Winning the Battle on Lunch Time Stress

When I first heard about lunch time stress, I had to look it up and I thought to myself, “Is this even a thing?” After all, I was the teacher who either offered students the option to eat lunch in my classroom with me or offered for them to sit at my table during lunch (when I had teaching assignments where I had to eat lunch in the lunchroom with the students). As a result, I never heard about kids struggling at lunch. But after stumbling across this CBS News video clip, and then doing some followup research on my own, I learned that lunch time stress is most definitely a thing!  And a lot of students suffer from it!  So, I spent some time searching for solutions to this problem and now I have a lot to share about battling lunch time stress.

 

What Is Lunch Time Stress?

Unstructured time such as lunch can cause anxiety and stress for many students. During lunch, some students have trouble without the classroom environment guiding their interactions. Students with introverted personalities or underdeveloped social skills may have difficulties finding others to sit with or have difficulties initiating/maintaining conversations with peers. In the classroom, it is clear when to talk, questions often guide student conversations, and there are usually adults close by to monitor student interactions.  However, the lunch room can be a time when few adults are present. For some students, this leads to situations where they are not included in lunch time conversations or interactions; this can lead to feelings of loneliness, isolation, and above all, stress.

 

How Schools Can Address Lunch Time Stress

Luckily, there are many things that schools can do to alleviate lunchtime stress for students! Strategies such as lunch bunch counseling groups, student-led lunch groups, and instruction on how to navigate social situations can give students the skills and confidence to enjoy their lunch time! Below are some of my favorite ways to alleviate lunch time stress.

 

What Counselors Can Do

Counselors are one of the key players for creating solutions to lunch time stress. At my school, we run social skills lunch bunch groups where students are invited to bring their lunch and a friend (if they want) to eat and play games in the counselor’s office with the lunch bunch group.  The counselor also uses this time to teach and correct social skill issues that come up while students are interacting with each other in the lunch bunch group. For more tips on running counseling groups, visit this link to my School Counselor Stephanie website. Another way counselors alleviate lunch time stress at my school is by running a daily Counselor Corner in the cafeteria during all student lunches. We set up a table and invite students to come talk with us about anything on their mind; alternately, students can just come by our Counselor Corner table to chat and say hi to us.  Here is a link to a weekly calendar template that shows how to fit the Counselor Corner into your schedule. Guidance lessons are another effective way to battle lunch time stress! Through guidance lessons, counselors can teach students techniques on making friends and starting conversations. They can then give the students guidance lesson “homework” to go practice these new techniques in the lunch room! Visit my School Counselor Stephanie store for lots of lessons to teach these techniques. Also, you can find a free lesson plan on at the bottom of this article for specific strategies to help student alleviate lunch time stress.

 

What Students Can Do

 Students are crucial in any schoolwide plan to alleviate lunch time stress. Just like in the CBS News video clip, students can start a club similar to Boca High School’s We Dine Together; encourage one of your student leader groups (like Student Council or an athletic group) to create a club where they start up conversations with students sitting alone or invite them to eat lunch at their table. Additionally, something students can do to help themselves with lunch time stress is to change their thinking! Since all stress begins with stressful thinking, you cannot get stressed unless you believe your stressful thoughts.  So, when students have a stressful thought about lunch, they can combat that thought with an alternate positive thought, like “lunchtime is only a small part of my day” or “I know one person I can sit with” or “I have a plan for starting conversations at lunch”. Encourage students to talk to their school counselor if they need more help with reframing stressful thoughts. Another thing students can do to help themselves with lunch time stress is to make a reasonable plan and take it forward with baby steps. So, if the student doesn’t have anyone to sit with at lunch, they might make a plan to initiate a conversation with one new person every week, starting with the simple question, “Do you mind if I sit here at your table?”

 

What Admins Can Do

 Of course we don’t want to leave all the lunch time stress solutions to the students and counselors, because there is so much that admins can do to help, too! For example, if you know a child who struggles during lunch, try giving that student a job to do during lunch so they only have to spend a short amount of time in the lunchroom where they feel stressed. Alternately, allow that student to bring a friend (or not) and eat with you in your office. Another idea is to create a club based on what you love to do and then invite students who battle lunch time stress to join you a few days a week to participate in your club while eating together. Here is a link to a wonderful Edutopia article on this club idea:  https://www.edutopia.org/blog/lunchtime-is-clubtime-matthew-friday

Another excellent resource to check out is the Leadership Summit offered here. It is designed to address issues like these, and can help you develop an actionable plan to solve problems specific to your school

 

What Teachers and Activity Directors Can Do

 Teach your students to “Brave the Wilderness!” This means teaching them that it is ok and even necessary to, at times, be on their own and do their own thing. It also means teaching them the difference between belonging (being a part of a group that wants you there) and fitting in (being a part of a group that is indifferent to you).  All of these ideas are essentially common sense values that Dr. Brene Brown has managed to articulate in a way that we can all understand. She does this through her fabulous book, Braving the Wilderness and here’s the link because it is a must-read for educators and counselors! You can begin teaching your students the skill of “braving the wilderness” by guiding them to explore, choose, and apply their healthy coping skills- here is a link to an activity on healthy coping skills. Another way to help them master this skill is by telling them over and over to believe in and belong to themselves first!

 

Free Lesson Plan

In closing I’d like to leave you with a freebie guidance lesson that features strategies for alleviating lunch time stress. It is a lesson that students can apply while at school. This lesson can be taught by a counselor or any other school staff member. 

 

That’s all for today, Folks. Hope to see you back here next month for my March post on helping students who struggle with test stress.

Stephanie Lerner
School Counselor, TEEN TRUTH

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