7 WAYS YOU CAN IMMEDIATELY IMPROVE MIDDAY SUPERVISOR ENGAGEMENT – Words by Paul Aagaard

Paul Aagaard - photo on white background

Do you feel your Midday Supervisors (MDSAs) engage with children inappropriately and only engage when they have to? Do they spend most of their time washing, wiping and wandering around talking to their colleagues and are they inconsistent in how they apply your behaviour policy?
If so, children are likely to come back into class upset. This creates two problems. Firstly, the children aren’t ready to learn again in afternoon lessons, and secondly they are likely to talk about unresolved lunchtime incidents which lead to lost learning minutes for everyone in the class.
From a child’s viewpoint this is confusing and unsettling. In the classroom everything is clear and any concerns are dealt with very quickly, but not at lunchtime. This is because MDSAs, unlike teachers, aren’t trained and don’t know how to deal with children who are upset. They often learn on the job and end up reacting emotionally to children’s concerns. Responses like “how dare you argue with me” or “hurry up and finish your dinner” are typical and make the situation worse, not better.
I have been running MDSA Training for the last ten years and have discovered that they are very motivated by being introduced to a few positive behaviour techniques. Explaining why a focus on the first behaviour and not the second will quickly stop inappropriate behaviour is one good example. Using ‘thank you’ rather than ‘please’ as a way to respectfully ask a child to do what you want them to do is another. These techniques to manage behaviour together with a practical demonstration of playground games and how to create a restaurant style lunchtime environment is a good way of getting MDSAs to engage more effectively with children. Here is a summary of the strategies I have successfully used.
7 ways to improve Midday Supervisor engagement
1. Lunchtime charter.
Schools councils often say they think their MDSAs are kind, but they really don’t like it when one contradicts the other. “It’s not fair if one dinner lady reports us to a teacher and another isn’t reported for doing the same thing”. MDSAs need help in applying their school’s behaviour policy, which is often not easy to read and assimilate. To make it more accessible I have helped schools draft their own lunchtime charter with a series of specific lunchtime behaviours and the agreed consequences. In other schools a zero-tolerance approach has been taken when it comes to any serious inappropriate behaviour with immediate consequences and no warnings. The training is a very useful way to identify and agree as a team what these behaviours are.

2. Positive behaviour techniques.
Confidence in dealing with lunchtime incidents is improved once the MDSA understands three key behaviour principles. Firstly a focus on what you want the child to do and not stop doing. (It’s so easy to say “will you stop shouting at me please” if a child is arguing with you rather than “I would like you to speak quietly. Thank you”.) Secondly the use of short, very understandable sentences. For example, at the end of lunchtime saying something like “Y2 line-up. Thank you” is commanding, respectful and authoritative. Thirdly, to partially agree and distract as a way to avoid a power struggle.

3. Changing aspirations.
MDSAs end up spending far too much time washing and wiping in the dining hall and being reactive in the playground when there is an incident rather than proactive. There are three reasons why this happens.
1. A lot of MDSAs start work with no training and perceive their job is primarily about cleaning up after the children and helping to deal with trips and falls in the playground.
2. Washing and wiping is easy and it’s a comfort zone that requires no effort.
3. Lunchtime provision in many schools is so chaotic that MDSAs are forced to spend most of their time managing the ebb and flow of children coming into and out of the dining room. There is little time to effectively engage with the children irrespective of whether they want to or not.
Although cleaning is part of a MDSAs role they should be spending most of their time engaging with the children to encourage eating, to listen to what they have to say, to teach good table manners and to facilitate playground games. It’s possible to change this perception and raise MDSA aspirations once three key objectives have been addressed.
1. They understand and are confident in using some of the behaviour techniques mentioned in point 2.
2. They are in charge of a lunchtime system that is conducive to socialising and children are motivated to eat better, eat together and engage in good conversation.
3. They don’t walk around with a cloth in one hand and a jug of water in the other all the time. Instead they should walk around looking for children to praise and reward; looking for those that need encouragement to eat their dinner and looking for those who struggle to use a knife and fork properly.

4. Pupil respect.
MDSAs often complain that children don’t respect them. “You’re only a dinner lady, my Mum says you can’t tell me what to do” is an uncomfortable but harsh reflection of how some children perceive MDSAs. However, from the eyes of a child if they spend most of their time wiping and washing they will see them as waitresses/waiters. It’s very difficult therefore for MDSAs to assert their authority when needed because children don’t think it’s what they are employed to do.

School leaders can change this perception by getting the whole school to recognise that the MDSA role is primarily about being a counsellor to listen, a teacher to help reinforce PSHE messages around friendship and socialisation, a health promoter to talk about a balanced diet (which includes a bit of chocolate) and a play worker to facilitate games. Cleaning and first aid is a small part of what they should be doing. To achieve this that means school leaders have to get MDSAs talking to school council about their views and opinions on lunchtime provision, to ask them to present any appropriate lunchtime awards in assemblies and to ensure children see that any behaviour decisions made by them are supported by teachers as part of a well communicated lunchtime charter in the classroom.

5. Engaging through play.
Children often start play fighting in the playground. Someone then gets hurt accidentally and MDSAs end up managing conflict and administering first aid. This can so easily be avoided if MDSAs were more proactive about getting children to engage in a series of simple games. Using the strategy of distraction and armed with no more equipment than a few balls MDSAs can choreograph some games for at least a dozen children. Start in a circle and teach a few ball based games such as hot potato (passing a ball quickly around the circle) or guard your gate (trying to roll a ball between people’s legs which are placed wide apart). To maintain interest make the games harder by, for example, introducing two balls or in the case of hot potato changing ball direction. You could then split the circle into two teams and start to play games such as up and over (ball over the head of one person and under the feet of the next) or number bounce (children given a number in their teams and when a ball is thrown and their number is called they have to run and get it). To calm children down in readiness for afternoon lessons ask then to make a circle again and play games like keeper of the keys (one person closes their eyes and holds a bunch of keys. Another child is nominated to collect the keys and the keeper of the keys has to then guess who did it.)

6. Lunchtime provision.
For MDSAs to effectively engage with children you have to create a restaurant style environment so children have enough time to eat and they can sit with their friends. This is achievable by creating a series of set sittings where everyone knows who they will be sitting with, when they will be sitting with them and for how long. But can this be done in a large school with a one hour lunch break? Yes it can. It just needs some classroom style planning to create friendship groups, a seating plan, a strict timetable and consultations with your pupil voice, your caterers and of course your MDSAs.

7. Rewarding good behaviour.
Rewarding good behaviour is a great way to change pupil perceptions of MDSAs. Walking into a dining hall or playground and giving out golden tickets that say ‘I am pleased with you because you chose to show good manners’ or ‘be helpful’ or ‘play well’ will get children to respect the MDSAs. However, to be effective and to make a sustainable impact they need to be linked to classroom rewards. If, for example, children are awarded house points then each golden card needs to come with a few house points too.

So, if you want your MDSAs to step up to the plate and effectively engage with the children then it’s important they benefit from some positive behaviour training and you review and audit your lunchtime provision. It may help avoid losing learning minutes in afternoon lessons and improve readiness to learning.