Group work has long been used by school counselors and teachers to help build soft-skills capacity for struggling students. Lunch groups are another way to help foster these positive interactions so that students gain skills and form bonds during a time of communion.
The etiquette involved in eating and interacting with a group can be applied in other contexts at school and at home. And incorporating a literary study aligned to specific character skills into a lunch group can really maximize this kind of group work to make connections and improve confidence as well as social skills.
Putting these ideas into practice, I started a lunchtime discussion group with fifth-grade boys who were struggling in their own ways. One boy had been in school for two months and had yet to connect with anyone, another was on the autism spectrum and needed help learning how to navigate social settings, another just needed a fresh start, and the other four were experiencing behavior difficulties.
Logistics of the Lunch Group
I sent each student a personal invitation to join me for lunch every Friday and a permission slip for their parents to sign so that they’d be aware of what their children were doing in school.
Tying a literary component into the social skills work gave the students something to focus on and a place to ground their thoughts. We worked through lessons that I based on a book I had been reading with my own sons, Rules of a Knight by Ethan Hawke.
My hope was that the boys would think knights were cool and be curious enough about how one became a knight to pay attention to the lessons contained in the book. Themes such as solitude, gratitude, humility, and listening rather than speaking are discussed, each in its own short chapter.
Each Friday for three months, I met with the group. Attendance was encouraged but not mandatory. We ate lunch facing each other in a rough circle so everyone could participate in the conversations. I modeled and explicitly taught appropriate manners, such as chewing with a closed mouth, using a napkin, not interrupting others who are speaking, and practicing gratitude. Turn taking was a skill that needed a lot of reinforcement.
Making the circle a safe space was a foundational goal. I would immediately address any teasing, and everyone had an opportunity to safely express their thoughts.
I reminded students of the lessons with gentle prodding when they deviated from the expectations of kindness, respect, gratitude, and especially patience while listening—I recommend collectively establishing a code of norms to reference when needed. This creates a common language and set of expectations to adhere to.
Conversations started with intentional questions and then continued organically. I would ask a specific question of a certain student, perhaps about a project they were working on or a personal anecdote they had shared earlier, or I would use benign queries such as, “Describe someone you admire.” I never asked prying questions that would make the students uncomfortable.
Seeing Some Results
Whereas initially they may have felt singled out when they were chosen for the group, the students gradually became more of a team. The new student, who was very shy, began to open up and make friends with the rest of the group. Other students’ behavior began to improve in class. The student with autism started to understand the value of listening to others.
They would bring snacks from home and share with each other. They ate with their mouths closed, said “please” and “thank you,” and always cleaned up after themselves. I ate with them, and we practiced polite conversation until it was time for the lesson.
Using a piece of writing that is of high interest is a great hook for all attendees and may be especially helpful to struggling readers. I didn’t ask them to read the chapters ahead of time so we could go through the book as a group—that way I could model an active reading process and ask guiding questions.
If you use longer works or novels, having the group read ahead of time may be more appropriate. Poems and song lyrics are generally short enough to be read as a group.
Groups like this can be formed for any students who need a little something extra from school, including students on the autism spectrum, newcomers, shy students, and those with behavior difficulties. Being part of a small community can help such students find their place among the other kids at school. They may form connections with others whom they never thought to befriend and finally be part of a tribe.
Suggested Books for Elementary Students
The Three Questions by Jon J. Muth: A boy asks his friends—a heron, a monkey, and a dog—for help answering three burning questions about being a good person.
So Much by Trish Cooke: A romp through an afternoon of family and fun seen through the eyes of a small child who is loved in different ways by various family members.
Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai: A powerful picture book written by the Nobel Peace Prize winner. “If I had a magic pencil... I would use it to make other people happy.”
Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi: Gandhi’s grandson recounts a lesson about how anger is like lightning—he can use it to destroy or to bring light. Which will he choose?
Suggested Books for Middle and High School Students
Warriors of the Light by Paulo Coehlo: Short vignettes examine purpose and passion.
Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan: A girl’s tale of change and understanding—of finding meaning in the earth and in a new life.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle: A young girl takes an empowering journey through the universe and returns home.
The Missing Piece by Shel Silverstein: A simple tale with a poignant statement about longing. “I can be someone’s and still be my own.”