• Laura Mooiman, LCSW

10 Steps for Responding to Problem Behavior in the Cafeteria

Updated: Aug 1, 2019

For some students it's the loud echoing cavernous space or the sheer number of students. For others it's the removal of their teacher from their surroundings which makes them feel less secure. The lack of structure and increased noise can mean sensory overload for many students and may trigger some pretty wild behavior. In my previous post How to Tame a Chaotic Cafeteria we talked about how to bring order in a cafeteria to prevent problem behavior.


Today we will talk about how to respond when it does happen, which it inevitably will, in a way that teaches appropriate behavior and promotes a positive atmosphere.

Here is what NOT to do:


In the example last week, the school had a “Red Cone” table where misbehaving children were sent. The two cafeteria supervisors had to march around the table trying to bring it to order because all the rambunctious kids were now in one location, not spread throughout their positive peers.


DON'T consolidate your misbehaving kids, it just makes it worse

  1. You are identifying them as ‘bad kids’ and they look around the table and find affiliation with a deviant peer group, “this is where I belong, I’m bad like them.” Creating a single ‘bad kid’ table creates a bad kid identity, and celebrates the negative.

  2. You are bringing negative social attention to this group, further reinforcing their identity as bad kids

  3. You are creating more work for yourself because now they are all together and away from other positive peer influences so their behavior is not being moderated by others.

DON'T shame, embarrass or correct behavior publicly

You will always loose when there is an audience because kids would rather be seen as bad than as dumb.


DON'T get emotional or take it personally

Always use a neutral, calm voice. If you are feeling upset either wait to calm down before speaking or refer the student to another supervisor.


DON'T take away recess

This is a set up for the child and their teacher. Kids need to move and excercise or they will return to class with even worse behavior than before. Unless you have the child doing an alternate restorative activity like community service in a positive atomosphere just don't do it.


DON'T do the same thing every day if it isn't working

If the same kids are getting in trouble every day then your something is NOT working. It is the definition of insanity so try something new!


Here is what TO DO:

Instead of highlighting rambunctious kids, make them invisible by intervening in behavior immediately. Try this sequence of behavioral correction (adapted from Geoff Colvin from University of Oregon):


Let's say you have an overly social student, let's call him "Wes Happanin." He is talking loudly, standing up, sitting down and running around the table. Here is what to say:


1. Ask student to restate the expectation or rule in a calm respectful tone

You: “Wes, what is the expectation in the lunchroom?”

Student: “Sit quietly talking to my friends and eat my food.”


2. Ask student to demonstrate it so you know that he understands and is capable

You: “Great, can you show me?”


3. Say “Thank you!” if he complies

That’s it. No need to write it down or record it for posterity. By saying, "Thank You,” you increase the likelihood that Wes will comply next time you ask him to do something.


4. Give student a Choice if he does not comply

You: “Wes you can sit quietly and talk and eat and stay with your friends OR you can move to a seat over there (show him where he will need to sit, an open seat in another class’s table)".


5. Give student a moment to think

It is helpful here to move away slightly, look away and give a few moments to think. This allows their frontal cortex to engage so they do not react with a stress response (fight, flight, freeze). If you give them a moment, in my experience 95% of the time kids make the right choice.


6. Ask what student decided to do in a calm neutral voice

You: “Wes, what did you decide to do?”

When he demonstrates the correct behavior here say, “Thank you,” but check back soon to monitor.


7. Deliver the consequence if he can’t follow the expectation

You: “Wes it looks like this is not working for you here. Go ahead and move over to Ms. Smith’s table next to Jeremy. I am sure tomorrow at lunch you will be more successful.”


8. Say “Thank You!” if student complies

You: “That was really respectful of you to follow my directions. I know you didn’t have to do that but you did and I really appreciate that.”


9. 2-Minute Rule if student does NOT comply

If Wes Happanin refuses to move now we have a new choice,

You: “Wes, I asked you to move. You are not moving. You have a choice, move next to Jeremy or I will need to let your teacher/principal know what happened here in the cafeteria. I will give you a moment to decide.”


Again, if you give him think time he will probably move. If not, just follow through with letting the teacher or principal know so they can take next steps.


Do not spend more than 2 minutes correcting behavior with any child. You are responsible for an entire cafeteria and cannot only focus on one student. Additionally, the problem you think you are solving is probably not the problem. There is most likely something else going on and referring him to the principal or his teacher is the best bet.


10. Repair Your Relationship

If you do have to refer the student to someone else you still need to repair your relationship with that child. Next time you see him make it clear that it is a fresh start, no hard feelings, and you believe in him to that next time he'll make a great choice.

He needs to believe that you think he is a great kid who was just having a bad day, even if every day is a bad day.

If he senses you holding a grudge or not forgiving and moving on the behavior will get worse.


Consequences for Problem Behavior in the Cafeteria

  1. Move seat if student is being boisterous with peers

  2. Help clean up the cafeteria if student threw food or made a mess, or refused to pick up after themselves. This could take place during their normal play time and should be a positive experience with a chance to bond with the adult and to feel appreciated.

  3. Super Assigned Seating is for entire classrooms who are wild in the cafeteria - boy girl boy girl,alphabetical, whatever. They can earn their way off of this with a week of quiet table. The teacher can seat students in specific ways to reduce noise and keep certain students apart. Conversely, as a reward for fantastic cafeteria behavior you can allow “free seat Friday” where kids can sit anywhere they want.


As a rule you want to try to spend 80-90% of your energy preventing problem behavior by creating structure at your school, teaching it to the kids, and then positively rewarding it when you see it! When all adults at your school follow the above sequence in correcting behavior kids feel safe and know they won't be yelled at or embarrassed. They will correct their own behavior and accept responsibilty so everyone can move on with their day.


How do you respond to problem behavior in the cafeteria?


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