For many students, lunch time is the most revered time of the day. It’s what everyone looks forward to. Finally, a break from structure! Right?
Well, not really. For many students on the spectrum, lunch, recess, and any other unstructured time can be a nightmare. They may have a hard time understanding how to act, what to do, or what to say during these times. They also have a difficult time finding appropriate toys or playing in typical ways. There are no rules, strict limits nor boundaries. The comfort of an small teacher to student ratio disappears when the students are thrown into a large cafeteria without quiet voices, expected situations nor general order. Other than standing in line to get your food, structure is completely thrown out the window. It's sheer chaos for your student with autism.
How to stand in line.
Where to get the food.
The right way to scoop the food.
Do I have to pay for the food?
Did I remember to grab everything?
What do I want to eat?
Where’s my milk?
Inevitably, lunchtime is such an overwhelming time of day. Your student is asked to go to a large space, remember many fine details and execute a plan with several steps. No wonder it is a nightmare!
And no wonder these times of the day cause you as a teacher more anxiety.
More anxiety around whether or not your student will be okay, make it through lunch and not have a complete meltdown. Sometimes you must sacrifice your own time to go the cafeteria, to help with your student’s anxiety or to help them with the executive functioning of each step in the process.
So, what can you do to gain back your lunch and help your student conquer the lunchroom like a pro?
1. Get Staff on Board.
Make sure that the lunch staff knows who your student is and their triggers. Fill them in on how to help your student or what your student may look like or do when they are confused, stuck, or frustrated. Help your student by introducing them to the teachers, aides or other staff members that may be in the café when you are not around. Make sure that your student feels safe and knows that these staff members will help them out if they get stuck.
2. Set Up Services During This Confusing Time.
Is it possible for the Speech Pathologist to do a lunch bunch with your student? Or maybe you can just convince them to conduct a group session in the cafeteria. This may also be a time where you can ask the Occupational Therapist to work on sensory regulation, since the cafeteria tends to be a loud and unruly place. An OT may be able to help practice calming strategies or implementation of coping mechanisms in a natural setting. This will help your student practice skills that are relevant to them and hopefully, you can fade support while working towards independence. And the value of having a staff member with your student during that time is if for any reason the café just gets too unbearable, they can safely leave and find a place to retreat.
3. Get Out of the Chaos
Sometimes the cafeteria is just too overwhelming. Too loud, too bright, too hot, too cold, too many kids rubbing elbows that it is just impossible for your student to function. If this is the case, see if it I feasible to get them out of the chaos. Remove them from the cafeteria and find an alternative environment for them. This can be tricky if you have limited staff so consider rearranging staff schedules ensure that your student have a lunch period that makes them feel safe.
4. Get Ahead of the Chaos
Can’t get out of the chaos? Maybe you don’t have the staff to be able to bring your student to an alternative spot. Maybe you just don’t have an alternative spot because you have other students in your room at that time. Or maybe your student is fine in the cafeteria, but only after they have their lunch and are sitting at a table. No matter the reason, you may come across the need for you student to have to stay in the cafeteria. If that is the case, maybe you could wake them down early. Get ahead of the lunch rush and help your student get their lunch by practicing the steps before everyone else comes in. That way you have a quieter and tamer environment to practice the routine of walking in line, choosing food, getting their milk and finding a table to sit at. Setting your student up in their seat 5-10 minutes before the lunch chaos ensues may be all they need to eat in peace.
5. Find Peers
Peers can be an invaluable tool to helping your student survive lunchtime. If possible, try finding a few good role models or friends that your student can follow through the lunch process. Maybe these students could even sit together. See if you can find a few well-rounded peers that might be willing to be a role model for your student. Chances are that many students would be willing to help your student navigate the lunch process. You could even try to group certain peers with your student that have similar interests. These interactions could become friendships and would serve nicely as a lunch bunch.
6. Make it as Structured as You Can
Okay, so maybe you have tried everything and your student still cannot handle lunchtime. They may yell, squeal, cry or stim to self-soothe. So what can you do? Structure a typically unstructured time. Make a visual schedule of the steps involved with the lunch process. Map out any area that your student gets hung up on. Is your student a picky eater? Or a fast eater? Plan an activity for them to do after they eat. Structure as much of the time as you can and make sure they understand what they are expected to do. This is a great way to avoid conflicts with the unstructured nature of lunchtime and it also can help your student with time management.