During the pandemic, eating disorder helpline calls increased by as much as 80% while the number of hospitalizations for adolescents with eating disorders more than doubled. Educators are often the first to identify signs of trouble in children and teenagers, and they can also be a powerful force in helping them get the support they need. That is why it’s important that they are able to recognize the signs of an eating disorder and know what to do next.
What Should You Know About Eating Disorders?
Because there are so many myths and stereotypes about eating disorders, not all educators may know what to look for–or what to do if they are concerned.
The most important thing to know is that eating disorders don’t have a “look.” Eating disorders are complex, brain-based disorders; they can affect all genders, races, body sizes, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Contrary to common misconceptions, families are not to blame for eating disorders and sufferers don’t choose to have these illnesses.
What Are Warning Signs You Might Observe in the Classroom?
While many people are aware that weight loss may be a symptom of an eating disorder, it is not the only indicator (and not every eating disorder causes weight loss).
Teachers may notice some of these common behavioral or personality changes:
- Falling asleep in class
- Feeling cold
- Wearing baggy clothing
- Not participating in food-based activities or celebrations
- Preoccupation with earning straight As or “overworking” on assignments
- Low energy or trouble focusing
- Compulsive movement/exercise
- Frequent illness or injury (stress fractures, etc.)
- Excessive water consumption
- Resistance to acknowledging or expressing emotions
It is important to note that while malnutrition can take a toll on a student’s ability to concentrate and contribute in class, individuals struggling with an eating disorder can be high-achieving in academics and extracurriculars. In fact, an intense drive for excellence can be a sign that a student possesses the perfection-seeking temperament that accompanies many eating disorders.
What Steps Should You Take if You Are Concerned About a Student?
One especially challenging barrier is that a young person with an eating disorder may be experiencing anosognosia, the lack of ability to recognize their own illness. An otherwise logical student may deny troubling behaviors or weight loss.
If you suspect a student may be struggling, check your school’s guidelines. Before addressing the student directly or taking further action, you might need to confer with a campus administrator, nurse, or counselor. Learn when it’s the right time to reach out to a student or their parent/guardian.
If you do communicate directly with a student, try to approach them from a place of curiosity. Ask questions, listen, and offer words of compassion. Eating disorders are often shrouded in shame, so it is important to share your concerns in a warm, nonjudgmental tone. Even something as simple as “I’m worried, and I’m here to help” can open the door to a conversation.
You can also provide parents/guardians with further resources about eating disorders, such as The Jed Foundation’s FAQ. Adults at home and those at school should work together to create a robust support system for young people with eating disorders.
Teachers, counselors, and administrators have a lot to juggle. You don’t need to become an expert in eating disorders, but anyone working with young people should be aware of how these illnesses present–and what you can do about it. Caring educators can be life-changing for a student; and when it comes to mental health, they can be life-saving, too.
Oona Hanson is a former classroom teacher turned parent educator who helps families foster positive body image and a healthy relationship with food through her private practice and as a Family Mentor at Equip. She holds a master’s degree in Educational Psychology and in English.