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How one Cleveland school created a more comfortable cafeteria environment

How one Cleveland school created a more comfortable cafeteria environment

Horace Mann Elementary piloted the Comfortable Cafeteria program to transform its lunchroom dynamic into a soothing and enriching space for students.

The lunchroom at Lakewood (Ohio) City Schools’ Horace Mann Elementary (HME) is now a calm and peaceful place—even when it’s filled with hungry third-graders. This wasn’t always the case, though.

“During a PTA meeting last year, a handful of parents expressed concerns to me about their child’s lunch period,” says Principal Merritt Waters, Ph.D. “The children had a lot of negative things to say about the cafeteria. We were also seeing a high number of office discipline referrals during lunch and recess.”

Something needed to change.

“One of our district’s occupational therapist (OT), Suzanne Scott, came to me with an idea to pilot the Comfortable Cafeteria (CC) program,” says Waters. “CC is a six-week program, led by an OT, that emphasizes conversations, trying new foods, making more healthful choices and creating an environment that encourages students to interact with one another in a positive way.”

With Waters’ blessing, Scott reached out to one of the CC program’s co-creators, Susan Bazyk, Ph.D, OTR/L, FAOTA, who is a professor of occupational therapy at Cleveland State University. Bazyk offered guidance and assistance as Scott began the process of implementing the program.

“Creating a Comfortable Cafeteria is one of several model programs developed as a part of the Every Moment Counts initiative, which focuses on embedding strategies throughout the day to help children become mentally healthy in order to succeed,” says Bazyk. “Time spent in the cafeteria is an important part of the program.”

According to Bazyk, when the cafeteria environment is pleasant, students eat more of their lunch, do better in their academic work, have fewer behavioral problems and feel more connected to their school.

The first step for Horace Mann was orienting the cafeteria supervisors and staff members. Next, Scott began the six-week program with third-grade students. She spent one day a week in the cafeteria, offering a lesson, guidance and follow-up.

“While we focused the CC curriculum on our third-graders, all grade levels were impacted by the staff’s ability to better manage behavior during lunch,” says Waters. “The physical changes to the cafeteria also had an impact.”

The changes were small but impactful. Blue filters now screen the florescent lights. The lunch tables were divided into smaller sections for café-style seating. Plants were added into the room and caddies with plasticware and napkins are now located on the tables.

“The cafeteria is much more relaxing and less institutional,” says Waters. “It’s like a café.”

The program was a success with students who were eager to implement new skills related to everything from friendship and conversations to including others and healthy foods.

“Kids are like sponges,” says Bazyk. “When we give them the tools to promote positive behavior, it trickles over into other aspects of their lives. HME is a perfect example. The team did a really great job with CC there and the results are profound.”

“Food connects all people,” says Waters. “Learning how to interact with your peers over a meal is an important life skill. Our students have a more enriching lunch experience as a result of this program. They are taking personal responsibility for their space by throwing away their trash and volunteering to wipe tables. More conversations are happening during each meal period and better interpersonal skills are also developing. Discipline referrals are dropping, and lunchtime satisfaction is rising.”

In the fall, HME plans to replicate the program for the incoming class of third-graders while doing a refresher for the fourth-grade level. The school also plans to rearrange the schedule so that all students have the opportunity to eat lunch before recess instead of after.

“The opportunity to impact students with a program that costs next to nothing is a no-brainer,” says Waters. “As a result of CC, we now have a common language—the OTs, cafeteria managers, teachers and students—about positive behaviors.” 

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