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My Child Cries About Going to the Lunch Room

By Dr. Michelle Alvarez, Consulting Educator

Question:

My son is 5 years old. In his school they are expected to go to the lunch room first thing in the morning.

Every kid in the whole school is in there from kindergarten through sixth grade, and for some reason he is scared to go in there. I have to take him every morning and go straight to his classroom. While we wait outside I am told to take him to the lunch room, but he starts to cry and won't go. On the first day of school I took him to school and we went to the lunch room so he could eat. When all the kids started coming in, he started to cry and wanted to leave. The next day I let him ride the bus with his cousin. She said he started to cry as soon as they got to the lunch room. I am not sure what to do. I don't want to force him in there. I am afraid it will cause him to hate school. Right now he loves school just a long as he doesn't have to go to the lunch room in the morning. He does eat lunch in there without any problems.

Answer:

First of all let me commend you for implementing strategies to help improve the situation for your son. You tried walking him into the cafeteria and eating with him, sending him to school on the bus with his cousin and trying to avoid having to go into the cafeteria by waiting with him by his classroom door.

What I would be interested in knowing (and I am sure you would too) is what is at the root of his crying in the cafeteria. Since his crying is isolated to this morning situation the outcome of addressing this root cause is very promising. In fact it may be that he experiences anxiety about being in a cafeteria with older students or being in a larger group of students than attend lunch with him.

My first strategy would be to enlist the support of student services professionals at the school (the school counselor, school social worker and/or school psychologist). Any one of these staff would be able to assist you in expanding on the strategies that you have tried to see what might help your son adjust to being in the cafeteria. Depending on how your son explains what is prompting him to cry, some strategies could include:

  • Pairing him up with an older student during this time, which might alleviate any anxiety of being in the cafeteria with older students
  • Being a teacher's helper in the cafeteria during this time
  • Having him sit in an area of the cafeteria that is less congested
  • Holding individual sessions to address fears
  • Setting up incentives/privileges (school-based and family-based) to go into the cafeteria for increasing longer periods of time

The need to address this behavior at this point is critical, as you state. If left unaddressed it could escalate into additional symptoms such as somatic complaints like stomach aches or headaches, academic decline, difficulty in peer relationships and acting out in class. I applaud your efforts to address the issue and hope you will seek school support in further intervening to find the root cause.


Dr. Michelle Alvarez is an adjunct professor at the University of Southern Indiana and project director of Safe Schools/Healthy Students for the Evansville-Vanderburgh School Corporation. A former school social worker in Pinellas County, Florida, she is co-editor of School Social Work: Theory to Practice and chair of the National Association of Social Workers, School Social Work Section. She is also the parent of a special needs child.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

09/7/2011:
"I have a 5 yr old boy he started kindergarten he was so good for the first 2 weeks now the 3rd week he won't stop crying I ask if someone hurt him or if his scared of someone he keeps saying no I feel really sad that I have to leave him crying :-( what can I do to help my kid ????? "
09/7/2010:
"I am a kindergarten teacher and every year I have one student that just does not want to go into the lunchroom. Every time I have asked the question, 'What are you afraid of?' And everyone of them say it's to crowded and they hate the smell. I have done incentives with each one and it seems to work. Is it odd though that it's only boys that have this problem?"
12/9/2009:
"My child cries before going to class. He reports that no one has hurt him. He reports that he does not know why he is cryiny. Sessions with the school counselor have not be able to explain. The counselor suggests a child nerological examination and complete physical. No incentives have worked."
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