Paul Aagaard, and director of Recipe for Change, presents four fool-proof ways to improve lunchtimes for your pupils.


Most of the schools I visit recognise that their lunchtime provision is, as one headteacher said, “inadequate”:

  • Pupils often queue to join a queue outside the dining room and then again once they get inside;
  • Midday supervisors aren’t respected and they don’t feel valued;
  • Rules are inconsistent;
  • Communication with supervisors is often poor and they are the last to get told about any changes;
  • Pupils are bored in the playground because all they have to play with are footballs and hula hoops, and our risk averse culture says they can’t play on fields in the Autumn and Winter.

These very common issues lead to a high level of lunchtime incidents and accidents. Midday supervisors, who aren’t trained to manage behaviour, are often left to try and resolve petty arguments; rather than de-escalating them, they often get worse and pupils end up talking about unresolved lunchtime incidents in afternoon lessons.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

I have developed an evidence-based programme over the last 10 years that provides solutions to these lunchtime problems. It’s based on 4 different ways that improve behaviour and make sure pupils go back into class ready for learning.  Read on to discover 4 simple steps you can take for a successful lunchtime:

  1. 1. Social curriculum

Pupils don’t stop learning when they leave the classroom. Lunchtime is another learning opportunity and one that is not always exploited. It’s an opportunity to help pupils put into practice some of those messages that are delivered as part of SEAL (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning) and PSHE. It’s what I call the ‘social curriculum’ and how schools can support character education which includes learning about teamwork, volunteering, determination and respect.

That means helping pupils to work together when they play games, particularly when they lose. That means helping pupils understand that everyone makes mistakes, mistakes are expected and we can learn from them.

It’s the midday supervisors that need to deliver this social curriculum, but most of them might think their job is to wipe tables and police the tiny minority of pupils who are poorly behaved.

So, what do you do? There are two ways to tackle this.

Firstly, we make sure the pupils are responsible for clearing up and wiping tables so supervisors have the time to sit with the pupils and model good manners.

Secondly, we ask supervisors to give out a minimum number of rewards each day to the majority of pupils who are well behaved and make sure they adopt a policy of distant vigilance to those who behave inappropriately, unless there is a safeguarding issue.

We worked closely with Hermitage School to help them improve their lunchtimes, one step was to ban supervisors from washing and wiping tables: “Now they must sit and talk to the pupils about their food and about what they are doing”, said Elaine D’Souza, headteacher.

Supervisors are asked to give out raffle tickets to pupils who are following the lunchtime charter behaviour expectations: “Any child that gets one knows exactly why they have got it”, said the headteacher. This reward programme helps supervisors focus on the majority of pupils who are well behaved, rather than the minority who are poorly behaved.

Find out how Recipe for Change helped reduce lunchtime incidents by 70% at Hermitage School:

  • 2. Behaviour expectations


Pupils often perceive (wrongly) that school rules don’t apply at lunchtime. “The pupils rule the playground”, said a group of supervisors I trained from a school in West London, “and they don’t listen to us”. Pupils behave in this way for two reasons:

Firstly, some supervisors say they get no back-up from teachers, so if there is no consequence for poor behaviour at lunchtime, pupils will continue to behave inappropriately.

Secondly, I always ask supervisors during my positive behaviour training whether they know any of the school rules. In all schools I have visited, many of the midday supervisors are unaware of school rules. Once pupils know that supervisors don’t know the rules, it becomes impossible to effectively manage behaviour.

There are two easy-to-implement ways to solve these behaviour concerns:

1. Lunchtime charter
Get supervisors to work with the school council and develop a lunchtime charter. This will help boost engagement and help pupils perceive supervisors as teachers rather than cleaners. The charter will include all the behaviour expectations that pupils believe are fair, reasonable and acceptable.

Easy to understand examples need to be identified for each of the school rules. If one of the school rules is “always be kind and helpful”, this could include encouraging pupils to go and talk to anyone in the playground; or waiting for your friends to finish eating and leaving the dining room together. 

2. Whole-school behaviour scripts

Agree on whole-school behaviour scripts which everyone adopts to de-escalate incidents, praise good behaviour and check and correct poor behaviour. ‘Walk, thank you’ is a good example of a response to running and ’talk to me, I’m listening’ is a good script for when a child starts shouting or arguing. If supervisors use the same language as teachers, pupils are much more likely to respect them and respond appropriately.

At Hermitage School they developed a lunchtime charter based on their Caring Code and a series of whole-school behaviour scripts. The number of white slip incidents reduced from 33 in the Spring term, to just five in the Summer term after the changes were introduced — a 70 percent drop.


  • 3. The dining room


Most schools run a continuous service where pupils are called into the dining room as and when there is space — creating a very rushed and noisy environment. Supervisors spend most of their time managing the constant ebb and flow of pupils coming in and out of the dining room and can’t properly engage. Long queues, not being able to sit with friends, and friends not waiting for each other to finish creates a ‘food on the go’ style culture. This is likely to create a large cohort of pupils who just throw all their food away. The dining hall should look and feel like a restaurant so pupils are motivated to eat together, eat better and enjoy socialising.

