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Lunch And The Value Of Non-Cognitive Skills

This column has been corrected to reflect the fact that family lunch is still part of the curriculum at the Weekday School.

At the Weekday School at Riverside Church, there is a central piece of curriculum that taught preschool children self-control, empathy, and social skills, as well as basic math. That curriculum is called “lunch.”

In each Weekday School classroom every day, 3- and 4-year-olds are responsible for serving themselves out of common bowls, family style. Each day one child is given the job of setting the table, which requires counting the number of children in the room and setting out, in a pattern, the proper numbers of forks, spoons, and napkins.

The children pour milk and juice out of pitchers, decide how much food they wanted, serve themselves, and pass food to others. They learn to judge portion size, and not to waste. In at least one class when my children attended, a worm compost bin continued the lesson, as children observed how food scraps supported other living communities.

Lunch at the Weekday School is a beautiful showcase for what Paul Tough, author of the new book “How Children Succeed,” calls “non-cognitive skills.” I was reminded of this when Tough presented his ideas to a roomful of parents and educators at last week’s event sponsored by GothamSchools.

Tough also talked about training relationships, which could include music, sports, chess, or any other activity, often involving competition, where kids get the important experience of failing, and approaching failure productively. Running has been a source of this experience for my eldest. In cross-country and track, he has learned important lessons of perseverance and endurance, goal-setting and patience.

My kids are in high school now, but recently I met the mother of a current preschooler at the Weekday School. She said she was concerned about the family-style lunch’s future. Fortunately, the tradition is intact, but her concern sounded plausible to me because I have observed all of the schools my children have attended navigating a tension between academics and everything else.

Even in my kids’ day, there was pressure from some for the preschool to be more “pre-academic,” meaning an emphasis on worksheets and testable skills, and a counter-push for emphasis on “character,” meaning an emphasis on empathy, self-control, creative play, and other non-cognitive skills.

In today’s frenzy of test-based accountability and reliance on measurable data, elements that are in many ways so easy to include in classroom experiences, and that are essential for students’ success later in life, are being ignored. Paul Tough’s book reminds us of what is being left behind.

Jennifer Freeman is a science writer who has served on the Community Education Council of District 3. She has been a public school parent since 1999.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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