Do You Love Lunch?: How these feelings associate with students sense of belonging in school

Whiting, E. F., Hinton, A. E., & Jensen, B. (2022). Loving lunch in junior high: Lunchtime activities and a sense of belonging in school. Journal of community psychology, 50(7), 2973–2992.

Summarized by Maggie Bayly

Notes of Interest:

  • All humans need a sense of belonging. For students, this idea is linked to memberships and connectedness to their school community.
  • Middle school has been identified as a particularly negative influence on students.
    • This is due to the emerging physical, emotional, and social development of middle schoolers. Paying attention to informal social spaces throughout the school day provides a better understanding of how a sense of belonging develops in middle schools.
  • Student-student and student-teacher relationships are also key in promoting a sense of belonging due to the emotional link and support.
  • Lunch offers more time for increased social interactions among students. Food and mealtimes also give time for students to plan activities outside of school. However, lunchtime can also bring up feelings of anxiety.
  • This study focuses on students’ feelings about lunchtime (including lunchtime activity preferences) and how these feelings connect to a sense of belonging within the school community.
  • Though lunch can be associated with bullying or anxiety, loving to eat lunch is positively associated with feelings of belonging at school.
  • Overall, students who are either inactive or are in need of friends to talk with during lunch have lower feelings of belonging compared to those who were being active with fellow students during lunch.
  • The study encourages more attention towards lunchtime and how it contributes to a sense of belonging in the larger school community. Providing more activities during lunch can ease anxiety among students and increase their belonging.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

We explore student lunchtime experiences as they relate to student sense of belonging. We use SPSS Two-Step cluster analysis and logistic regression of data from a schoolwide survey (n = 830) in the United States. Stepwise modeling is used to determine the importance of clusters representing lunchtime activity preferences and love of lunch on belonging scores. Loving lunch significantly positively affects school belonging. Students naturally group into five distinct different activity profiles based on lunchtime preferences. These profiles are significantly related to a sense of belonging. Being active with peers during lunch was most strongly correlated with sense of belonging. Lunchtime warrants more attention for fostering a sense of belonging in the school community. Broadening lunchtime activity options, especially in schools where there are few available ways for socializing and being active, has the potential to support the diverse needs of students and increase belonging.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

Few studies address the link between informal social spaces as sources of students’ sense of belonging at school. Lunchtime is a less structured, more student‐led space with low adult supervision and guidance. For many students, this loosened structure is a much‐needed break from a highly structured school day. For others, lunchtime is accompanied by social anxiety, uncertainty, or even bullying. Our finding that loving lunch is consistently positively related to students’ sense of school belonging emphasizes the influence students’ feelings about lunchtime can have on school belonging.

Support from peer relationships has already been tied to belongingness at school (Ellerbrock et al., 2014; Hamm & Faircloth, 2005; Ibrahim & El Zaatari, 2020); our findings suggest these ties may be relevant in specific ways in the more unstructured time such as lunch. In particular, students who dislike not having friends to talk with during lunch, or who are not active, have lower overall belonging as compared to students who are doing something active with their peers during lunch.

The Active cluster typifies a student profile of those who like to play and be active outside during lunch, likely recognizable in many schools. Our findings support previous findings from Wills et al. (2005) who found that this was a more popular activity for boys. This profile of students had the highest average belonging score of all the clusters after controlling for other factors. Recognizing this as productive to school belonging and participation across other spaces in the school may be helpful as educators structure policies and practices related to lunchtime and other informal times to help students feel school belonging.

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