Guest blogger: Cafeteria Noise

My name is Elizabeth and I am an itinerant teacher of deaf and hard of hearing students. Within the school district I attend, I travel to four or more schools a day visiting students of various grades (preschool -12th grade).  I have recently started reading Mrs. Q’s blog with intense fascination.

As you can see from my job description, I am a broadly experienced user of school cafeterias. What I absolutely despise about the school cafeteria is the noise: The cacophony of screamingly loud chatter, the clank of lunch trays, and the screech of chairs. As a person with a hearing loss, the noise makes it impossible for me to have a conversation. The noise is so great, that I have to take out my hearing aid.

If you do a search about noise in the cafeteria, you will find hundreds of entries and articles about this subject. I found out that the noise level in several American school cafeterias measured at 70-85 dB (decibel)! A decibel is a unit used to measure the intensity or loudness of a sound. To give you an idea, a normal conversation measures at 60 dB. A lawnmower measures at 85-90 dB.

For anyone, the lawnmower-level noise makes conversation impossible.  As a teacher, I am concerned that it is damaging the students’ social skills as well as their hearing.

For those of normal hearing, keep in mind that a constant exposure to that level of noise can do permanent damage. Fortunately, 30 to 45 minutes a lunch is most likely not long enough to be damaging.  Nonetheless, the noise is for all annoying, and having to shout is not conducive to manners or digestion.


*Please visit my blog for more information on deaf and hard of hearing issues:


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35 thoughts on “Guest blogger: Cafeteria Noise

  1. You make such good points! I think the noisy rattling environment is not a good place to enjoy food and the conviviality of eating with others. Especially for someone who can't have their hearing aid in!!!!

  2. Hear hear! I'm of normal hearing, but I hate places that are noisy like that. They leave me feeling exhausted.

  3. Hmmm… it's interesting to hear differing points of view. My wife is from Venezuela – she had the chance to join our daughter for lunch in the school cafeteria a while back and she was shocked that the cafeteria had alternating "silent" times and "talk" times during lunch, and that the lunch room monitors were walking around shooshing the kids during "silent" time. In my wife's childhood school, they were allowed to go and eat anywhere on the school's campus (including outside) and they could play and be as loud as they wanted. To her our daughter's cafeteria environment seemed very sterile and too controlled for kids (and my wife is quite a disciplinarian by the way…). Anyway, just a different point of view…

    By the way, I love this blog!

  4. When I attended elementary school in the mid-80s, we had a "traffic light" set up that monitored the noise level. If we stayed at "green," all was good – if it rose to "yellow", the teacher's started shushing us. Changing to "red" meant we got 5 minutes of silence – so it was always in our best interest to keep an eye on the light. I wonder now what decibel levels it was set at for each color. I must say, it was quite effective – and memorable, as I still remember it quite clearly to this day!

  5. at more than one elementary school i've been to recently, students are required at all times to eat in silence. apparently it's a punishment for being a child.

  6. That's interesting about the noise, I never had a reason to think about it. I went to school with a deaf child and now that I think about it, he ate in the classroom. It all makes sense. Thanks for the guest post!

  7. @SarahG…my children's school also has a traffic light for the noise. They call it the "yakker tracker."

  8. We haven't used the light system in the school district I work at, but have heard from others that the students get so worried about the lights, they watch the light instead of eating.

    As much as the styro trays are hated for the lack of reusability, they are much quieter.

  9. I can clearly see both sides of the coin on this one but still, is it right to stop children from being social during eating times? I would hate for lunch to get so sterile that children become robots instead of the free spirits they are. I am a great believer in letting my children carry a conversation during eating times. Maybe the stoplight idea would be good for when noise gets out of hand but having them be completely quiet is wrong. Sorry, don't mean to offend but that's just my opinion, that's what I love about this blog!

  10. Thanks for saying something about the noise. Many teachers at my school eat with the kids, but I can't stand the noise – I need 25 minutes of quiet (less really, by the time I walk them to the cafeteria and get back to my room).

