Teachers are some of the most influential people in a teenager’s life. Teachers provide knowledge, wisdom, and guidance … even on the days when it is clear that being in the classroom is the last place a teenager wants to be. A teacher can be life-changing.
Often, teenagers cite their teachers as some of their main supports through eating disorder treatment. Of course, their pediatrician, therapist, parents, and friends are up there as well, however, they spend so much of their day in the presence of their teachers. Therefore, it is crucial that teachers have an understanding of how to support someone with an eating disorder and make accommodations for students where possible.
Communicate. If you notice any signs or symptoms (food avoidance, food hoarding, frequent bathroom use, changes in weight/shape, fatigue, changes in attention, paleness, etc.), or notice a student being teased for their weight or shape, talk to them, or to their parents. In order to facilitate a safe environment for all students, talking to the student doing the teasing or bullying about the potential impact can be helpful, as well. (More signs of eating disorder behaviors can be found here)
Become aware. There is a very stereotypical image of “the eating disordered patient.” Eating disorders come in all shapes, sizes, genders, ethnicities, and abilities. They can be difficult to spot without looking below the surface. Eating disorders can manifest in a variety of ways – restricting, binge eating, purging, over-exercising, experiencing intrusive thoughts about self-image, engaging in self-injury, only allowing “health” foods … or a combination of behaviors. Often, our patients will hear, “But you don’t look like you have an eating disorder?” from important people in their lives. Though usually not ill-intended, this can perpetuate the stereotype that all eating disorder patients look a certain way. Becoming aware of eating disorder facts versus myths can be a great way to support someone struggling.
Be flexible. Many teenagers with eating disorders are in intensive treatment – sometimes going to appointments and programs more days a week than not. On top of homework and exams, this can exacerbate stress, which can trigger an increase in eating disorder behaviors as a coping technique. While extensions are certainly not always possible, be flexible around giving these teenagers extra time with assignments where appropriate. Remember that an eating disorder has very serious medical consequences and must be monitored regularly in order to prevent major complications. For the most part, teenagers report having very accommodating teachers and guidance counselors. In the Walden Adolescent IOP, we often focus on coaching teenagers on how to ask for increased support from teachers, the idea being that if they don’t ask for help and support from their teachers, their teachers won’t know they need it.
Know that food is medicine. Many teenagers in treatment have a structured meal plan including meals and snacks throughout the day. No matter what the specific eating disorder behavior is, the structured eating times can be an extraordinarily helpful part of the recovery process. Some classrooms have a strict no-food policy, which can make this difficult. Just the same as students with other medical presentations, such as diabetes, require accommodations, students with eating disorders benefit from them as well. Where possible, work with the school administration to allow a specific student to eat during class due to a medical issue. Students can certainly be flexible with this; if they have a test second period, maybe that day they have their morning snack during third period instead. Advocating for this allowance, rather than the student having to sneak it between classes – or not have it at all – can show support for their struggle, and truly help them take the steps necessary for full recovery.
Be mindful. Even when you don’t think they’re listening, they are. Be mindful of judgments or one-sided information about food, weight, shape, and appearance. Pre-teens and teenagers are like sponges, soaking in everything they hear. Commenting on a student’s recent weight loss, though well-intended, can actually contribute to the idea that appearance is their most important quality. Teaching that fats are bad and sugar should be avoided does not educate students on the power of all things in moderation. Schools are meant to be safe places, and it can be very beneficial for teenagers to feel safe from the material that fuels their illness, as well.
Thank you for the role you play in our patients’ lives – helping them learn and grow, offering academic and emotional support, and keeping them safe. For additional information or support, please contact our Admissions Department at 781-647-6727 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the author
Erika Vargas, LMHC, is a clinician in the Adolescent Intensive Outpatient & Partial Hospitalization Programs at Walden’s Braintree clinic. She is trained in the Maudsley Method/Family Based-Treatment and works with adolescents to decrease eating disorder behaviors with the support of their families.