Conquer the Cafeteria

I’ve written before about difficult listening situations: large group presentations, meetings at work, crowded restaurants, but one that comes up most frequently for students with hearing loss is the dreaded cafeteria.  The room is often an acoustic nightmare, but time spent socializing with friends on a break between classes cannot be replaced.  What’s a student to do?  Here are some tips to conquer the cafeteria.

 To help you have your cake lunch and eat it, too, we can take a two-pronged approach:

  1. Environmental accommodations: how can we change the room, the seating, the noise level, etc.?

  2. Communication repair strategies and self-advocacy: how can we change the way we converse to make it more understandable for a person with hearing loss?


If you use a personal FM or soundfield system, consider bringing it along with you and placing the mic in the middle of the table. It won’t provide as clear a signal as it would if it was being worn by just one speaker, but it will at least provide a “bump” in the level of conversation from those around you versus the background noise of the room.

Seat yourself smart.  Like I said, cafeteria acoustics are the stuff of nightmares — they often have tiled floors and hard walls (lots of reverberation), tons of chatting students, a noisy kitchen, and more.  Help yourself out as much as possible by choosing a table away from sources of noise (don’t sit by the lunch line, the door, or the window that overlooks the playground).  Older students may be able to manage making this choice on their own.  Younger students may need some coaching or gentle directions from a teacher or lunch monitor on where would be the best place to sit.  Some schools assign each class a specific table in the cafeteria.  If this is the case at your child’s school, it’s worth asking for her class’s table to be conveniently assigned to one of the best, quietest spots.  This is not an unreasonable accommodation, and, because it affects your child’s ability to participate in a typical school environment, it can be written into her IEP.

Monitor noise levels.  A noisy lunchroom is a headache for everyone, not just students with hearing loss.  Many schools have implemented noise monitoring systems, like these “noise traffic lights,” to help students self-police their own noise levels and cut down on the overall din.  Any time you have lots of people in one room talking, it’s going to be loud, but having some sort of monitoring system, whether a device like the one above or even a hand signal from adults to request quiet, can reduce some of the over-the-top racket and yelling.

Get into position.  Just as some tables in the cafeteria are better than others, some seats at the table can also provide an advantage.  Different people with hearing loss have different preferences that work for them — do you prefer to be at the head of the table, sitting in the middle, or at a round table where you’ll have a clearer eyeshot and earshot of everyone in the group?  Consider table size, as well.  If you’re seated at a very long rectangular table, it’s not reasonable to expect yourself (or anyone, with or without a hearing loss) to be able to converse from end to end.  Either chat with your immediate seat mates, or choose a smaller table if possible.  Some university dining halls also pipe in music, with the hopes that this “enhances” the students’ dining experience… not so much for students with hearing loss!  Take note of the location of the speakers, and choose a table away from them.

What time is lunch?  If your child’s school has lunch in shifts, see if it’s at all possible that his class be assigned to a quieter time or less crowded lunch slot.  If you’re a high school or university student who has control over your own lunch time, visit the dining hall during slightly off-hours when it will be less crowded and quieter.  I remember a lot of early, early mornings in college when my friends and I ate breakfast as soon as the dining hall opened before our 8AM class.  We didn’t love the early wake up call, but the room certainly was quiet!  Get a feel for your campus — when classes let out, when clubs are more likely to be meeting in the dining hall, etc. — and try to plan your meal times accordingly.

Can we eat elsewhere?  If your child is really struggling in the cafeteria, it may be time to request alternate accommodations for lunch time.  I think we need to view this as a last resort, because inclusion in the mainstream is what this is all about, but if the child is miserable or not able to enjoy lunch with friends, it might be time for a change.  Could the child and a group of friends relocate to an alcove or unused classroom?  (This may be difficult with school staffing requirements, as the children must be supervised and the school may not have the personnel to devote one monitor to such a small group, but it’s worth asking if you feel it’s what your child really needs.)  If you’re a high school or university student with more freedom as to where you eat your lunch, go elsewhere on campus!  Either pick up food from the dining hall and take it outside or to a quieter indoor spot, or choose a secondary eating venue on campus.  Most universities have a large dining hall but also several other on-campus dining options, like a coffee shop, sandwich cart, etc.  Those will likely be much quieter places to eat.


While there’s a lot we can do to modify the environment of the cafeteria and make it as listening-friendly as possible, there are still limits, and it’s still a challenging situation.  But there are even bigger changes we can make in how we communicate, how we repair communication breakdowns, and how we self-advocate that can make the difference between a good meal and a bad one.

Self-advocacy is key.  Even the youngest students with hearing loss need simple strategies like repeating for clarification (e.g. a friend says, “Do you want a cookie?” and the child, not sure that he heard correctly, repeats, “A cookie?”).  This developmental milestone should occur naturally around the time a child is 2-3 years old, but if it doesn’t you may need to teach it explicitly (before school starts!) or even simply to say, “I didn’t hear you.”  Older students can be even more proactive, repeating the part of the message they did hear and requesting clarification for what they missed.

Remember that just because others know you have a hearing loss doesn’t mean that they understand how it affects your ability to communicate in large groups.  Many friends will assume that, because you listen and speak well, you should have no trouble in a noisy, large group setting.  Most people aren’t thinking about listening all the time like we are, and they don’t realize the effects of distance, noise, and multi-talker situations.  Don’t be a victim of your own success, and make your needs known.  If you bluff or keep quiet, you risk being left out or putting your foot in your mouth or being in an embarrassing situation.  Take control by letting others know: It’s really difficult for me to hear in a big group, could you please:

  • Tell me the topic before starting the conversation (for example, it’s a lot easier to understand “What classes are you taking next semester?” than starting a conversation with “Are you taking Calc 101 or 201?” out of the blue)

  • Repeat or rephrase a question if I don’t answer you the first time

  • Try not to talk over each other

  • Move to a quieter table

  • Fill me in if I miss something (remember that “nevermind” is a bad, bad word!)

Let’s do lunch.  Sometimes, it’s actually an easier communication situation to do a “working lunch” — either a club meeting or a study session with friends, where the topic is already known.  If you meet for a purpose, you’re much more likely to have a focused conversation, which can be easier to follow.  Ask friends if they’d like to study over lunch, or meet to discuss a project.  That way, the topic of discussion is established and you’re likely to be in a smaller, more controlled group.

Ultimately, lunch time may never be your easiest listening situation, but by making some simple tweaks you can help yourself out immensely.  As with everything, the more relaxed and self-accepting you are about your hearing loss and the more up front you are about politely advocating for your needs, the more true friends will understand and accept you, too!

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