#Education: Cafeteria Bullying

I’m a fan of the “mini-series”– covering a topic over a series of blog posts for a short period of time. Every Monday in the month of February I’ll blog about a topic related to #education (at least tangentially).

When people ask me about my memories of eating school lunch, I reply that I rarely remember a meal, but instead I just remember holding a tray and facing a room full of people I didn’t know, worrying I would be eating by myself. I moved across the country multiple times during my childhood, including twice in middle school. That meant that lunchtime was pretty much hellish for me for weeks on end. I love my parents dearly, but sometimes I wish they would have bought me a few really cool outfits before I started at a new school. Clothes are such a big deal to kids in middle and high school. Being revisionist, I assume that cool clothes would have bolstered my confidence and helped me blend in. But considering my shy personality, I think the coolest jeans wouldn’t have changed things. I was anxious and unsure on top of being new so I was a target. In fact, in high school I vowed never to become a mother because I didn’t want my children to go through what I did.

Bullying happens in the cafeteria. Sometimes it’s the classic definition of “bullying” — one kid or a group of kids ganging up on another child. Most adults recognize this immediately and take the appropriate action. But what about exclusion and ignoring a classmate? At least in my experience, that hurt just as badly as outright verbal attacks. But teachers and adults don’t always know what to do when something is not super overt. Do you force other students to accept a classmate or does that make things worse for a student?

I was reminded of this when I read a blog post by Rob Rummel-Hudson, a dad. His daughter, Schuyler, has a severe speech problem, which is a result of…take a breath, it’s a long one…bilateral perisylvian polymicrogyria. I read his book, Schuyler’s Monster, with interest as I’m a speech-language pathologist. Anyway, recently Schuyler told him that she was eating lunch alone. I was devastated by that (so was he). Thankfully, he posted an update after he had lunch with her (at her enthusiastic request): Not alone, though not entirely not alone.

In his blog post he mentioned an organization called Best Buddies, which is a “global volunteer movement that creates opportunities for one-to-one friendships, integrated employment and leadership development for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.” They focus on critical years: middle school, high school, and college. I had never heard about Best Buddies before, but I love what they do already.

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9 thoughts on “#Education: Cafeteria Bullying

  1. I can absolutely identify with this blog post. I’m 36, and to this day, I frequently have anxiety-ridden nightmare-ish dreams of being back in middle/high-school and not having anyone to sit with in the cafeteria. Lunchtime can be so devastating.

  2. I’ve heard of schools where the students eat “family-style”. They are assigned a table made up of a teacher and students from each grade. And the students stay with this group of people each year. I don’t know how common this is but I think it’s a really interesting idea and might help for other issues too.

  3. I’m shuddering, remembering 7th grade. The tables held eight. I guess I was number nine. I HATED lunch time and am surprised I didn’t make myself ill.

    Now, I have a ten y.o. son who has just been asked to serve as a “lunch buddy” at his school. I’m so proud of him. They’ll sit four to a grouping, with two helpers and two kids who need social help. They’re getting some training for starting conversations and making social time easier for these kids. Makes me tear up.

    Would I have been part of this? Not as the one needing help, b/c I doubt any teacher ever knew how excluded I was. But it wouldn’t have surprised me if they’d chosen me to help someone else. I’m a special educator now, but I had the makings of it way back then.

  4. De-lurking for this post…this is a great post. I was definitely super shy and still to this day will eat alone at a conference rather than try and go up to a group and introduce myself. As an adult, I am okay with this, but when I saw my son at a banquet wander around with his tray not knowing where to sit, I wanted to cry and hug him. I ended up sitting with him and he seemed fine with it but I was still heart broken. I love that there is a program like this for every day school lunches. I totally agree with making school lunches healthier but sometimes all the healthy food in the world will not help with the emotional part of school lunch.

  5. @Cathy- that sure does sound like a good idea, but as a middle schooler, I can just imagine how my peers would react to it. Even I cringe a little at the thought of being told who to sit with at lunch. And have you been to a middle school cafeteria lately? You’re gonna hear swear words right and left, tons of screams and gossiping, you’re gonna see the loner kids over in the corner by themselves, the popular kids lording their power over everyone, and possibly a couple displaying PDA in the other corner. And, why would the teachers want to give up their lunch period to discipline bratty students? I’m sorry to sound so negative, but I’m highly doubtful that a plan like this would work. I mean, it does seem like a good idea, to help stop bullying, but I would need to see it to believe it. Plus, even though I make lunch time seem negative, lunch can actually be fun, the one time of the day when we can be ourselves and play with friends, without a teacher breathing down our neck. So that’s just my opinion. Maybe my school is just really misbehaved?

  6. While I certainly don’t advocate an abbreviated lunch period for any student, I make sure that my junior high and high school students know that the library is open during lunch periods at my school for anyone who needs to “escape” the lunchrooms. In fact, at the beginning of the year, when administration announced that all students would be required to stay in the lunchrooms for the duration of the 40 minute lunch period, I immediately requested that several of my past regulars be excused from the cafeteria after eating for them to come help me as “library helpers” (I have a few things they can do to help out if they want to but they know that’s not required). I was always one of those kids who found the cafeteria to be a nightmare and I will not subject any student to that same scenario if there’s something I can do about it.

  7. An interesting little view on cafeteria bullying, even with a normal child (with great social skills) and a strong school anti-bullying curriculum: My son, who loves veggies, won’t eat them at school (because most of his friends make fun of them, i.e. “Ewww — gross — you eat brussels sprouts? Ewww!).
    So, he just won’t eat them in front of his friends, because he’s really sensitive to social criticism. I send them every day; he saves them until he’s come home. Wonder how much this contributes to kids’ attitudes toward luhch, and resulting child obesity?

    Just a thought…

  8. I’m observing a self contained cross cat special ed room this semester. Our kids go from their own private bus to their own classroom to their own lunch table to their own recess and back to their own classroom until it’s time to get back on their own bus and head home. The lunch buddies program would be SO GREAT for our kids. The days I’m there during lunch, they’re constantly patting the bench next to them or pointing at me until I come and talk to them. They want attention from other people so badly. I think it would be great to have some of the kids from the gen ed tables come over and sit with our kids. It would be great for both our kids and the gen ed kids to connect and chat.

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