School lunch: Does it bring a sense of belonging or social anxiety?



Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

PROVO — Lunch breaks in middle schools tend to be unstructured but findings of a new Brigham Young University study make the case for implementing intentional activities that can bolster students' sense of belonging.

"For many students, the unstructured part of lunch is needed. For others, lunchtime is accompanied by social anxiety, uncertainty or even bullying," Erin Feinauer Whiting, BYU associate professor of multicultural education in the McKay School of Education and lead author of the study, said in a statement.

The research, which surveyed more than 800 middle school students, was recently published in the Journal of Community Psychology. Students responded to prompts on 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.

"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," Feinauer Whiting said.

A sense of belonging is important, but perhaps more so during adolescence because of the physical and emotional changes taking place.

"The importance of this developmental period is recognized by the large portion of the research on student belonging that focuses on students during middle‐level schooling," the study states.

"Because schools are social spaces that are multilevel and complex, formal and informal activities, policies, opportunities and norms are all relevant for understanding student experiences, including a sense of belonging. Despite research to determine what may influence student belonging, there is still much to explore."

The study describes lunch as "a prime and complex social space."

As such, it warrants more attention for how it can be related to the "school ecology" and community overall.

"Belonging is an essential experience for well-being; individual yet shared and intricately tied to community. Given the amount of time that students spend in schools and for so many of their formative years, an understanding of the dynamics of school organization for belonging certainly demands our attention," the study says.

Students at Midvale Middle School eat lunch on Tuesday. Lunch breaks in middle schools tend to be unstructured but findings of a new Brigham Young University study make the case for implementing intentional activities that can bolster students' sense of belonging.
Students at Midvale Middle School eat lunch on Tuesday. Lunch breaks in middle schools tend to be unstructured but findings of a new Brigham Young University study make the case for implementing intentional activities that can bolster students' sense of belonging. (Photo: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

The student surveys revealed five student profiles based on their preferred lunch activities:

  • Nonactive — 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 (nonactive, no lunch friends) had a lower sense of belonging," according to the study.

The research suggests there are opportunities for schools to provide some structure to the lunch hour to help more students find connections to school.

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Marjorie Cortez

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