What makes a good Lunchtime Supervisor?
Large numbers of children ‘letting off steam’ at lunchtime, lots of food to be served and eaten in a very short time and children running around in an outside space which is not meeting their individual play needs will all too often lead to fallings out, avoidable bumps and scrapes, boredom and poor digestion.
So what can Lunchtime Supervisors do to manage this stressful scenario, ensure undesired incidents are reduced and avoid teachers and school leaders spending precious time sorting disputes out during the afternoon, when the children should all be back in ‘learning mode’?
These are challenging questions for a number of reasons.
- This is supposed to be children’s free time but some of them perceive (wrongly) that because it’s their free time they can, as one school councillor said to me recently, “do what they want”. And who can blame them? In the classroom there is likely to be a consequence for arguing or throwing pens and books on the floor but in many schools if children throw cutlery in the bin or throw food on the floor in the dining room they will often get away with it!
- Many Lunchtime Supervisors are parents or grandparents of pupils, which can result in them ‘befriending’ their children at lunchtime, rather than acting as counsellors, health promoters and ‘play workers’. This undermines their authority in the eyes of many children, and makes it much harder to garner respect and manage negative behaviour even-handedly.
- Most Lunchtime Supervisors, including those who are Teaching Assistants, aren’t trained teachers or qualified ‘play workers’ and therefore don’t have the skills, knowledge and expertise to manage behaviour. As a consequence, lunchtimes can often become very scary, stressful and unnecessarily noisy for pupils and staff alike. This often results in children rushing their meal so they can get to the few fun activities on offer in the playground before anyone else. It’s likely they will then go back to afternoon lessons with a feeling of disappointment, frustration, boredom and unhappiness, often still arguing about various lunchtime incidents. This immediately compromises the school’s learning outcomes, which should be a serious concern for school leaders because it’s likely to negatively affect children’s progress and attainment.
It doesn’t have to be like this!
I have run Lunchtime Supervisor training for many years. My guidance can help to ensure that school leaders and teachers no longer have to spend time in the afternoon addressing issues on a daily basis. Where I’ve been commissioned, the children all listen to and respect their Lunchtime Supervisors and they go back into afternoon classes ready to learn.
Here’s what good Lunchtime Supervisors need to do to ensure all children behave well in the dining room and playground. This is based on my evidence based best practice I have developed over the last twelve years.
1. The Lunchtime Supervisors role
Most Lunchtime Supervisors I train think their role is about cleaning and policing poor behaviour. I have identified nine different Supervisor roles and yes, this does include some cleaning and policing. However, Lunchtime Supervisors shouldn’t default to these roles. If lunchtimes are run well, these issues just won’t arise but if Lunchtime Supervisors spend too much time cleaning, then children will perceive them as cleaners. They won’t perceive that Lunchtime Supervisors have a role to play in managing their behaviour. Similarly, if Lunchtime Supervisors spend too much time telling children off, they will shy away from having interesting and positive conversations with them.
Good Lunchtime Supervisors recognise that their primary role is to be a teacher of the so called ‘soft skills’ – (which should really be called ‘hard skills’ in my opinion) such as helping children to use a knife and fork (very poor in most schools), explaining why it’s important to eat a healthy diet, encouraging children to take responsibility, facilitating and introducing children to new games and resources for free play, and making sure that children are aware that we all make mistakes and we can learn from them. It’s important therefore that the aspiration of being a ‘teacher’ in this context is reinforced in their job specification.
So what about the need to clean and police poor behaviour? In good schools most of the cleaning is done by pupil advocates who enjoy the role and privilege of being a waitresses or waiter (provided uniforms and rewards are linked to this). Once Lunchtime Supervisors start engaging with children in a more positive way the need to police should only be necessary occasionally.
2. Understanding the behaviour policy
I always ask Lunchtime Supervisors as part of my training whether they know their school rules, which are usually on display in classrooms and corridors. Almost all of them struggle to remember even one of them! So here’s a major problem. If children know that Lunchtime Supervisors don’t know the rules, then they won’t be able to manage behaviour effectively. All Lunchtime Supervisors need to memorise all school rules so they can praise children for following them, or check and correct if they aren’t. Displaying them on laminated cards attached to lanyards is a great way to make sure the children know all Lunchtime Supervisors know the school rules.
3. Rewarding good behaviour
Every school has a very small minority of children who will persistently and consistently behave badly. Lots of effort, time and resource is spent on this minority, ensuring their behaviour improves. And if it does, they get rewarded! Not surprisingly, Lunchtime Supervisors are constantly keeping an eye on this naughty minority at lunchtime and are constantly having to raise their voice to police poor behaviour.
