Special Education

Teaching Students with Mental Health Disorders:
Resources for Teachers: Volume 1 - Eating Disorders

Talking with a Student with an Eating Disorder

Teachers should not confront a student with a suspected eating disorder, but a situation may arise when it becomes necessary to talk directly to a student about the problem. For example, a student may approach a trusted teacher to express concern regarding his or her own health or the health of a friend. Specific classes that look at the issue of eating disorders, for example, elements of the Grade 11 Career and Personal Planning (Healthy Living) Curriculum, can spark such queries. The key in these cases is to be as supportive as possible, while clarifying that teachers must share any important information with parents and counsellors. The following are a few practical suggestions to consider when talking with a student about a potential eating disorder.

  • Be sure to pick the right time and place, free from distractions, to discuss your concerns.
  • Indicate to the student, in a direct and non-punitive manner, all of the specific observations that have aroused your concern.
  • Express your concerns candidly and without criticism, letting the student know you care and want to talk about what you are observing.
  • Tell the student that you must share your concerns with the school counsellor and the student’s parents.
  • Listen carefully. The student needs to be heard and to feel understood. The student does not need a lecture.
  • Communicate clearly that you understand the courage it takes to talk about the problem.
  • Try to get the student to seek help as soon as possible. Support a student who decides to seek medical assistance independent of their family by ensuring that they have access to information about medical resources and by referring them to the school’s counsellor or medical personnel.
  • Avoid making any comment about the appearance of the student, for example, “You don’t look fat to me,” or “You sure are getting skinny.” These comments will only heighten the student’s focus on body image.
  • Avoid placing any blame for the eating disorder, ie., on the student, the family or yourself.
  • Do not intentionally, or unintentionally, become the student’s therapist, saviour or helper. Educators should not attempt to moralize, develop treatment plans, or take responsibility for monitoring the eating behaviours of students. Eating disorders are complicated problems with potentially serious consequences. Treatment must be left to qualified health care professionals.
  • Control the impulse to overreact. Emphasizing the severity of the problem with the student may add to the stress level and intensify the problem.
  • Take the information the student has given to the counsellor. In all likelihood, the student has approached you in an effort to begin a process to deal with the eating disorder.

When Talking with a Student with an Eating Disorder, Don't:

  • Be punitive or judgmental.
  • Comment on the appearance of the student, either positively or negatively.
  • Imply that eating disorders are about food, weight and body size.
  • Place barriers to the participation of the student in school sports or other activities.
  • Argue or get into a battle of wills.
  • Blame the student, the family or yourself for the disorder.
  • Diagnose, moralize, develop treatment plans, or monitor the eating patterns of the student.
  • Become the student’s therapist.