For many middle-schoolers, finding a sense of belonging is difficult. Developing relationships with classmates and adjusting to new behavioral norms in secondary education settings can hinder belonging. School structures also play an important role in facilitating belonging, through policies, class sizes, and extracurricular activities.
A recent BYU paper identifies school lunchtime as an important – yet underutilized – opportunity to build belonging among middle-school students. The research indicates that students who enjoy lunchtime are more likely to feel that they belong at school; which is correlated with better academic outcomes and better mental health. Researchers say implementing intentional lunchtime activities can bolster students’ sense of belonging.
“Teachers often think of lunchtime as ‘off time’ but students don’t necessarily view it that way,” said Dr. Erin Feinauer Whiting, BYU associate professor of multicultural education in the McKay School of Education and lead author of the study. “School lunchtime isn’t curricular time, but it is a central part of the hidden curriculum.”
The research, published in the Journal of Community Psychology, surveyed over 800 middle school students in Utah. Students responded to prompts about how much they felt a sense of belonging, indicated which activities they liked and disliked doing during lunch, and answered questions about their favorite and least favorite parts of the school day. The results showed five naturally occurring profiles of students based on their preferences for lunch activities:
- Non-active. Students who selected few activities they liked or disliked participating in during lunch.
- No goof-off. Students who dislike goofing off or messing around during lunch.
- Studious. Students who like to read a book or finish homework at lunch.
- No lunch friends. Students who are unsure what to do or dislike lunch because they feel that they don’t have lunch friends.
- Active. Students who use lunchtime to go outside, be active, goof off, and talk to friends.
Unsurprisingly, students who were active with friends during lunch were more likely to experience a higher sense of belonging while at school. Students who didn’t enjoy lunchtime (non-active, no lunch friends) had a lower sense of belonging. Researchers say there’s an opportunity for schools to provide some structure to the lunch hour to help more students find connections to school.
“For many students, the unstructured part of lunch is needed. For others, lunchtime is accompanied by social anxiety, uncertainty, or even bullying,” said Whiting. “Teachers can look for ways to provide spaces for students who prefer quieter activities or chances to study. There are all kinds of things a school can do, but often they’re just not thinking about it for the potential it can have.”
Whiting is quick to point out that lunchtime shouldn’t become an extra task or burden for teachers, who are already doing herculean work shepherding students through some of their most trying years. But schools can be creative, especially in considering ways to support students who may not already find lunchtime to be a supportive space in school. For example, offering semi-structured lunchtime activities like an occasional celebration or small lunch groups that are led by students or adults could be valuable to build and strengthen the school community and improve the experiences of students at school.
“The opportunities to add targeted, structured activities during lunch will likely be different from school to school,” said Whiting, noting that each school is responsible for addressing the unique concerns of its students. “Our finding that loving lunchtime is consistently positively related to students’ sense of belonging underscores the importance of facilitating meaningful and integrated lunchtime experiences.”