There’s something about seeing a sad, lonely kid at a lunch table that stokes the uberprotective embers in a mom’s belly. I totally get that. But should we intervene any time we see a kid sitting alone during lunch? Apparently, there are schools from elementary on up that do some form of assigned lunch period seating on a rotating schedule. Each has their own reasons: to break up cliques, prevent kids from eating alone, build the community by ensuring as many people in the school know one another as possible, and so on. Parents in comments sections on social media mostly seem to love the idea, but I’m having a hard time being all for it.
School days consist of one big schedule that somebody else pieced together for the kids. They are told where to go, when, and with whom. Lunch period (and recess, for those that still have it) is the only time they have to feel empowered, to choose who they spend time with. Add on top of that busy after-school schedules that often aren’t compatible with their friends’ schedules: music, sports, arts, and familial responsibilities. This lunchtime break is THE time they get to take a breath and make a choice about who to hang out with. I know kids in high school who still talk about their middle school lunch table days with fondness, because that’s not even an option anymore, since their schedules now are even more spread out. Those four years of one daily period of freedom to spend with friends was something they needed then and are grateful for years later. If they had had forced seating, they would have missed out on this.
One private K-12 school in Wisconsin has always had rotating assigned seating, mixing up grades and students in order to help develop their social skills with tables full of new people to talk to. An elementary school in the same state decided to give a similar model a try in order to cut down on what felt like “chaos” in the lunchroom: kids hurrying to sit with friends, rushing to sit in a favorite spot before someone else nabbed it, or students who lacked either popularity or good social skills sitting alone. The new method calmed the situation and prevented anyone from ever being left alone. But what about people like me, who sometimes need some time alone to decompress and feel less stimulated so I can take on the rest of the day?
Forcing me to interact with a table full of people I didn’t choose every day—especially if there was someone there for the week who was particularly stressful for me—would absolutely do me more harm than good. I don’t think I would have been someone who would have qualified for an IEP that’d get me an “out” for the lunch program, and I’m sure there are many others that fall in that same window. (We quiet people sometimes stick together.) Why should we lose out on our one chance to recharge, only to be completely over-stimulated, instead? Many of us quieter folk have well-honed social skills, we just need a break now and again. This would take that break away.
Finally, many of us have been victimized in one way or another. Maybe it was a one-time bullying thing, or maybe something bigger: faculty and administrators do not always know about it. Forcing kids to potentially sit with people they feel threatened by is awful. As a kid, teen, and young adult, I have been put in the position where I was physically placed against my will by someone in public who was a threat to me and I was unable to say anything. I could only sit there and breathe, hoping they did not decide that my proximity meant it was time to target me once more. It’s a nightmare I wouldn’t want to subject any other kid to. Classroom seating can be enough of a dynamic to manage, that forcing this face-to-face at lunchtime is not yet another thing we need to make these kids have to deal with. If you share classes with kids who are low-key mean to you all day and your only reprieve is lunch with friends who are in other classes but share a lunchroom that one hour with you, how would it feel for the school to then take it away? Probably like one more punch in the gut.
All of us have felt isolated as kids. We wanted to make a particular new friend, we wanted to say the right thing to jump into a conversation or get invited into the game, but the words wouldn’t come or the kids weren’t receptive.
All of us have dealt with bullying as kids. We were picked on verbally of physically, or we made some bad choices and were the ones being mean to somebody else.
All of us have become caught up in a group of friends or a clique as kids. We either just got so comfortable with who we were used to hanging out with that we never bothered to hang out with someone new, logistics (geographical, sports teams, etc.) made us lazy, or jealous friends held us back from taking potential new friendships anywhere.
These aren’t things that assigned seating at lunchtime are a cure-all for. Sure, it could help some of it or at least give some people a little break from it. But instead of taking away a midday slice of freedom from the kids, why not incorporate some life skills into the curriculum that could help these issues? Social skills can absolutely be folded into various existing lesson plans. There are fantastic books, movies, and speakers who talk about bullying who can really speak to this topic (as would a zero-tolerance policy). And Spirit Weeks, which are often more for fun than anything meaningful, could easily be turned into a week of inclusion and kindness, about meeting new people or making connections between the grades.
If you look a little closer, maybe that solo kid at the lunch table isn’t sad they’re alone; maybe they’re relieved. And maybe that group of kids isn’t a clique keeping other people out; maybe it’s just everybody who wanted in–and you can’t quite see the space they made for anyone else who wants to squeeze in from where you’re standing.
Kids are smart and thoughtful. If we ask them what they really want, they just might tell us. So how about we start there, instead of taking away their one unstructured hour a day in the hopes that forcing a rotating social schedule will fix a bevy of ills we the adults are worrying about?