms. "The teachers often read stories to them while they eat. The students are quiet and attentive and eating.... and then they go out for recess. Other teachers plan silent-reading time, so everyone eats and reads. Others may put on some music or a video while students eat"

"Lunchtimes should be pleasant, and I think they can be," added Hazeltine, of Airdrie Koinonia Christian School in Airdrie, Alberta (Canada).

"We don't have a cafeteria in our school," added Hazeltine, "and I'm thinking that may not be such a bad idea."

"Principal" Contributors to This Article

In this article, the following members of Education World's "Principal Files" team shared their thoughts about keeping order in the cafeteria. All titles were current at the time of publication.
  • Kathy Crowley, principal, Ponderosa Elementary School, Merdian, Idaho
  • Shari Farris, principal assistant, Regal Elementary School, Spokane, Washington
  • Addie Gaines, principal, Kirbyville (Missouri) Elementary School
  • Dr. Lolli Haws, principal, Oakridge Elementary School, Arlington, Virginia
  • Brian Hazeltine, principal, Airdrie Koinonia Christian School, Airdrie, Alberta (Canada)
  • Dr. Layne B Hunt, principal, Ypsilanti (Michigan) High School
  • Mona Kirk-Vogel, principal, El Capitan Elementary School, Roswell, New Mexico
  • Duane A. Kline, principal, Jackson (Georgia) High School
  • Marguerite McNeely, principal, Hayden R. Lawrence Middle School, Deville, Louisiana
  • Karen Mink, principal, O.C. Allen School, Aurora, Illinois
  • Virginia Strong Newlin, principal, Rock Hall (Maryland) Middle School
  • Diane Petty, principal, BCLUW Elementary School, Conrad, Iowa
  • Joan Pinkerton, principal, Kent Primary School, Carmel, New York
  • La'Keldra N. Pride, principal, Green Hill Elementary School, Sardis, Mississippi
  • Teri Stokes, principal, Weatherly Heights Elementary School, Huntsville, Alabama
  • Tracey N. Thomas, principal, Coldstream Park Elementary/Middle School, Baltimore, Maryland
  • Steve Whewell, principal, Victory Christian School, Tulsa, Oklahoma
  • Marcia Wright, principal, Clinton (Michigan) Elementary School
  • Dr. Lee Yeager, principal, S & S Middle School, Sadler, Texas
To explore other practical articles from the Principal Files series, go to our Principal Files Archive.
Click here to learn how you might contribute to a future "Principal Files" article.

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® 
Copyright © 2010 Education World


Originally published 08/06/2007
Last updated 06/01/2010