Focus on Five: Making Lunch a Learning Experience

Categories: Basic Skills

Lunchtime! It’s arguably most kids’ favorite “subject”, but it can also be a rich learning opportunity for, really, all students, but especially students with low-incidence disabilities. This year, my students’ lunch time is before their recess, so I am able to take them down to the lunchroom a little early and take advantage of the time teach skills within the context of lunch. This is a great time to teach many skills because there are five guaranteed practice opportunities per week, it’s highly motivating (food!), it’s repentant and it allows the opportunity to interact with staff and peers outside the classroom. Here are five skills that students can learn during lunch…

1. Waiting

Possibly one of life’s most boring, but essential skills.  Waiting calmly and quietly is a highly functional skill and can be a struggle for some students, especially when waiting to eat lunch. During this time, we read the lunch menu and I remind students to tell the lunch staff what they want, ask for help and to say “please” and “thank you” (for my higher functioning students with the verbal capability). The Autism Helper’s Time Management and Waiting Visuals can be helpful to use with students while waiting in the lunch line. Teaching students options of what they can do (while paying attention to the lunch line) while they wait can also be a valuable skill (e.g. think about what they are going to do later, have a quiet conversation with a friend, think about their lunch choices).  

2. Functional Skills

Everything students do during lunchtime is a highly functional skill. From reading the menu to entering their lunch code into the keypad, students are practicing skills that they can use or apply to another skill they need for independent living. All the ABLLS-R eating skills can be assessed during lunch time (e.g. managing their tray, cleaning up their area, using utensils). This year, I had students learn their 4-digit lunch code on the keypad. Most students have memorized their numbers. Some still are using their cards as a reference, but that is still a highly functional skill. Making sure you have all the condiments and utensils you need is also a highly functional skill.  Asking to get up of you forgot anything is also something that should be encouraged.  Creating a rubric or checklist can be helpful for you and staff to really zero in on the functional skills that each child is working on during lunch time.  

3. Requesting

Lunch is a highly motivating activity, therefore making it a great opportunity to practice and refine requesting skills. Encouraging students to directly communicate with lunch staff directly is key. Going down to the lunch line with my class also gives me an opportunity to model to paraprofessionals and lunch staff the expectations for students and how to interact with each student’s specific communication style and preferences. For example, allowing some students to indicate by pointing while making students who can communicate verbally say their selection aloud directly to lunch staff without prompting. This is also a great time to show lunch staff and paraprofessionals how to encourage (or require) a student  to use their AAC to communicate what they want.  Requesting help is also a really important skills that can be easily practiced during lunchtime. Too often, staff anticipate the needs of students and help them before they ask. Teaching students (and staff!) when to ask for help is an invaluable skill that students will be able to take with them beyond school. Modeling prompting students to ask for help or waiting for a student to ask for what they need can be helpful for staff so they can also aide in helping students to become more independent. 

4. Choice Making

Teaching choice making at lunch is a very motivating way to teach choice. Many students who have a difficult time making choices in the classroom are able to make lunch choices easily and independently. Students at my school have to choose between two or three entrees and within those choices, there might be several options within a single meal. For example, if your school is serving nachos with cheese and meat, there are three to four options within that entree- nachos with cheese and meat; nachos with just cheese, nachos with just meat and just chips. Teaching students choice making and learning their own preferences is an invaluable skill. We learned through trial and error that one of my students just likes the plain chips. Now that everyone knows that is an option, she is able to non-verbally indicate that she wants just chips. Also, there is a section where students can select their fruit, vegetable and snack items. While it can be tempting to ask students what they want and get it for them to keep the line moving, there are so many opportunities for different skills to be taught (asking a peer for help, asking lunch staff for help, communicating when they accidentally make a mess). Think about you going to the grocery store-you like to pick certain produce based on look and feel. We need to give our students the same opportunity because they also have sense and opinions about what they want. 

5. Social Skills

My class is pretty social this year, but there is room for all students to practice social skills. Depending on the levels of your students, sitting next to a peer appropriately may be a skill that they are working on (and there are at  5 opportunities a week to practice this skill!). They can also work on sitting next to a variety of peers. Students who are already social may be able to be prompted to sit with different peers or sit with their same-aged general education peers.  As mentioned before, making students talk directly to lunch staff instead of serving as the translator between your students and other staff members. This also teaches school staff strategies and ways of communicating with people who have diverse needs and helps to demonstrate what students can do instead of focusing on skill deficiencies. This is also another good opportunity to use students AAC for more than just requesting and teaching verbal communicators how to interact with a student who uses AAC by modeling patience, wait time and respect.  

I hope this gave you some ideas and inspiration to make your students’ lunchtime a relevant learning experience. Share your lunchtime procedures and other ways you teach functional skills throughout the day!  

Holly Bueb
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