What about the vast majority of children that are persistently and consistently well-behaved but who don’t get rewarded as much as those who are naughty? One Lunchtime Supervisor I trained in London said she knew of a school that were taking the naughty children to Alton Towers because their behaviour had improved! The message it sends out to those who are always well-behaved is “maybe I should start being naughty too, so I can go to Alton Towers”.
Rather than constantly focusing on and making a great fuss of the naughty children, Lunchtime Supervisors need to focus on making a great fuss of the children that are well-behaved. As one Headteacher said to me, Lunchtime Supervisors need to adopt a policy of ‘distant vigilance’ with the naughty ones, instead spending most of their time loudly and positively rewarding good behaviour. So if you are a Lunchtime Supervisor, don’t go rushing across to the naughty child immediately. Give them some space and time and only intervene when their behaviour becomes totally unacceptable. As a result, children will start to overhear and be encouraged by the positive conversations and the rewards that they get.
The more rewards that Lunchtime Supervisors can give out, the better lunchtime behaviour will become, and if they can be linked to the classroom reward system, better still. If classroom teachers send postcards home when children perform well in class, then Lunchtime Supervisors should send postcards home when they do something at lunchtime which is kind, polite or respectful, etc.
4. Dealing with poor behaviour
What you say and how you say it will determine whether or not a child is going to listen and do what you want them to do. If a child is running it’s a very easy to say “stop running” or if a child is arguing, to say “stop arguing with me”. These responses aren’t helpful even if the child does stop what they are doing. It might make them feel guilty and it doesn’t give them a learning outcome. Good Lunchtime Supervisors will focus on what they want a child to start doing, rather than stop doing. So if they are arguing with you, your response should be “talk to me I am listening”, or “speak to me quietly. Thank you”. These are non-emotive, fair and acceptable requests with a clear outcome.
5. De-escalating incidents
If children start to fall out and get upset at lunchtime it is critical that Lunchtime Supervisors know how to quickly de-escalate the incident. If a situation is allowed to escalate, other children will start watching, listening in and learning, which we certainly don’t want. Suddenly their focus will be on behaving poorly, rather than on behaving positively.
If a Lunchtime Supervisor intervenes when, for example, a child is seen throwing food, the child is most likely to say something like “but it wasn’t just me, loads of other children were throwing food too”. Many Lunchtime Supervisors whom I have observed will tend to make a difficult situation even worse, usually by focusing on the child’s response, rather than shifting the focus away from it. They do this usually by escalating the incident even further with a debate about ‘who did what’.
Good Lunchtime Supervisors will focus on the first behaviour – i.e. throwing food, and not the second behaviour, which is the child’s response. To help Lunchtime Supervisors de-escalate the incident, before the need to involve school leaders, I have developed a three-tiered approach. This allows a child three opportunities to improve their behaviour and learn a valuable lesson from the experience.
- I agree: Agreeing or partially agreeing will get the child to listen. So you agree that other children may have been throwing mud but you saw them throwing mud. Let them know that if you see anyone else throwing mud you will talk to them too.
- School rules: If the child doesn’t calm down, then the next step is to remind them they are breaking one of the school rules that everyone has to follow.
- Choices: The final strategy before involving school leaders is to give children a choice. Either they will make the right choice, and start behaving appropriately, or they will make the wrong choice. If that happens, there will be a serious consequence. These choices are fair, reasonable and not threatening.
Good Lunchtime Supervisors can’t create outstanding lunchtime provision on their own. They need to make sure their school embraces the following three success criteria.
- School Leaders are engaged and recognise that lunchtime has a direct impact on progress and attainment and should therefore be included in their School Development Plan.
- Adopt a whole school approach – Engage and involve the whole school community when introducing any change to lunchtime so everyone can have their say. This includes caterers, parents, children, teaching staff, support staff and Lunchtime Supervisors.
- Listening to the customer – Lunchtime is children’s social time so it’s really important that we listen to what they want and what they care about.
If schools embrace these success criteria and the evidence based strategies detailed in this blog then behaviour will improve, Lunchtime Supervisors will feel respected and valued and children will go back into class ready for learning.
Here are a few testimonials from school leaders that have benefited from my Lunchtime Supervisor training.
“The Lunchtime Supervisors are already wearing lanyards with the behaviour reminders and I am hearing positive behaviour management 95% of the time. The feedback to school has been good so far and will move forward in a positive way I'm sure.”
Assistant Headteacher, Blakesley Hall Primary
“Already my Midday Supervisors have begun to tackle behaviour in a much more positive way. It was brilliant value and the participants took a great deal away.”
Headteacher, Hormead CE Primary (Read the case study)