A lesson for teachers in addressing the eating disorder bully

A lesson for teachers in addressing the eating disorder bully

Anorexia Nervosa - A Recovery Guide for Sufferers, Families and Friends.

Illustration by Elise Pacquette in Anorexia Nervosa – A Recovery Guide for Sufferers, Families and Friends.

Teachers are in a prime position to be among the first people to notice a child is developing symptoms of an eating disorder. As someone whose anorexia was triggered at school, I cannot emphasise this enough. Sometimes, friends of the child will notice the symptoms, and confide in the teacher. How the teacher responds – how they offer support – can greatly influence what happens next. Clues on what to say, and when to say it, are provided in Anorexia Nervosa: A Recovery Guide for Sufferers, Families and Friends.

This updated eating disorder classic by Professor Janet Treasure provides information for teachers and others whose daily work involves the care of children. Pooky Knightsmith, whose own experience with an eating disorder led her to realise that school staff lacked eating disorder awareness, writes the chapter ‘Guidelines for School Staff’. It includes the following excerpts:

School staff often feel unsure about how best to help a pupil with anorexia. They also underestimate how much they can do to help and what a great support they can be. In fact, school staff are well placed to spot the initial warning signs of anorexia, enabling early diagnosis, early intervention and a far better prognosis. Students are often more comfortable talking about food difficulties with a member of school staff than a member of their own family. The school can provide a bridge between the pupil, their family and external care providers to ensure that support is optimal and treatment is effective.

The school also can take practical steps during recovery, including:

* Revision of academic expectations.

* Offering support during mealtimes.

* Keeping a close eye on weight-related teasing and bullying.

School-specific warning signs that a pupil may be developing anorexia

Some anorexia warning signs are either specific to the school environment or more easily noticed at school. You can look for any of the following:

  • Weight loss
  • Avoidance of PE or swimming
  • Excessive exercise
  • Busy during lunch breaks
  • Avoidance of the school cafeteria
  • Wearing extra clothing
  • Perfectionism
  • Inability to focus in class
  • Loss of friends

When a pupil is causing concern

If you think a pupil may be suffering from anorexia, you should raise your concerns with the person responsible for pastoral care within the school. They may already be aware of the problem, or they may enlist your help in approaching the pupil if you are someone the pupil trusts. If asked to broach the subject with the pupil, you can do this by creating opportunities for the pupil to come to you – at which point your key role is to remain impartial and to listen to them before working with them to decide on the next steps.

Creating opportunities for a pupil to confide in you

A pupil feels more comfortable if they ‘make the first move’ with regards to talking about their eating disorder as this helps them to feel in control of the situation. To facilitate this you can engineer situations when a pupil can open up to you, perhaps holding them back after class to discuss their homework or similar. Often, a pupil with an eating disorder feels scared and alone, and during the early stages they may welcome the chance to offload to someone.

Try to encourage them to broach the subject by asking leading questions such as: ‘You don’t seem quite yourself lately, how can I help you?’ Avoid talking about food or weight directly as this is likely to spook the pupil. Take this first meeting gently and accept that you are unlikely to get to the crux of the issue immediately. Instead, work on building a trusting relationship with the pupil and ensure that they know when and where they can talk to you further about what’s on their mind.

  • Remain calm and don’t judge
  • Don’t talk, listen

Other important factors to consider:

  • Confidentiality and talking to parents
  • Working with parents and external agencies
  • Academic expectations

Offering support during mealtimes

Mealtimes can be particularly difficult for pupils recovering from anorexia and school staff may wonder how to offer support. Again, you can work with the pupil, their parents and external care agencies involved to determine the best approach – points to consider include:

* Where the pupil should eat.

* Who they should eat with.

* What they should eat.

* Where to eat

* Who to eat with

* What to eat

Weight-related bullying and teasing

Your school should take a zero tolerance approach to weight-related bullying and teasing whether or not you have a pupil with

anorexia at the school. Pupils who develop eating disorders have often experienced a period of bullying and it is also common for pupils in recovery to suffer a relapse following bullying or teasing. Weight-related teasing of pupils who are recovering from anorexia often comprises seemingly harmless comments or jokes from pupils or teachers. Remember that, especially during early recovery, pupils with anorexia are likely to take to heart, believe, and be terrified by even the most flippant comments about weight or shape.

For more information, see Anorexia Nervosa: A Recovery Guide for Sufferers, Families and Friends and Pooky’s website

* Writing Anorexia Nervosa: A Recovery Guide for Sufferers, Families and Friends was both a pleasure and inspiration for along the way, in addition to working with Professor Janet Treasure, I met Pooky Knightsmith and Elise Pacquette. Like me, Pooky and Elise have survived eating disorders. They lead creative, talented and fulfilling lives, and have contributed to this update. Elise has drawn the illustrations that bring this book alive and Pooky writes the important chapter ‘Guidelines for school staff’ in Section Four, Guidelines for Professionals.

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