How to Run a Successful Lunch Bunch Social Skills Group for Elementary Students
Updated: Aug 31
As children enter elementary school, they’re learning more than just academic subjects. They’re also developing social skills that will shape their interactions with others throughout their lives. One effective way to support children’s social development is through a lunch bunch social skills group. A lunch bunch social skills group is a regular gathering of students during their lunch period, where they participate in fun and engaging activities designed to promote positive social interactions and develop social-emotional skills. In my experience, admin, teachers, and families often love lunch bunches because the kids can be seen outside of academic time as well.
In this blog post, we’ll provide a look at how to run a successful lunch bunch social skills group for elementary students. We’ll cover everything from setting up the group to planning the sessions with creative activities, and even include some tips for running the group smoothly. With the right tools and strategies, you can create an enjoyable and effective social skills group that will benefit your students for years to come!
For me, lunch bunches are more informal than some of the more targeted groups that I run like Skills for Big Feelings for developing emotional regulation. This year I have been lucky enough to be able to have a “special lunch” with every child in two grade levels already and it has been incredible! It’s also been a wonderful opportunity for me to get to know some of the new kindergarten students in a more intimate setting than a whole classroom environment.
Setting up the Lunch Bunch Social Skills Group: Figuring Out the Purpose and Goals of the Group
The first step in creating a successful lunch bunch social skills group is to determine its purpose and goals. To do this, consider the specific needs of the students who will be participating in the group. Perhaps they struggle with making friends, or resolving conflicts peacefully, or maybe they miss social cues or have difficulty communicating with others? Whatever the case may be, it’s important to identify the specific social skill areas the students could benefit from working on. This will help you in planning some of the fun activities!
If I don’t know the students very well myself, I will sometimes have their teacher fill out an informal survey that will give me an idea of their social emotional strengths and needs.
How Many Students Should you have in a Lunch Bunch Group?
I like to keep my lunch bunch groups small (usually 4-10 kids, depending on the space I have available that day.)
If I have to use my own office, I can only take 4 kids at a time because the space is small.
If the conference room is available, I can take about 7-10 kids at a time. Please note, I’ve been running groups for a LONG time, so if you are just starting out, I’d recommend starting with a smaller number of students (like 4 or less) to make it more manageable for you!
Should you have Role-Model Students in your Social Skills Group?
If you’re targeting specific skills in the group (such as impulsivity and self-control skills) then you may want to consider also having students in the group who are already displaying these skills effectively. Parents are often pleased when their children are picked to be role models. Having role models in the group can help keep the group dynamics in balance, especially if you’re having a hard time with managing behaviors.
When you see students displaying the expected behavior, you can point it out and positively reinforce it. I have found that paying attention to the positives is much more effective than pointing out the negatives. Remember the research says that corrections should be made only after 4 or more positive comments have been made to that particular student!
The Logistics of Lunch Bunch: Getting Permission and Keeping it Predictable
You’ll want to follow your school district’s policy about obtaining parent/guardian consent for participation in a group. I typically make a phone call to the grown-ups at home to explain the goals and concept of the group, and then I send home a permission slip after we have a conversation. I’ve found that a great time to start up lunch bunches is right after parent-teacher conferences because you can have the meetings in person and get the consent forms signed right then!
Personally, I don’t like to use opt-out forms. Ideally, I want to work in partnerships with the families and I want both the families and the students to be excited about the group!
Once I obtain written permission from the parent, I find it helpful to pull the kids aside before the first group to let them know the plan and what to expect. Sometimes I might even show them the space where we will meet and tell them the other logistics (when it will happen, what to do if they have a substitute teacher, where I’ll be, etc.)
You might find it helpful to make a pass to have your lunch bunch students go to the front of the lunch line if they’re buying lunch. This will have to be worked out with the teachers and cafeteria staff in advance, but it will save you some time from waiting around for those that are buying lunch! You'll want to be in the cafeteria the first few times it's used and/or warn the kids in the classrooms in advance about the passes, so other students don't get upset the first time they see them being used. I’ve included some passes for you to use in my freebie library! These can also be used as an incentive.
Download these lunch bunch passes as a free printable in my subscriber SEL resource library if you're a member. If you're not a member yet then just sign up here. Please sign up with a personal email address as some agencies/districts may block the email or send it to a promo folder.
I put the passes inside these laminated badge holders and break-away lanyards for safety. This way the students can put them around their necks safely and they can be reused each week. I like to use the break-away lanyards as they are safe for the students to wear around their necks. You might even want to drop off the passes in the teacher's mailbox that morning as a reminder.
It's important to set a regular schedule for your group. Determine ahead of time how long the group will run. Will it be 6, 8, or 10 sessions, or will it run for the remainder of the school year? Decide ahead of time and let the parents and kids both know what to expect and stick to it! Be prepared that the kids will probably beg you to keep it going when it’s time to terminate. I think it’s helpful to set durations of time for the group to run so you can rotate different kids through. Alternatively, you can do what I’ve been doing and rotate entire grade levels through at a time! This would make it more of a tier-1 intervention, rather than a more targeted tier-2 intervention, however.
Another thing you’ll want to prepare your students for is what happens if you have to cancel the group in the event of a sick day or emergency. Let the kids know in advance that this is a possibility. In my experience, your students will be disappointed if you cancel the group because so many of them look forward to it, but it’s important for them to know the plan if this does happen. You might say something like, “If we cancel the group on Tuesday, we’ll make it up on Thursday” or, “If we miss a session, we’ll make it up at the end, so we’ll make sure we get all 10 group sessions in!”
