11 ways schools can help improve Midday Supervisor engagement

Posted by Paul Aagaard · 14 min read · 276 comments

Midday Supervisors at West Ewell Primary School

Midday Supervisors (MDSAs) - and this includes those who also work as Teaching Assistants (TAs) - often struggle to manage behaviour at lunchtime. Here are 5 reasons why they find it very difficult:

1. School Rules

Some children perceive, wrongly, that school rules don’t apply at lunchtime. Children are very clear about behaviour expectations in the classroom. However, at lunchtime this often goes a bit pear-shaped. The rules aren’t so clear about what they can and can’t do. As a result, children know they are unlikely to get a consequence for poor behaviour and if they do get a consequence, it is often not followed through.

2. Disrespectful behaviour

The way children respond to MDSAs and TAs is different to the way they respond to TAs and their teacher in the classroom. ‘You are just a dinner lady you can’t tell me what to do’ is a common response according to many MDSAs I have trained over the last 10 years. Although this is very disrespectful, the MDSAs, often without meaning to or realising what they are doing, exacerbate the situation by shouting at the children, use unfriendly language, e.g. ‘get off the grass, stop running, how dare you speak to me like that’, and have negative body language, folding their arms, not making eye contact and not sitting, kneeling or bending down so they can properly speak to the child face to face.

3. No training

MDSAs are at a massive disadvantage because they usually haven’t had any training. If they don’t know what teachers know about managing children’s behaviour, then they are always going to struggle to properly de-escalate incidents.

4. Communication

If a few children have had a difficult morning and are upset, their behaviour may not be as good as it normally is at lunchtime. MDSAs often say they rarely get to hear about any problems in morning classes. As a result, they may end up treating these children too harshly and could make the situation worse.

5. Social convention

In most schools, children will address teachers using their surnames. But children often address MDSAs using their first names. This inconsistency confuses children and can create a slightly overfriendly relationship which is likely to compromise the MDSAs ability to manage behaviour.

Here are my 11 ways to solve these common lunchtime problems.

1. Meet and greet

MDSAs need to be very proactive about focusing on the 99% of children who always make good choices. Being deliberately bothered to smile and to show a genuine interest in what children are doing will create a positive and nurturing environment. This may sound a simple solution, but it is so hard to implement. Why? Because MDSAs feel that their role is all about safeguarding so they focus on and are very proactive about the 1% who make poor choices. Consequently, they spend most of their time policing the playground. This creates a negative and hostile environment which doesn’t help MDSAs build up healthy relationships with the children. To be effective, lead MDSAs supported by school leaders will need to role model easy and quick meet and greet ideas in the playground and dining room. For example, being proactive about greeting children with a thumbs up, a pinky shake, a salute, a wave or even a dance. For MDSAs this will just feel a bit weird at first but if a whole school approach is adopted and all staff engage in it the environment will improve.

2. Proximity praise

So what about the 1% of children who make poor choices which MDSAs get so stressed about? In the classroom if one group of children are sitting nicely and another group is not, a good teacher will focus on those sitting nicely. Being distantly vigilant- i.e. you are aware of the poor sitting but choose to focus on the group sitting nicely- gives those messing about the time and space to improve. The praise you give to those who sit nicely is clearly being overheard (proximity praise). Those messing about then have a choice, but even if they make the wrong choice the conversation, at least initially, is positive and encouraging. This concept is something that MDSAs really struggle with. I spoke with one MDSA recently who had positioned herself right next to a basketball net attached to a big wooden board. There was a small space between the back of the wooden board and a tree on the perimeter of the playground. ‘I am standing here' she said ‘because lots of children do silly things behind this basketball net.’ So, the MDSA was policing a situation that hadn’t yet happened or may never happen. It is annoying for the children to be watched and a waste of the MDSAs time. Giving this group of children the space and the time to play nicely whilst meeting and greeting everyone else who are already playing nicely is the aspiration. What is the worst-case scenario? The children behind the basketball net do something dangerous or unsafe. When that happens, it is important that an adult intervenes but provided the MDSA has been distantly vigilant this can be quickly dealt with. Just hanging around waiting for it to happen sends out a message to the children that they can’t be trusted and may encourage them to be even sillier.

3. Positive phrasing

What MDSAs say and what teachers say when children do things they shouldn’t, is different. If for example, a child is running MDSAs will often shout ‘stop running.’ A teacher is likely to say ‘walk, thank you.’ The MDSAs are focusing on what behaviour the child should stop doing, i.e., running. This is negative and even if the child is obedient and does what they are told the response doesn’t tell them what they should be doing. The teachers on the other hand are focusing on what they want the child to start doing, i.e., walk. Firstly, this gives the child a simple and clear instruction which is easy to understand. Secondly, saying thank you (rather than please where the child is being given a choice) is respectful because the teachers is trusting the child to change their behaviour. If children are constantly being told what they shouldn’t be doing, they are unlikely to respect MDSAs which will make it much more difficult for them to manage behaviour at lunchtime. Schools need to develop a series of positive responses to common lunchtime behaviours and train MDSA to use them. For example, if a child is a banging their plate in the dining hall MDSAs need to say ‘put the plate down, thank you’ rather than, which I have overheard many times ‘why are you playing with your plate?’ If a child is shouting at you the response should be, ‘talk to me quietly. I am listening,’ rather than ‘will you stop shouting please.’

