5 Ways schools can help improve children's mental health at lunchtime

Posted by Paul Aagaard · 6 min read · 21 comments

Many schools are very good at supporting children’s mental health. The Department for Education report entitled ‘Mental health and behaviour in schools’ highlights the effectiveness of a good PSHE curriculum, the success of school-based counselling and peer mentoring. But at lunchtime and breaktimes children’s mental health suffers. Children queue up for their dinner and queue up again in the playground to go back into class. In many schools, children are spending 20 minutes of their lunch break queuing. It is boring and frustrating and leads to inappropriate behaviour. The dining room is very noisy, there is not enough time to eat, children cannot sit with their friends and if they do, the fast eaters do not wait for slow eaters. Football often dominates the playground. That is good for the tiny minority who are playing football but scary for the majority who are not because they spend all their time avoiding getting hit by the ball. This is a very unsafe and hostile environment for all children. For those children with mental health problems it is a daily source of stress and anxiety which is highly likely to make their condition worse. The school might be running a great PSHE curriculum or giving children with mental health problems counselling but that is compromised by the dreadful lunchtime/breaktime experience that happens for well over an hour a day, every day. That is 20% of children’s school time. Here are 5 things schools can do that will help and support those children with mental health problems at lunchtime.

1. 1-hour lunch break

All schools need to give children a one-hour lunch break so they have time to both eat and play. Ed Baines, Senior lecturer in Psychology and Education at the Institute of Education has conducted national research into lunchtimes and breaktimes. Ed explains, in his blog entitled Let’s do (school) lunch’, that their ‘national surveys of school breaktimes have made it clear the length of school lunchtimes has been shortened over the past 20 years'. Shortening lunchtime is counter-intuitive. If children are given less time to eat and play, behaviour is likely to get worse, not better. One North London secondary school gives all their children a 30-minute lunch break. I visited this school and asked school councillors for their views and opinions on lunchtime. A year 7 boy said he eats half his dinner so he has time to play football. ‘I would eat all my dinner if I had time,’ he said. ‘Because I don’t have time I go back into class feeling sick and hungry.’ The school development plan includes a section entitled ‘Every day at school a richer experience’ and explains they will ‘address concerns about student mental health by developing mindfulness techniques.’ The school’s 30-minute lunchtime forces children into eating mindlessly and not mindfully. However caring and supportive this school is, their 30-minute lunchbreak is always going to upset and trouble any child with mental health problems.

2. Children eating lunch with staff

Most children really appreciate and enjoy having lunch with their teachers. Time spent with children informally can make a great difference. Children will say things socially that they would never say in class. Give-and-take conversations and gentle inclusion of every child on the table will help teachers identify any mental health concerns. This Smart Classroom Management blog gives a good summary of why teachers should eat with their children.

3. Supervisor engagement

Midday Supervisors need positive behaviour training so they have a basic understanding of how to build healthy relationships with all children. Supervisors are expected to manage very challenging behaviour without knowing how to apply the school’s behaviour policy. ‘Do school behaviour polices make any difference?’ is a question raised by Ofsted in their Below the radar: low level disruption in the country's classrooms report ‘. It states that ‘Only a quarter of secondary school teachers agreed that the behaviour policy in their school was applied consistently by all staff compared with half of primary school teachers.’

So, if highly trained teachers cannot effectively apply their own behaviour policy then it becomes virtually impossible for Midday Supervisors. They end up spending most of their time wiping tables and policing poor behaviour which creates a very unfriendly and hostile environment. Their job should be about helping children make the right choices at lunchtimes to improve healthy eating, activity levels, behaviour and inclusion. They should be teaching our children the social curriculum - knife and fork usage (very bad in most schools), how to tie shoe laces, listening to children and helping them communicate. If they do this well, then those with mental health issues will feel both supported and nurtured.

4. Recognition and reward

Schools need to recognise and regularly praise the majority of children who are well-behaved to create a positive behaviour culture. But the well-behaved children complain that those who are poorly-behaved seem to get all the rewards and they get ignored by Midday Supervisors. Many parents I have spoken to say their children sometimes come home and say ‘I think I am going to be naughty, so I get more rewards.’ Bill Rogers, a behaviour specialist, has developed a model called the Black Dot in the White Square . The black dot represents the tiny minority of children who are poorly-behaved. The white square represents everyone else who is well-behaved. If schools focus too much on the black dot we forget the white square. This illustrates the need to keep things in perspective. Teachers as well as Midday Supervisors need to be very proactive about catching children being good rather than constantly keeping an eye on and policing those who are poorly-behaved. Children with mental health problems may be very well- behaved. A simple word of encouragement and recognition that their behaviour is great and they are following the school rules might have a very positive impact on their self-esteem and wellbeing.

5. Learning-friendly environment

Schools need to create a learning-friendly environment at lunchtime. Teachers create a learning-friendly environment in their classroom. This will include a seating plan so everyone knows who they are sitting with and where they are sitting. A neuroscientist, Dr Melina Uncapter, has done research into the science of effective learning spaces which identifies that factors including light and a seating plan can affect cognitive performance. If children benefit from an effective learning space in the classroom and are then subjected to a free-for-all in the dining room and not much to do in the playground it is going to make any child who suffers from a mental health problem feel very uncomfortable. Children do not stop learning when they leave the classroom so it makes sense to create a learning-friendly environment at lunchtime too. A seating plan in the dining room is recommended. It reduces noise and congestion because children know where they are sitting and who they are sitting with. It makes sure Midday Supervisors can engage more because they do not have to spend time sorting out who is sitting where. Heathrow Primary, who have adopted this restaurant style approach, report that children are much calmer and food waste has been reduced from five bags a day down to two.

When developing the outdoor space schools can be very risk averse. This prevents children from doing what they want to do. If they are not allowed to run, jump, climb and dig because a risk assessment says they cannot they become frustrated, get bored and fall out with each other. The Health and Safety Executive states that ‘No child will learn about risk if they are wrapped up in cotton wool.’ Provided your risk assessment concludes that there is no risk of death or serious injury then exposure to some risk is acceptable.

Schools should, therefore, consider introducing risky play which teaches children how to look after themselves and loose parts (scrap materials) which are often more engaging than trim trails and monkey bars. We recommend contacting Outdoor Play and Learning who are experts in helping schools create better play spaces.

These five evidence-based strategies to improving lunchtime will help create the right environment for schools to support and encourage those children that have, or they suspect might have, mental health problems. To be successful, schools need to make sure they do three things. Firstly, school leaders need to be fully engaged in the process and recognise that the lunchtime experience should be included in their school development plan. Secondly, they need to adopt a whole school approach. That means making sure everyone has their say and any new changes are talked about in the classroom and in assemblies. Thirdly, they need to listen to the children. What do they want and what do they care about.

Paul Aagaard

Paul is a social entrepreneur who is passionate about improving safety and behaviour in schools by transforming lunchtimes. Working in partnership with caterers and local authorities to develop lunchtime improvement programmes, he helps schools ensure that children want to eat better, eat together, engage in good conversation and be more active.

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