Association of Washington School Principals
Volume 3 – 2020-21
It’s Like Family
Tacoma Principals Report Better Behavior, More Learning Time with Breakfast in the Classroom
Alicia Lawver
Strategic Planning & Policy Manager, Tacoma Public Schools
Evaluation Criteria: Creating a Culture, Closing the Gap
“Breakfast in the classroom” — a phrase that can increase the anxiety of administrators, teachers, custodians, and school support staff who fear interruption, mess, and utter chaos. Tacoma Public Schools (TPS) addressed these concerns head-on with their 2019-2020 pilot of Breakfast After the Bell. “It changed the whole feel of the school to a calmer, quieter, happier beginning to the morning,” said Joni Hall, principal at Blix Elementary School.
Abby Sloan, principal at Reed Elementary School, said she was most excited about moving breakfast from the loud chaos of the cafeteria to the classroom. “Breakfast was the only time when all the kids were in the same place.” Between high ceilings and the echo of non-carpeted floors, “it was a loud and overstimulating way to start the day.”
Sloan now describes classrooms where students quietly put away their things, get breakfast, then settle in for morning “community circle” time. “The value of the family atmosphere, breaking bread with someone, and eating with others is part of that,” said Sloan. “They open up about their lives. The social and emotional benefits for these kids are massive.”
Fears of having less instructional time were never realized as teachers reported students transitioned more quickly to the school day as they had time to eat and calm down. Fears of a messy environment were addressed with simple clean-up routines and strategically placed trash cans in hallways.

Both Sloan and Hall found that food is an essential school supply, and breakfast in the classroom assures all students have access to a healthy school breakfast. This has led to fewer discipline issues, quieter mornings, more attentive students, and happier teachers.
They open up about their lives. The social and emotional benefits for these kids are massive.
It’s Also About Equity
A 2015 Share Our Strength Report reinforces what Hall and Sloan are experiencing firsthand; 75% of educators whose students eat breakfast in the classroom report that it makes a difference: students are more alert in class, exhibit less disciplinary problems and have better attendance. In addition, breakfast programs can foster a sense of classroom community and lessen the social stigma often faced by students who rely on school breakfast. “We may not do blue tickets and red tickets (to differentiate students who qualify for free meals vs. paid meals) anymore,” said Hall, “but there was still a divide with kids the way it used to be.”
Research shows students who eat breakfast and lunch at school rely on school meals for half of their daily energy intake.[1] With food insecurity rates skyrocketing due to the economic hardship triggered by the coronavirus pandemic — experienced disproportionately by black, indigenous, and other people of color — one in four children are estimated to be struggling with hunger[2]. School meals are more essential to equitable student academic success than ever before.
In a traditional breakfast model, students must be at school early to eat breakfast before the bell rings. Late students can still get a meal, but it comes with consequences.
Hall describes her school as one with a lot of walkers who would arrive early to play with peers on the playground. Students had to choose between eating or having positive unstructured social time. Often students try to be successful at both, resulting in being tardy to class and risking potential discipline infractions as well as missing calming entry tasks and instructional time.
“Breakfast in the classroom pulled away the institutionalized feel of breakfast to a more community-based, family type of atmosphere,” said Hall. “Pulling breakfast into the classroom calmed everything down. It’s like family, it made the bonds different; it just felt really good.”
  • Common fears:
  • It’s messy
  • Loss of learning time
  • Interruption in morning
  • Observed realities:
  • Fewer discipline issues throughout the day
  • Faster transition to learning time
  • Social and emotional learning benefits, “family feeling” in classrooms
Advice To Other Principals
Working as a team across building departments was a big part of what made Breakfast After the Bell successful, agree both Hall and Sloan. Nutrition staff, custodians, teachers, office staff, and principals were all included in the planning and the rollout.
“We worked through the worries, walked through the responsibilities of the new environment, talked about the benefits of getting to the education instruction right away,” said Sloan. “And once they saw that instruction was actually happening earlier because of no need to transition … teachers were sold.”
Hall attributes articulating the “why,” getting a core building team on board early to work out logistics and focusing on the positive as keys to their success.
“Be ready to support people, help with their concerns, help with challenges,” Hall said. “I would continuously affirm that it’s going to be a good thing … it might not be perfect right away, but it will be really good.”
TPS’s Nutrition Services team worked closely with the United Way of King County to get start-up equipment and provide ample training and support to schools, including AmeriCorps volunteer staff who worked closely with school communities on implementation details. “We really felt supported in rolling it out,” said Hall. “I think that was a big part of the success, everyone working together.”
Pulling breakfast into the classroom calmed everything down. It’s like family, it made the bonds different; it just felt really good.
The Results Speak For Themselves
Breakfast After the Bell initiatives increase the number of students eating breakfast.
Before TPS launched its Breakfast After the Bell pilot program in December 2019, the district’s breakfast participation rates were “miniscule” said TPS Nutrition Director Paul Harris, citing breakfast participation at 18 percent districtwide. Harris set a goal that 70 percent of students who eat free lunch at school also eat breakfast.
In the six elementary schools with breakfast in the classroom, the results were dramatic. By removing barriers and stigma to eating breakfast at school, more than 70 percent of all enrolled students at pilot schools regularly ate breakfast together in the classroom. Roosevelt Elementary, a school with a high percentage of students who qualify for free meals, saw breakfast participation immediately increase from 25 students to more than 200.
Like many school districts across the state and country, the TPS Nutrition Services team continues to feed students during pandemic-related school closures. Their experience with innovative meal programs, like breakfast in the classroom, enabled the team to quickly transition to curbside meal pickup and meal delivery to neighborhoods.
Breakfast in the classroom during a pandemic isn’t the same experience, but for many principals it is an introduction to the national best practice and a unique opportunity to lay the groundwork for longer-term innovation. As students return to on-site learning, TPS now offers all students a grab and go breakfast they eat in the classroom.
In 2021-2022, TPS will build off the foundation of last year’s success and institutionalize grab-and-go and breakfast in the classroom district wide.
The overarching takeaway? “It’s all about the kids,” affirms Harris. “Making sure kids get breakfast can change their lives.” Increasing access to school meals, including breakfast, is an important step towards eliminating racial and health disparities in our school communities.
[1] Weber Cullen, K. & Chen, T. (2017). The contribution of the USDA school breakfast and lunch program meals to student daily dietary intake. Preventive Medicine Reports, 5, 82-85.
[2] Feeding America. (April 22, 2020). The Impact of the Coronavirus on Child Food Insecurity. Accessed at 04/Brief_Impact%20of%20Covid%20on%20Child%20Food%20Insecurity%204.22.20.pdf
Watch Our Breakfast After the Bell Video to Learn More
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Washington Principal | Volume 3 – 2020-21