4. Above and beyond recognition

Recognition is one of the best ways to build healthy relationships with children. Noticing what they are doing and taking time to explain why what they are doing is responsible, respectful, kind or caring will always lead to great engagement. One effective way to make sure a child’s good choices at lunchtime and good behaviour is recognised is to give out Ask me Why wristbands These should only be given out to those children who go above and beyond i.e. they are consistently well behaved rather than, for example, they ate all their dinner or do things they are already expected to do such as lining up quickly and quietly when asked. It gives teachers the opportunity to start the afternoon lessons in a positive way by asking those children who have got a wristband what they did to get it. Parents too will ask the same question if their child comes home wearing a wristband.

5. School rules and values

I always ask MDSAs during my training if they know their school rules and values. In almost every case there is an embarrassed silence and most admit they don’t know them even when they are prominently displayed in school corridors and in the dining room. If you ask the children about their school rules most of them can immediately tell you what they are, particularly when there are only three or four like ready, respectful safe or respect for others, respect for yourself and respect for the environment. If children know the MDSAs don’t know the school rules it makes it much more difficult for them to build respectful relationships. Schools need to identify lunchtime behaviours that relate to their school rules. For example, if one of the values is respect then MDSAs need to talk about this when a child, for example, helps someone else who is upset or has hurt themselves. If one of the values is resilience, then MDSAs need to talk about this when someone annoys or argues with a child and they stay calm. If children hear MDSAs using the same language as their teacher, they are much more likely to listen and respond positively.

6. Behaviour scripts

How all adults respond to children who make a poor choice, or the right choice needs to be consistent. If children know for example that ‘walk thank you’ is the response they are always going to hear when running, then it is more likely they will do what they are being asked to do. Schools should consider introducing agreed behaviour scripts to publicly recognise and praise good choices and use a 30 second script in response to poor choices. This is a recommendation that Paul Dix proposes in his excellent book When the Adults Change Everything Changes Paul says that ‘the adults who love the scripts more than anyone were the support staff- Midday Supervisors, Teaching Assistants, Learning Mentors, Site Staff and Business Support Staff. Nobody had ever taught them what to say and how to say it.’ When dealing with poor choices we suggest trying the following script.

‘I noticed you were’ (pushing and shoving in line, not playing that game fairly, being unkind to that group of children.)

‘It is our value about’ (being respectful to others) that you have broken.

‘You have chosen to’ (move to the back of the line, play by the rules or, vice versa continuing to push and shove in line or not play fairly.)

‘But do you remember yesterday when’ (you held the door open for me, cleared away the play equipment. If you do not know the child very well and have not witnessed their behaviour recently, refer to someone else, they know that has made some good choices)

‘That is who I want to see today.’ (Then smile and give them time to think about what you have said by walking away.)

This script is non-judgemental. It isn’t threatening. It doesn’t use a big stick approach where the child feels they are going to immediately get sanctioned. It just politely points out that their poor choice has been noticed, they can choose to change it and their behaviour, in most cases, is usually fantastic. As the script ends in a positive way most children will react to it in a positive way. Whilst it may sound a bit strange to have a script for recognition it is important that children know exactly why they are being praised and how it has supported their school values. Many MDSAs are kind to the children and do praise them but say things like ‘you are such a good boy or girl and I think you are lovely’ but don’t identify what is about their behaviour which is lovely.

Here is my proposed script for recognition

‘What you are doing’ (helping someone who is upset, playing with younger children, getting help when some one has had an accident) ‘is amazing and brilliant.’

‘It supports our school value about’ (being respectful to others, being resilient.)

‘I really liked the way’ (you made that boy/girl feel better by talking to them in such a kind way/helped to teach other children a new game/ was very calm when asking me for help when that girl/boy fell over).

‘You will be rewarded with’ (am ask me why wristband but only if you have witnessed the child doing kind and caring things on a regular basis. If not, say you will let their classroom teacher know at the end of lunchtime what has happened so they can give them a shout out in afternoon lessons.)

MDSAs should speak in a loud voice when delivering this recognition script so other children overhear the conversation and do it for a long as possible. No child will get bored if you are telling them how wonderful their behaviour is.

7. Immediate consequences

MDSAs often say during my training that they are not clear about when to sanction children and if they do, children say nothing happens when they get back to class. Consequences for poor choices in the classroom will be followed through but at lunchtime they are often not which undermines the effectiveness of MDSA attempts to manage behaviour. Clarity about when to give sanctions to children at lunchtime who repeatedly make poor choices needs to be agreed and a way to communicate who has been given them to classroom teachers. Poor choice behaviours need to be identified. This usually incudes unkind words, unkind actions like pushing and shoving and disrupting games, not looking after equipment, and not listening such as shrugging shoulders when MDSAs talk to them and constantly interrupting. More serious behaviours, which are very easy to identify such as swearing, hurting another child or racist language should lead to immediate removal – i.e. being sent to a member of the School Leadership Team. MDSAs should not be expected to tolerate or try and manage any of these more serious behaviours.

