Who Do You Eat Lunch With?: Cross-Ethnic Interactions and Student Academic Achievement

Who Do You Eat Lunch With?: Cross-Ethnic Interactions and Student Academic Achievement

Who do you eat lunch with? This seemingly simple question leads to much information about students: their shared values and interests, their friendships and peer supports, and even their academic achievement. In their paper, “Early Adolescents’ Peer Experiences with Ethnic Diversity in Middle School: Implications for Academic Outcomes,” authors Jakeem Amir Lewis et al. investigate the correlations between students’ interactions with cross-ethnic peers and student academic achievement. Their research reveals that students who eat lunch routinely with peers who have different ethnic backgrounds than their own (cross-ethnic peers) have higher academic achievement than students who eat less frequently with cross-ethnic peers or who eat with only students of the same ethnic background.

According to Lewis et al., previous studies showed that “students who experienced greater ethnic diversity through informal peer interactions showed greater active thinking, intellectual growth, and motivation for academic activities and had significantly higher grades in both ethnically diverse college and elementary school settings” (195). Indeed, they note that as students interact with cross-ethnic peers, they must process how different perspectives and ideas relate to their own views. This cognitive skill, they argue, is not just intrinsically beneficial, but can also contribute to academic achievement: “Thus, cross-ethic interactions with peers from any different ethnic group may prompt learning in which individuals are motivated to develop new ways of thinking, which translate to academic outcomes” (195).

Lewis et al. add to this body of research at the middle school level. For their study, Lewis et al. collected data from 823 sixth grade students from 6 different middle schools located in California, Oregon, and Wisconsin. These schools had populations such that greater than 50% of a given student’s peers were considered cross-ethnic (197). Five times over a two week period, students completed a survey asking them to report on their lunchtime interactions, including who they ate lunch with, and their current feelings about school. The first survey also included a “nomination” component, in which students identified from a list of names who they “liked to hang out with” in general (198). At three of the schools, teachers also completed survey questions about each of the student participants. They were asked to report “how far in school” they expected each student to go (198). Through these answers, the researchers were able to assess teacher expectations for student academic achievement, which previous studies have linked to actual student achievement: “[T]eachers’ expectations measured even early on in elementary school are related to students’ academic outcomes throughout elementary and secondary school” (196). As a final component of the study, student GPAs were also collected at the end of their sixth grade year.

The Findings

  • Asian students ate lunch with cross-ethnic peers more frequently than multi-ethnic, Latino/a, and Black students (199).
  • White students spent lunch with cross-ethnic peers “significantly more” than Latino/a and Black students (199).
  • Black and Latino students reported the lowest levels of spending lunch with cross-ethnic peers (199).
  • Asian and White participants had higher GPAs than multi-ethnic, Latino/a, and Black participants (199).
  • Teachers reported the highest academic expectations for Asian students, followed by White students (199).
  • Teachers reported the lowest academic expectations for Black students (199).
  • On average, teachers expected that Asian students would graduate college, while they expected that Black students would attend a 2 year college, and possibly complete some coursework at a four year college (199).

“[O]ur study suggests that spending lunchtime with a cross-ethnic peer more often is associated with both higher end-of-year GPAs in core academic courses and higher teachers’ expectations for educational attainment” (202).

Lewis et al. remark that students’ willingness to interact with cross-ethnic peers has the benefit of exposing students to differing points of views and different cultural practices, which may lead to improved academic performance. Moreover, for students at highly diverse schools, cross-ethnic interactions may also contribute to students’ sense of belonging, which in turn contributes to increased engagement in academic activities: “Cross-ethnic peer interactions, in particular, may promote less school aversion, as students may experience a sense of connection to the student body beyond just a narrow segment of same-ethnic peers and feel less lonely at school” (195).

To end their paper, Lewis et al. recommend that schools provide opportunities for students to meaningfully and freely interact with cross-ethnic peers, especially given that “youth tend to become increasingly self-segregating later in adolescence” (203). Teachers can work into incorporate ethnic and minority studies into curriculum, and school leadership can work to make lunch a time when students feel comfortable interacting with students of all backgrounds.


Paper Title:  Early Adolescents’ Peer Experiences with Ethnic Diversity in Middle School: Implications for Academic Outcomes

Authors: (a) Jakeem Amir Lewis, (a) Adrienne Nishina, (a) Alysha Ramirez Hall, (b) Shannon Caine, (c) Amy Bellmore, and (b) Melissa R. Witkow

(a) University of California, Davis  (b) Willamette University, Oregon  (c) University of Wisconsin, Madison

Full Paper: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10964-017-0697-1

Published: Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Volume 47, No. 1, 2018, Pages 194-206


Photograph: Thanks to Zachary Nelson on Unsplash

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