Eating disorders are a growing problem among our students, but often it can be very challenging to identify which students are at risk.
Prevention is always better than cure, but anorexia can be hard to identify in its early stages – only becoming obvious when significant intervention is required.
So how do you spot a child in your class with the signs of anorexia so you can get the appropriate support? It’s worth noting that no sign on its own is enough to ‘prove’ a child has anorexia, but if any child exhibits a number of the signs below it’s worth referring the matter to the relevant specialist within your school.
Mainly, to reduce their calorie intake anorexics will reduce their food intake. This can involve eating increasingly smaller meals in the lunch hall, or finding ways to eat elsewhere so that nobody can see the actual size of their portions. At its most severe they will simply skip meals altogether. Often they find ways of explaining this away, perhaps by getting involved in so many lunchtime activities that they are simply ‘too busy’ for lunch.
Food is the epicentre of an anoxeric’s neuroses – so be aware if you see a student exhibiting strange behaviours around food. So for example a student may insist on cutting their food precisely in half and eating only that half, or not eating any food if it has the slightest blemish.
Often an anorexic will try to hide the extent of their weight loss by wearing baggy clothes. As their weight loss increases they will find it harder and harder to stay warm, so you may well also want to be wary of students dressed up unseasonably warmly much of the time.
Anorexia is about giving sufferers control by controlling how they eat food. There is an element of perfectionism and conscientiousness in this that comes out in everything that they do. If you find students becoming more perfectionist in their school work this can be an early sign of a problem.
As the disease progresses it becomes hard for the sufferer to think about anything else than their mental struggles with food. This results in them neglecting their friendship groups and becoming isolated in the year group. Also at school meal times are one of the main social occassions, so cutting themselves off from their friends allows them to avoid this stressful situation.
This is one the classic signs of anorexia. Sufferers will believe they are fat and obese even when to the rest of the world they are small and frail. If you find someone with a wildly distorted body image it’s important to discuss the matter with the relevant person on staff as soon as possible.
This distorted body image and a desire to avoid being discovered can lead sufferers to want to do almost anything to avoid undressing in front of other people.
This post was adapted, with permission, from Pooky Hesmondhalgh’s excellent blog on the topic In Our Hands. It’s full of helpful guides on the topic for teachers and parents and is well worth a look.
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