8. De-escalating incidents

A lot of lunchtime incidents don’t get properly resolved because children do not perceive MDSAs are employed to manage behaviour so don’t respond in a respectful way when challenged. The children then start talking about unresolved lunchtime incidents in the classroom which leads to lost learning minutes. In some schools I have worked with, classroom teachers report that they can lose 10 – 15 minutes of learning time in afternoon lessons two or three times a week. The behaviour scripts will not work if a child says for example, but my teacher said I can play football in this area. Here is a respectful to way to handle this situation and make the child feel they are being listened to and respected.

I agree

In response to a child saying ‘but my teacher said I can play football here’ say I agree ‘I am sure your teacher has said you can play here.’ Saying I agree immediately sends out a message that you believe what they are saying. It engages in a positive way and allows MDSAs to continue the conversation without the child starting to get annoyed.

School Rules

It is important to then respond by saying, ‘and I will check later with your teacher.’ As this cannot be done immediately you have to refer back to the school rules and say, ‘I know this is frustrating but for today, until I can speak with your teacher this is where our school rules say you should play football.’ It is even more frustrating, when you do speak with the teacher to find out that they have allowed them to play football in the wrong area. The reasons for this? The teacher is a supply teacher who doesn’t know the school very well or the school rules. Negotiating these micro incidents with language that is positive and supportive should help to de-escalate the situation.


However frustrating it becomes you then offer the child a choice. Either you follow the school rules and play where you are supposed to play, or you continue to break the school rule and play in the wrong area. If children make the wrong choice, then a consequence should be imposed based on the agreed lunchtime sanction.

9. Restorative justice

When faced with an argumentative situation where children want you to sort out a ‘he said, she said, you smell’ incident like he called me names or he hit me on the arm etc a series of restorative questions can help -i.e. questions that give children a chance to explain what happened and how they feel. To avoid this turning into a big drama in the playground try and walk and talk with those involved rather than stand in the same place which will attract an audience of onlookers. Ask no more than 5 questions. What happened? Give each child the opportunity to explain and listen carefully How does this make you and others feel? This question should help identify the impact of their behaviour on other children who may have got pushed as well or younger children who maybe scared. Who has been affected? Obviously, the child will immediately say it was me, I got affected. But what effect did they have on others is something that this question should expose and explore. What can we do to put things right? Hopefully the child may offer an apology, but this may not be a very gracious one! What can we do differently in the future? This may spark a response about being patient and having self-control.

Restorative conversations will take time and, in a playground setting this may well be impossible to deliver effectively. Even when a restorative conversation is attempted the problem may not be fully resolved. However, trying to resolve it should help take some of the anger and frustration out of the situation.

10. Circle time

The transition between the end of lunchtime and the beginning of afternoon lessons is a time when children often end up pushing and shoving when lining up and falling out with each other. From a child’s perspective it is very annoying and frustrating to line up and wait to be called into the school building. It also puts the MDSAs back into that role of being a traffic warden and police officer rather than a counsellor and carer. In some of the schools I have worked in this transition time has been turned into circle time where children, in class groups, form a semicircle rather than a long line and are asked by MDSAs to share what they have been doing at lunchtime. What games did you play? What games did you like best? Did you play with any younger or older children? This forces MDSAs into leading on and facilitating a conversation that gets children focused and ready for learning.

11. Playground games

One of the most important MDSA roles is to be a playworker – to facilitate games, to teach new games and to ensure as many children as possible are either playing organised games or their own games. In so many schools I visit MDSAs choose to stand around and watch children play rather than engage as a playworker. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, MDSAs think their job is all about safeguarding and not about playing with the children. Secondly, many of them lack the confidence to engage in play. Thirdly, they think it is embarrassing to play games. So how can schools change the MDSA mindset and get them to engage in play? The key to this I think is to involve PE leads in training, mentoring and coaching MDSAs. That means not just teaching them well known and very easy to set up games using one or two bits of equipment such as a soft ball, a few hula hoops or cones but introducing a proper timetable to identify which MDSAs are going to teach which games and when. At a Lincoln school I visited, the PE teacher had taught MDSAs how to get children to play noughts and crosses with two different coloured hula hoops. Another great game he got MDSAs to facilitate was called cups and saucers. This involved placing white and red cones on the playground and getting two teams of children together. One team had to run and turn the cones over to make a saucer shape. The other team had to turn them over and make a cup shape. Children were given 5 minutes and at the end, the team with the most cups or the most saucers were the winners.

Most lunchtime incidents happen because children are bored and MDSAs don’t engage. If children are focused and involved in fun games and MDSAs can consistently engage in a weekly timetable of games, lunchtime incidents are likely to reduce.

This may sound an ambitious programme. It is and it will take quite a long time to implement effectively. So, if you are having problems with your lunchtimes and want to improve them, Recipe for Change run MDSA training days to help you personalise this engagement programme to your school. It is a proven way to make lunchtimes much more sociable, inclusive and positive for both adults and children.

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.

Leave a comment