    On the flip side, though our kids are often punished with a 'silent lunch.' And I do think that's unfair because: 1) it's their only social time and 2) it always ends up punishing kids who did nothing wrong.

    Something no one's pointed out yet is that kids need to be taught to socialize. Kids at my school tend to scream and yell to communicate and need to be taught about having 'normal' conversations.

  11. Some years ago while visiting teacher friends on a Navajo reservation, I ate lunch at their school cafeteria and I was shocked at how quietly everyone spoke. The large room was full of students and everyone was chatting, yet you could actually have a conversation and hear yourself think! Very different from my kids' cafeteria, which was very noisy. I always worried about my kids getting indigestion from the noise!

  12. I used to be an elementary school teacher and I hated when I had to eat in the cafeteria w/ my students because it was so noisy. Wish I had thought of this earlier, but it seems like it should work:

    Seems like we could have the students treat the cafeteria like a nice restaurant. I know lots of kids who have never been to a nice restaurant but this would prepare them for when they do get to go. Setting the atmosphere – such as dimming the lighting and putting the tables in smaller groups – would help with this. Then, maybe (just maybe) after the atmosphere is addressed then the food would start to be more like restaurant food as well. (maybe) 🙂

  13. Silent lunches should not be the answer. Geez, kids need to socialize and be kids. I like Emily Fiore's idea about school cafeterias being more like restaurant settings.

    It would be nice if more school cafeterias were designed to keep certain sounds from amplifying to horrendous levels.


  14. The principal at my son's school will not allow the lunchroom aides to tell the children to be quiet. She says that is their time to do as they please. Our cafeteria is in the middle of the "H" that connects the two wings of the school, and is an open area with no doors that can be closed. The noise level in the cafeteria is ridiculous, with kids shouting at the student next to them to be heard. Two years ago there was an emergency storm drill during lunch and it was so loud in the cafeteria that no one there heard it…someone had to go and tell the aides. When you walk in the front door of the school at the top right of the "H" during lunch times, you can already hear the noise from the cafeteria(the principal's office door is always closed during lunch times…). I don't think that kids should have to eat in silence, but I do think that if they are becoming too loud, they should be told to quiet down and use an inside voice!

  15. Oy! The cafeteria noise…

    Our system is Lights On – you can talk. Lights Off – Silence. Lights off happens when we give them the "5 minute warning". As in "4th graders you have 5 minutes left for lunch, please eat up". Lights go off again when lunch is over. This means silence and only I or my partner talk. Some grades are awesome, some grades suck at this. We usually have to request silence 2 or 3 times in the course of dismissal and the repeat talkers are asked to step out of line, or from their table and go to the back of the room until dismissal.

    Otherwise, the volume increases as lunch goes on…we can request that certain students (because it's always the same ones), please keep their voices down but as soon as we walk away, up they go. If it gets really, really, out of control, we tell them at the 5 minute warning to control the volume and if they don't the lights will go back out until lunch is over. If that happens, the teacher that comes to pick them up will talk to them all about following rules in the lunchroom.

    It's a never ending battle, our 5th graders are the best at following the direction, I love them for it and am thankful they are my last lunchwave!

  16. I really enjoyed reading this and I must say things are quite different where we live. At the elementary school my children attend they have "red cup, green cup" during lunch time. Students are allowed to chat, during green cup, while eating as long as the sound levels and behaviors are good. When things get out of hand, they flip the green cup to the red side and have silent lunch. I think this is a great idea, along with the "lights on" that I just read above me. I like this because it helps teach the children how to behave at a dinning table; something that we are struggling with here at home. We love to chat with our children while at the dinner table, but when they start to play and not eat, then that is when we have to say something. I agree that noise in the cafeteria is a problem for those who are hard of hearing, let allow those of us who can hear. It gets annoying, at times, when we are sitting, trying to enjoy our meal(in a short period of time) and all you can hear are screams and out bursts. =)

    Thanks for sharing this!

