School Climate & Safety Opinion

Lessons From Lunch Detention

By Erin Grazak — November 12, 2013 3 min read
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As an assistant principal, I handle most of the disciplinary issues in my school. In a middle school, these cover the spectrum from attendance to bullying and fighting. It’s common knowledge that middle school is a trying time, when kids push limits with their parents and their teachers and require a lot of adult intervention. At school, intervention typically comes in the form of a consequence.

I am very fortunate that a majority of my disciplinary issues are for minor infractions. The most common consequence I administer is lunch detention.

I enjoy lunch detention. No, my enjoyment doesn’t stem from a deep-seated love of torturing kids, but rather from being able to sit and talk to these kids, my kids, about anything and everything. Last year, my kids dubbed the detention table “the Table of Shame,” and the name has carried over to this school year. Our table sits in the front of the cafeteria in between two of the four hot-lunch lines. It is no secret that those sitting at the table are there for penance from some type of disciplinary infraction. Kids pass by and wave to their friends at the table; some stop by for a quick chat before being shooed away with a reminder that attendance at the table is by invitation only, while others simply shake their heads as they walk by.


As lunchtime passes, my kids share their weekend adventures, their after-school plans, and sometimes their dreams (and disappointments). We talk about family separations, sibling rivalries, accidents, and in one case, a grandmother who came to visit and never left. We sympathize with one another and offer support. We problem-solve issues presented during these discussions and strategize suitable solutions. Most of the kids at the table are “frequent flyers"—those who continually cannot get to class on time, choose not to dress out for PE class, or simply are not doing their homework. These kids wind up serving multiple detentions during the school year.

I benefit from my time with these kids. They keep me in touch with my constituents. I learn about trends I may not otherwise be aware of. I also get to see my kids in another light. We never know what kind of emotional baggage kids carry to school each day. My lunch-detention kids have invited me to their youth-soccer and -basketball games, and I’ve gone to them. They are always noticeably pleased to be seen in a different light showcasing their skills and interests outside school.

The detention kids and I discuss grades, attendance, and current science experiments. We negotiate on early release and sometimes have competitions on taking shots with empty milk cartons to see who can make the “three-point shot” into the recycling bin. Last year’s incentive for a five-minute early release from lunch detention was to eat all of the cooked vegetables on the lunch tray. Baked carrots and steamed cauliflower were choked down to allow for a small taste of freedom (and basketball). The kids cheered each other on until the last bite was taken. Who knew that lunch detention could be a team-building event?

Students do not willingly give up their free time. Lunch detention does come at a cost. Most of my kids love to play football or basketball. When assigned a detention, they lose the opportunity to play. They lose their freedom that day, while I gain an opportunity to mentor them.

We never know what kind of emotional baggage kids carry to school each day."

Lunch detention isn’t just an administrator’s responsibility. While our teachers have a duty-free lunch period, many give up their time to cover my table when I am out of the building or hold their own lunch detentions. The attention students receive during this time from me or one of their teachers can be the bridge that keeps them coming back each day. I’ve learned that a “negative” consequence can have a “positive” impact.

As an educational leader, it’s easy to support these kids when you are out and about monitoring the instructional process. A quick reflection back to the classroom observations that morning sets the stage to ask kids how a particular assignment is coming along or how they did on a quiz. They will be amazed that you know what they are doing in class. The school improvement process also plays a part in this dialogue when your mentor group rises from the detention table and becomes a documented intervention success story in your school improvement plan. Our time spent together each day tends to shape us as a family gathered around a large dining room table. It’s our own version of “The Breakfast Club” with a diverse group of kids, but participation is by invitation only.

A version of this article appeared in the November 13, 2013 edition of Education Week as Lunch Detention, by Invitation Only


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