Creating a restaurant style dining room is based on the following evidence-based best practice principles which Recipe for Change have introduced to many schools all over the country.

Friendship groups

In the classroom, furniture is arranged to provide an environment conducive to on-task behaviour. This always includes a seating plan so pupils know who they are sitting with and where. It makes sense to replicate this important classroom discipline in the dining room.

There are 4 benefits of adopting this approach:

  • Supervisors don’t have to worry about seating pupils so that it helps them engage with the social curriculum.
  • It reduces food waste because, if any table is messy, supervisors know which pupils to monitor.
  • As the same pupils are sitting at the same table in the same place each day, supervisors can easily run reward programmes for the best table of the week.
  • Pupils with SEND who thrive on routine enjoy this system because they know who they are sitting with and where.


Extended/staggered lunchtime

If a school’s lunch break is no more than one hour, the dining hall can’t accommodate a large group of pupils at any one time and as there are normally hundreds of pupils to be fed and watered it’s always going to feel rushed.

The solution is to extend lunchtimes and split the pupils into at least two groups, so one group will have lunch earlier whilst the other group stays in class. This means schools will have to make changes to their academic day. Although it can be disruptive and sometimes challenging, the benefits of staffing fewer pupils at any one time and creating an inclusive and nurturing environment in the dining room is enough of a motivator for school leaders to make this whole-school change.  

Pupil advocates

Pupils take on the responsibility of washing, wiping and cleaning. Most pupils, even infants, are perfectly capable, with a little bit of training and support, to wipe tables and sweep floors. Many pupils are eager to help and enjoy taking on this responsibility. Some schools ask pupils to be table monitors on a rota basis to clear away all the dirty plates on their table.

The benefits of this best practice on lunchtimes is:

  • There is less waste, so dining hall floors just need a quick spot mop rather than mopping the entire floor;
  • Only table monitors visit the waste station so it significantly reduces the queue;
  • It supports character education and teaches pupils about team work, working together and respect.

Pebsham Primary Academy launched a new restaurant style dining room service: “Our Dine and Shine Restaurant is a calm, social place to eat”, said the headteacher, Rachel Martin, “pupils all have adequate time to eat and socialise. Reluctant and slower eaters are catered for and are not rushed. The pupils are clear about the procedures and there have been noticeable improvements in the quality of conversation, behaviour and social skills”.

Find out more about how Recipe for Change and the introduction of the Dine and Shine approach benefitted Pebsham Primary Academy:

  • 4. The playground


Schools can sometimes be very risk averse, which can prevent pupils from doing what they want to do. Pupils love to run, jump, climb and dig. If they aren’t allowed to do so because a risk assessment says they can’t, they end up frustrated, bored and might start to fall out with each other. This creates a negative behaviour culture in the playground where supervisors are constantly telling pupils to get off the grass or not to run when it’s wet.

In so many schools football dominates the playground, mainly because there isn’t anything else to do. Play equipment usually includes balls, skipping ropes and a few hula hoops. There is often nothing else to stimulate our pupil’s imagination.

The OPAL (Outdoor Play and Learning) Community Interest Company helps make play better in hundreds of primary schools and early years settings, and have pilots in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. They have developed a set of best practice principles that will help create a nurturing an inclusive play environment that can be seen here:

Risky play

Schools need to adopt a risk benefit approach to play. The HSE guidance says: “When planning and providing play opportunities, the goal is not to eliminate risk, but to weigh up the risks and benefits. No child will learn about risk if they are wrapped in cotton wool”.

As Roald Dahl said: “The more risks you allow your children to make the better they learn to look after themselves.” Risky play involves trusting children to, for example, build stable structures using wooden pallets and ropes, and inviting them to make tree swings. As a result, children self-regulate their behaviour and start to learn about risk-taking which is hard to do if they are never exposed to risk.

Loose parts

Monkey bars, climbing walls and trim trails can be engaging for a while, but they inevitably lose their allure with time and familiarity. What really engages and excites pupils, and keeps them happy, is the provision of loose parts (scrap materials). This includes items for building dens (old doors, tarpaulins, etc.), old plastic chairs from the classroom with their metal legs removed, car tyres, cardboard boxes and hard suitcases with wheels. All this scrap material is more engaging, entertains for longer and is much cheaper than most expensive manufactured equipment.

Play policy

To help parents understand and appreciate the benefits of “risky play”, schools should write a Play Policy. This isn’t mandatory like, for example, a Behaviour Policy, but it’s a great way of avoiding parental complaints about minor injuries which the HSE say don’t need to be documented or reported unless they are very serious.

If your school is facing some of these very common playground problems, please get in touch with us at Recipe for Change or OPAL, who we work in partnership with at:

Our lunchtime improvement programme involves midday supervisor training (suitable for all support staff, including TAs and catering staff as well as supervisors), whole school consultations with pupils, parents, governors, teachers and caterers, staff twilights and the preparation of lunchtime resources.

For more information and to find out how we could improve your pupils’ lunchtimes, please email

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