  17. The elementary schools in my town have 30 minutes for lunch and 15 minutes for recess (we adapted an extended day). In the cafeteria, lights are dimmed to reflect a more library like atmosphere with emphasis quiet conversation. Students also get some type of lunch entertainment once a week-the lower grades get a story read to them while the upper grades may get music played at an appropriate volume. Kindergartners also have their own separate lunch area. Additionally, upper grades have to do community service a few times each year and they volunteer to monitor trash cans and wipe tables in the cafeteria.

    Each table is also dismissed individually. Once outside, they can run around, scream, yell and play but in the lunch room, it's all about decorum, manners and actually eating at a slower pace.

  18. I believe (and this goes back to the recess discussion of several weeks ago) that recess should happen BEFORE lunch. In the schools I'm in that the schedule work this way, the lunchroom is calmer and the students are hungrier. They are not in a rush to eat and get out to play. They focus their food a little more and have worked off some of the pent up energy from sitting in class all morning.

  19. Another thing to consider is that (in most schools) students are expected to be still and quiet during the majority of the school day. Lunch and recess are typically the only exceptions. So when they're clamped down to be quiet all day, it's no wonder they go crazy at lunch.

    I applaud teachers who actually foster conversations in their classrooms throughout the day. This gives students the opportunity to learn HOW to talk appropriately, in different situations and different environments. It can't be total silence or total noise, with nothing in between.

  20. As a lunchroom aide, I can say that in my school, kids have recess first, followed by lunch, and we have found that it works better. Children are allowed to talk during lunch, however, the volume has to stay at a level that they can hear instruction from staff. If I can't hear a student's question over the noise of the other students, that's a problem. We'll ask them repeatedly to bring the volume back to an acceptable level. If that doesn't happen, then they may have silent lunch for the remainder of their lunch period, or they might lose recess time the following day. We also try to reward those students who are setting the best examples, which encourages other students to do the same.

  21. I think silent lunch is awful! If they weren't so busy herding hundreds of kids into one space with absolutely no textiles or anything to absorb sound, then maybe it wouldn't be so loud!

    Can you imagine being in a "nice restaurant" and someone coming around to shush you? Or order your complete and utter silence? I would laugh in their face! I would not enjoy a meal where I was forced to be silent against my
    will; to do so every day would be torture.

    Just one more way teachers and administration add to the prison/institution atmosphere and punish children for being children!!!

    Sorry, this post really touched a nerve.

    1. Perhaps you would like to donate the supplies? Or maybe offer some sort of acceptable solution. I work the school lunch and worry every day when exactly my hearing loss will commence.

  22. Take a large room with hard surfaces and nothing to absorb the noise, of course it will be loud.
    I don't think the long rectangular tables make for good conversation either. When I was in school(the same one as my kids too!) we had smaller round tables that sat 8 children each. From what I remember it wasn't as loud as it is now. Perhaps the smaller tables made for less shouting.

  23. Good point. I remember that in elementary school, we had an outside eating area, which was nice. In junior high and high school, there was a cafeteria where we could eat (very few people actually did), or we could eat anywhere on campus. In high school, most people sat on the bleachers in this outdoor amphitheater which was open and sunny. So I don't really remember cafeteria noise.

  24. The answer to this problem is easy! No new regulation or rules needed. Most cafeterias have concrete walls, hard benches, plastic trays, metal counters, tile floors – all great surfaces for noise to bounce and bounce and bounce off of!

    Want quieter cafeterias? Simply bring those tournament banners out of the gym and into the cafeteria. Really, any cloth banners would work! Get creative and make food group banners out of felt – "We are Veggies!" "Say 'Hello' to the Fruits!" – and hang them on the walls. You'd be surprised how much noise those soft surfaces would absorb!