I want to stress that I think it’s important to try to prioritize seeing the kids in your lunch bunch groups. I know some school social workers, school adjustment counselors, and school psychologists get caught in a dynamic in their buildings where they are expected to constantly drop everything and attend to behavioral outbursts, but if you cancel on your group to deal with another student’s misbehavior, I think this sends a really unhelpful message to the students in your group! It’s like saying “you need to act up for me to pay attention to you.” Of course, there are emergencies, sick days, and scheduling conflicts (like an unexpected IEP meeting), and these are the things that we want to prepare our kids for. You don’t want to make it a common occurrence that they’re missing social skills group with you quite often because one of their classmates was acting out. Kids are so perceptive and they pick up on this stuff!
If you want to learn more about my relational approach to working with kids, and my passion for tier-1 social-emotional learning, please be sure to check out my book, Skills for Big Feelings.
Fun Activities for Lunch Bunch
Once you’ve figured out the topics you’ll be covering, you’ll want to choose some age-appropriate activities and games. I think it’s important to have a balance of structure AND fun during lunch bunch. Time is also a factor during lunch bunch because the kids have to eat during the group as well. I have these incredible lunch bunch placemats that have been a HUGE hit with my kids and I’m so excited to share them with you! I've found they allow for the perfect balance of structure AND fun for a lunch bunch group. Plus, if you don’t have time to get to the copy machine, you can use the digital version. And if you want to print them out, all you need is paper, pencils, and crayons to use them. My colleague is laminating hers to re-use with dry-erase markers, which is another option as well!
You can also turn any game into an SEL learning activity. You can have the students answer an SEL prompt that is related to the topic of the group before they take their turn in the game. Some of my students' favorite games that are simple enough to use during a lunch bunch group and don’t require a lot of set up, clean up, or time are:
Chutes and Ladders (this can be very visually stimulating and/or confusing for some kids.)
If you’re looking for a fun social skills curriculum, be sure to also check out my Social Skills Treasury! This growing bundle has a TON of activities for both lower and upper elementary students that are perfect for lunch bunch and target social skills areas like: self control, perspective taking skills, kindness, caring, being a good sport, and more. These resources are comprehensive and come with a social story, games, digital and print resources, coloring pages, positive parent notes home, SMART goals, and more!
I also have these incredible SEL directed drawing lessons which is a great activity for lunch bunch sessions as well!
In each of these activities, the kids will answer SEL prompts to unlock all the steps to create their own drawing. These are a big hit at my school, and my students often ask for them. All you need to do this activity during a lunch bunch is a screen (to show the prompts and drawing directions), paper, pencils, and coloring supplies like crayons, markers, or colored pencils.
Sometimes at the beginning of lunch bunch, I may even read a story that is related to the topic we are focusing on. If you’re looking for some picture books about certain topics, be sure to check out these blog posts as well:
Setting Lunch Bunuch Group Rules and Expectations
At the beginning of the group, you’ll want to work with the kids to have them co-create the group rules and expectations, or agreements. Remember to account for practical things too like “be sure to get your ketchup from the cafeteria, before you come to lunch bunch!”
You’ll want to use positive reinforcement and praise and encourage active participation and engagement with the members. If someone doesn’t want to engage, I always let them “pass” without any judgment. In time, they always choose to join in! Sometimes it just takes a little while for the kids to get comfortable.
It took me a few years to figure this out, but even if I’m having a lousy day myself and feeling tired or low energy, I still make it a point to show up in a positive, energetic, and FUN way for the kids. I think this is what makes them love their time with me. It’s my energy. I am fun and engaging with them, and they match that upbeat level of energy.
By creating a positive, inclusive, fun, and engaging environment the kids WANT to be there with me and they behave quite well during my groups. The funny thing about this is even if I started the group and am feeling kind of BLAH inside, I still show up in a fun way for the kids, and often due to their energy and enthusiasm, I usually end up having fun and feeling upbeat myself by the end of the group! I seriously love my job and treasure my time with the kids. I really do laugh so much, learn so much from them, and have so much fun with them.
More Tips for Running a Successful Lunch Bunch Group
Tip #1: Find out in advance about any food allergies your students may have and what your school’s policy is on food allergies.
Tip #2: Create passes so the students can skip to the head of the lunch line and you don’t waste a lot of your group time waiting for them to buy their lunches. You can download these lunch bunch passes as a free printable in my subscriber SEL resource library if you're a member. If you're not a member yet, you can sign up right here. Please sign up with a personal email address as some agencies/districts may block the email or send it to a promo folder.
Tip #3: Remember, your energy matters! Make it upbeat and plan to have activities that include a combination of both structure and fun.
Tip #4: Keep the groups relatively small when just starting out with about 4 or less students.
Tip #5: Before the first group, let all the students know the logistics and what to expect in advance.
Tip #6: Keep a little box in the room with things the students may have forgotten such as extra napkins, sporks, ketchup, salad dressing, etc.
Tip #7: Teach the kids how to hold their trays with two hands (to prevent spills) and how to tidy up their space when they’re leaving.
Tip #8: If you can, try to make it special by using a nice tablecloth, etc. You can even try this out for their last graduation/termination group as well. For more termination counseling activities and ideas, be sure to check out this blog post.
Tip #9: Let the kids know how special this time is by saying something like, “Wow, Mondays are such a great day for me because I get to have this special lunch bunch with all of you! I feel so lucky!”
With some planning, running a successful lunch bunch social skills group for elementary students can be a great way to build positive relationships with students and help those in need of some additional social skills support.
As a group facilitator, it's essential to create a safe and inclusive environment where students can learn and practice these social skills. Your lunch bunch will be a success with fun and engaging activities offered within a safe structure, along with effective communication and positive reinforcement! By using the tips and strategies outlined in this blog, along with your guidance and support, you’ll be able to help your students build the social-emotional competencies they need to thrive.