Making School ‘Humane’ for Everyone

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

We’ve received many thoughtful responses to my article “When Kids Sit Alone” and our request for personal stories from people who sat alone in the school lunchroom.

Harry Brighouse, a professor of education and philosophy at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, contrasts the American system of unsupervised lunch periods with his secondary school in the U.K. He says it is up to adults to make schools more humane.

My first secondary school (public, U.K.) wasn’t particularly well led, to be honest. But, we had a 90-minute lunch break. Lunch was two sittings, with assigned seating. Each table had 8 places, most had one teacher, and all had a mix of boys of girls, and a mix of years (we were 12-18 year olds, and about half the kids left school at 16, so it skewed a little bit younger). The idea that you would leave vulnerable children to be rejected by their peers (or allow them to reject their peers) at lunch time was never considered.

What you describe—adults leaving children to bully, reject, ignore each other, IS already an adult intervention. Nobody goes to school unless adults make them, and nobody would choose to be at the school with the people who bully, reject and ignore them, if they had the choice. It’s up to adults to make that experience humane, or inhumane. In most American schools they choose to make it inhumane.

Echoing Harry’s positive description of lunchroom behavior in the U.K., another educator said that teachers and students eat together in France:

My friend, whose husband was on sabbatical in France, enrolled her four children in French schools. She grew up in France, but has lived in the U.S. since she was 16. At her children’s schools, students eat family-style with their teachers at each table. They even eat courses. Lunch is an hour.

It just sounds so humane to me, even though, as a teacher who is extremely introverted (I have been known to say to my own children, particularly in the car, “It's quiet time. It’s time to stop talking to me right now for awhile.”), I would happily give up my 10-minute lunch that I had to pack at home to spend a meal with my students. It sounds like Girl Scout camp, which was also family-style.

A third teacher, Anne Coneys, has seen real benefits from providing social skills instruction to special education students within New York’s BOCES schools:

The thought [behind the program is that] once you have a shared small group experience like this, it is virtually impossible to ignore your fellow teammates once you return to school.  Part of the day is discussing the fact that it can be difficult to appreciate the talents of others when we are always so self-focused.  Students are really open to this, and when you bring them into the discussion and give them the opportunity to help others, they WANT to do it, many are just not sure how to initiate.

These activities work extremely well with students on the spectrum, and over the years I have had extraordinary experiences.  The concepts of social and emotional learning are central to our work, and there is great research available to all teachers.  While academic subjects are indeed important and central to our educational system, understanding the social and emotional needs of students (and they range as widely as learning differences) is key to the life-long success of these young people.