  25. At the school our children attend, students eat lunch in their classrooms through 1st grade. 2nd-5th eat in the cafeteria, which probably only seats about 75-90 children. I cover lunch for one of the K-1 teachers, and I do spend a fair amount of time reminding the children to 1) eat and 2) keep their conversations quiet enough that only their tablemates can hear it. Children only have 30 minutes for lunch – which I didn't think would be enough until I saw how little some children eat. They really just pick with their meals – whether it's a Lunch@ble, a hot lunch, or a healthy lunch from home.
    The daughter of a friend attends a school with more traditional lunch arrangement. They have silent lunch for the first 10 minutes so they will – hopefully – eat their lunch.
    I'm in agreement with Julia about how to make school cafeterias quieter. I can even imagine that banner-making could happen in the art classroom. I'm a big fan of crossing disciplines when trying to teach (discussion of healthy eating in the art room – who knew?).

  26. We live in south-western Ohio and my kids have no specific policy on noise in the lunchroom. I'm not there terribly often, but the times I have been in the lunchroom, it wasn't obscene noise. It IS a very small school. However, my sister-in-law (lives in a neighboring town) has her kids, both elementary school aged, in a completely NO TALK lunch school system. Kids can't say a peep for the whole 20 minutes. Her kids are always so jealous of mine since mine can talk to their friends while they eat. SO SAD! And the worst part of it, when her kids and mine DO get together, her kids act INSANE while eating, probably due to the lack of practice at eating lunch while socializing with other kids. I'm all for keeping the volume down in the lunchroom, but the total silence method is RIDICULOUS, in my opinion.

  27. My third grader is not supposed to talk at lunch. They say it is so that if a child is choking, his struggle doesn't get lost in all the noise.

  28. This reminds me of when I was a kid, my elementary school once tried to do one of those traffic light things. The first time it went to red, this REDICULOUS siren started going off! Well, when that happened, all the kids in the cafeteria started laughing (we couldn't help ourselves!), and that of course made the light stay red and the stupid siren keep blaring. It was one of those moments where the adults panic because they've clearly completely lost control.

    Needless to say, they got rid of the traffic light after that and went back to the turning the lights off method.

  29. To be honest, some restaurants have similar, horrible designs that result in excessive noise – whether due to the floor covering, layout, tight spaces, table designs or whatever else. Others, with outdoor seating, have equal problems due to the constant stream of cars going by, depending on the location (here in LA, that's nearly everyplace!)

    When I was in elementary school, we had the traffic lights that other mentioned. We were also occasionally punished by having everyone be silent. I was not a fan as talking and laughing was part of the lunch. Luckily at least part of the lunchroom was actually carpeted, which I think helped cut down on the noise. Unfortunately, I think things like assigned seating and bad table shapes, on top of the normal surfaces can cause conversations to get much louder as well. Plus, add in no recess (for some schools) and a bit too much sugar and I imagine kids are ready to go bonkers. It's good to learn to be quiet, but a meal is much more than the act of getting food into a stomach.

    When I was in high school the dining area was a large uncarpeted room that was too loud. Luckily, we were allowed to sit outside and eat. My friends and I would be out there, even if it was breezy, rainy (there was an overhang) or we got another Texas heat wave. It was so much quieter, calm and generally much more pleasant, even if it meant sitting on concrete.

  30. My daughter can only hear out of one ear and has an extremely difficult time socializing with her classmates during lunch. I hate it for her because she is constantly turning her head and asking them to repeat what they said and they say nevermind. I believe that lunch time is social time, but it is frustrating for me and my daughter because she can't hear anyone over the hum.

  31. I just got home from having "lunch" with my daughter… It was horrible. I couldn't even hear a word she spoke to me, or anyone at the table, I had to scream to talk to anyone at our round table. I looked around and there was screaming and hitting, and two girls (6th grade) were actually yanking each others hair out while sitting at lunch. Then one hit the other in the head. C'mon. This is ridiculous. and a bit scary.

  32. I can’t stand the noise either because it reminds me of my shy childhood and the anxiety of (I believed) being stared at and finding a table to sit down at and eat. However, I love the joyous sound of children at play. Weird, huhn?

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