Bringing Calm to the Cafeteria – One School’s Success Story

by Emily Morecock, Betsy Clary, Reginald Barnes, Nadiyah Murray and Laura Schmitt

South Morrison Elementary School, Newport News, VA

Behavior problems in the cafeteria have been documented since the 1960s when students first began bringing their lunches to school. Unfortunately, attempts to control student behaviors in schools often use punitive approaches such as reprimands, detention, isolation, extra academic work. These techniques do not teach appropriate behavior and have been minimally successful in achieving long-term positive behavioral change.

South Morrison Elementary School (SMES) found a better way to help students acquire and demonstrate responsible behavior. With assistance from the Virginia Department of Education's Effective Schoolwide Discipline (ESD) initiative and supported by the Training and Technical Assistance Centers (T/TAC), the school implemented a schoolwide positive behavior support program. The basic components include clarifying positive expectations; consistently teaching, modeling, and rewarding appropriate behaviors; discouraging problem behaviors; and regularly adjusting the program based on data (Lewis & Sugai, 1999; Sugai & Horner, 2002).

Effective Schoolwide Discipline

SMES personnel reached consensus on four general expectations for their school-Be Respectful, Be Responsible, Be Safe, and Be a Problem Solver. Throughout the school year, administrators and faculty directly teach, model, and reinforce specific respectful, responsible, and safe behaviors for various school locations (e.g., halls, classrooms, playground) related to the general expectations.

The ESD program also incorporates the use of tickets to remind staff to "catch kids being good" and recognize students' appropriate behavior. Tickets are awarded randomly along with specific encouragement (e.g., "Thanks for bringing your materials," "You waited your turn quietly.") when students demonstrate behaviors that meet expectations. Tickets are redeemed for items such as school supplies, snacks, small toys, and other articles of interest donated to the program or purchased with funds from a variety of sources. Teachers also plan special quarterly events (e.g., dance, movie, games) to reward students who consistently meet expectations. Students who do not earn attendance at these events attend "booster" sessions where they review and practice expectations to support future success.

The Cafeteria Program

Despite implementation of ESD, SMES school data showed that student behavior in the cafeteria remained problematic. As a result, the cafeteria management plan was redesigned with ESD team support. Cafeteria monitors received special training on how to implement the new system. Specific cafeteria behaviors aligned with school expectations were redefined and procedures were developed to contribute to the program's success. For example, classes are instructed to walk next to the wall of the cafeteria rather than down the middle aisle when lining up before and after lunch. The lunch schedule for individual classes has also been slightly staggered to prevent long lines of students waiting to fill their trays or to return to their classrooms.

Along with these changes, green, yellow, and red plastic drink cups are placed on lunch tables to indicate daily behavioral levels. Green cups signify acceptable behavior. The yellow cup serves as a warning given when student behavior at a table begins to exceed acceptable limits. The yellow cup is replaced within minutes with either a red cup (for continued problem behavior) or green cup (for acceptable behavior). Lunch monitors record an "R" (for Red) or "G" (for Green) on their daily monitoring sheets to summarize each class's behavior during lunch.

Classes meeting cafeteria expectations are awarded daily "green cards" that are prominently displayed on the cafeteria wall to show progress. To prevent an entire class from losing green cards due to one or a few students' chronic misbehavior, special plans are designed for individual students. Fellow students are encouraged to be supportive of their good behaviors.

In addition to daily posting of green cards, classes receiving green cards for the entire week earn a star. On Monday morning, all classes earning stars from the previous week are publicly announced, and three of the classes are drawn to receive recreational equipment for class use. At the end of the month, classes with stars for the entire month attend a pizza party.

If a class receives three "red ratings" within one week, the teacher must eat lunch with his or her students to observe and identify behaviors that need to be addressed, re-teach expectations, practice responsible behaviors, and remind students of the benefits of demonstrating responsible behavior.

Student behavior, achievement, and climate at SMES have improved dramatically thanks to a school staff dedicated to implementing a positive approach to behavior. Student success has become everyone's success at SMES!

(For more complete information on Effective Schoolwide Discipline, see Effective Schoolwide Discipline in Virginia: A Statewide Initiative that Provides Positive Behavioral and Academic Supports to All Students. A Technical Assistance Manual (2007) [pdf].


Lewis, T. J., & Sugai, G. (1999). Effective behavior support: A systems approach to proactive school-wide management. Focus on Exceptional Children, 31(6), 1-24.

Sugai, G., & Horner, R. H. (2002). The evolution of discipline practices: School-wide positive behavior supports. Child and Family Behavior Therapy, 24, 23-50.

Date: May/June 2009