Lunchtime should be an enjoyable social occasion – a time when all those skills learnt in the classroom can be put to practical use and extend the learning environment into the playground.

‘It can take the best part of an hour to sort out all the problems and upsets that have happened during the lunch break!’ Sound familiar? Lunchtime is often fraught with frustration and arguments, to such an extent that some schools choose to restrict the length of the lunch break ‘to prevent problems occurring’. Just as important as the opportunity for pupils to relax and socially engage with one another, is the relationship between teachers, teaching assistants and the lunchtime duty supervisors. A change in title from ‘dinner lady’ to ‘lunchtime supervisor’ is a sign of the developing joint understanding and consistency of approach for all adults working in the school.

Consider some of the existing difficulties the lunchtime supervisor has to contend with, even before the bell rings:

1. Many of the children already know them. They are very likely to be the mum of one or more children in the school. Other children already know her as Auntie…. Or they have a ‘friend of the family’ relationship.

2. Lunchtime supervisors are working with much greater numbers of children than single class groups.

3. There are no classroom walls in the playground!

4. Some lunchtime supervisors have pre-conceived ideas about behavior.

5. They may receive little or no training/induction.

6. Usually their contractual hours coincide with the start and end of the lunch break – giving little time to prepare at the start or feedback at the end of the session. Lunchtime can be a time for children to consolidate strong, sometimes lifelong, friendships with one another, to spark an interest in a particular hobby or activity. It’s a time when they have the opportunity to confide in or share problems and interests with an adult. Someone they can trust and feel safe with. Lunchtime supervisors have the ability to be a consistent link with the perhaps more formal relationships within the classroom. Without doubt, the role of the lunchtime supervisor is demanding, skillful and vitally important for both individual child and the whole-school community.

Practical tips

There are many and varied issues which need to be considered and acted on if the lunch break is to be a positive experience for teacher, child and lunchtime supervisor. Many of these issues will naturally be individually focused on the needs of each individual school. There are, however, several generic tips which will contribute to developing the school as an emotionally literate environment. Get to know all the lunchtime staff, remember good behavior is both taught and caught. Children will quickly pick up the relationships between all adults in the school. The perceived hierarchy between teachers and TAs certainly extends into the playground. Lunchtime supervisors should be familiar and comfortable with the school rules, and the rewards and sanctions systems. This is particularly relevant where these are ‘lunchtime specific’. How are these communicated to the lunchtime supervisors? There is often a high turnover of lunchtime staff and consideration should be given to retention. A thorough induction program should be in place. It’s not really sufficient to send the new staff out for their first lunchtime with the brief: ‘Just watch the rest of us, you’ll soon get the hang of things’. As members of staff, lunchtime supervisors should have access to all the necessary ‘housekeeping’ facilities. Storage facilities for belongings, access to and copies of behavior policies, and rainy day resources. Although this is subject to management decisions and budget, it’s worth considering the contractual issues for lunchtime supervisors. Could they start 15 minutes before the lunch break, and finish 15 minutes after the end of break? This would give an opportunity for classroom staff to liaise with the supervisors and share organizational arrangements. Are the lunchtime supervisors included in the relevant parts of INSET days? As the role is continually developed and increasingly recognized as important, does the school have a budget available for responding to the professional development needs of all staff?

All of the above policy issues will contribute to ensuring your lunchtime supervisory staff are:

1. Confident and able to remain calm.

2. Fair and non judgmental towards the children.

3. Excellent role models in both verbal and non-verbal behavior.

4. Proactive and familiar with reward/sanction systems when required.

5. Important stakeholders in the life of the whole school.

The emotionally literate school displays clear evidence that all staff routinely address emotional literacy and teach appropriate behavior skills beyond the ‘taught curriculum’.

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This e-bulletin issue was first published in January 2007

About the author: Dave Stott is the author of Behavior Matters. He has nearly 30 years’ teaching experience including seven years at headteacher level. Dave has worked in mainstream and special schools and Local Authority Behavior Support Services, and is now a successful consultant and trainer.