While I was working as an occupational therapist in a wealthy school a cafeteria worker ran up to me, took my hand and led me to the school cafeteria shouting, “Come with me right away John, one of your kids is going nuts!” My kid turned out to be George, a first grader I worked with who had sensory sensitivity, a gifted level IQ, learning disabilities, and behavior problems. Entering the school cafeteria it made my skin crawl. There was food being thrown and yelling, interrupted every few minutes by a cafeteria worker yelling “quiet” into a microphone. Right after she yelled, which also made my skin crawl, the cafeteria fell silent for a few seconds then returned to its typical loud level. George was under the table in a fetal position and a bully was kicking him. I simultaneously grasped George and the bully by their shirts, put George back in his chair and brought the bully to the principal.
I took the cafeteria worker aside and asked the her why she didn’t make George get back in his seat. She told me in hushed tones that another cafeteria worker was fired last week for asking a Jewish boy to remove his star of David necklace, and she was nervous because when she directed George to his seat he said it was a sacred Jewish right to eat under the table and it was predjudice to ask him to sit. I immediately called George’s mother who told me in a horrified tone that there were no Jewish traditions about eating in fetal position under the table. I told her not to worry because the team would make a plan.
I discussed the problem with the school psychologist, who told me George was just one of five students in the school terrified to eat lunch in the cafeteria. We developed a lunch group of George and the 4 other students, who initially ate lunch in the psychologist’s office for a week and problem solved how they could address their lunch room fears. Then for the next month I, the school psychologist, and the Speech/language pathologists took turns eating in the cafeteria with the lunch group. We taught them to work together to more comfortably manage their lunch room environment. For example, George had trouble opening his milk carton. Bob, a child with intellectual disabilities but good fine motor skills opened George’s milk carton, while George helped Bob manage his eating time by warning when there was 10 and 5 minutes left in the lunch period.
Next, the school psychologist negotiated with the principle to have one teacher permanently assigned to help supervise the lunch room. Finally, we had the good luck of the cafeteria workers losing the microphone that they had used to shout quiet, and George and the other lunch group members were able to appropriately eat with everyone else in the cafeteria. Coincidentally, the custodian found the microphone five years later on my last day working in that school before transferring out. The cafeteria workers thanked the custodian for finding the microphone but told him things had improved so much they no longer needed it.