Last month, I had the privilege of being invited as a guest speaker to Ledbury Park Elementary and Middle School’s mental health week. The topic that I chose to focus on was on supporting students and their families through the treatment of an eating disorder. Teachers, administrators and teaching assistants received some valuable information on how to identify the signs and symptoms of an eating disorder (even in children as young as 5) and how they can work together with the family and treatment team to best support the student through their treatment and recovery.
Schooling is often tremendously impacted when a child is in aggressive treatment for an eating disorder. Similar to those children who are seeking treatment for other life-threatening illnesses, whether an inpatient or outpatient they will most likely be missing a lot of school for medical or therapy appointments. The stress and physical implications of their eating disorder may make it difficult to keep up with their coursework and peer relationships. As well, they may also be struggling with the severity of their symptoms while at school away from the support of their parents and treatment team.
Here are some tips on how schools can provide support to their students during treatment and recovery:
Become an integral part of the treatment team
Since schooling plays an essential part of a child’s daily life, it is important that the child’s school and teachers now become a member of the treatment team. This means being in constant contact with the student’s parents and other treatment team members while gathering more information about the current treatment plan and progress. If the student is or has been an inpatient, it will also be important to communicate with the teachers in the hospital to create an education plan while the child is on the unit. If at any time you feel unsure or confused by the plan, it is always important to ask questions and further educate your staff on eating disorders.
Considerations for mealtimes
Many students will need extra support at mealtimes (lunch and snacks). Often, if possible, the student’s parents will request that they be allowed to provide meal support for their child either on or off school property. This may mean providing them with a private room for meals and possibly extra time to complete their food. When parents are not able to provide this support, they may request that a school staff member sit with their child while they eat their meal.
Putting gym on hold
During active treatment, it is often encouraged that students not participate in gym for medical reasons. Some schools will offer a non-active gym related project that the student complete in order to acquire their necessary gym credits.
Many students who are struggling with an eating disorder find it difficult to complete school assignments or study for tests because of their current medical and psychological situation. It is often recommended to offer academic considerations for these children that will make it less stressful for them to complete their course requirements. This may mean extensions on assignments or a quiet space to write tests. It will be important to get feedback from the student and their parents as to what will be most helpful.
The treatment of an eating disorder may require a child to keep frequent and consistent medical and psychological appointments. It is often necessary that a student miss a lot classroom time. It is helpful when schools are sympathetic and accommodating to these absences. If too many days of school are missed to complete a course, it will be important for families to know as soon as possible if further schooling may be required (summer school or extra semester).
Integrating students back into peer group
A main symptom of an eating disorder is increased isolation from friends and peers. As the student is slowly integrated back into the classroom, it may take some time for the child to feel comfortable around their peer group. It is important for teachers to sympathetically encourage these students to socializing again.
Refrain from discussing food, weight and dieting in classroom
For anyone suffering with an eating disorder, discussion around food, weight and dieting can act as a trigger for their symptoms. Teachers should try to be mindful of the dialogue within their classroom and attempt to minimize these topics of discussion.
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Lindsay Ross, MSW RSW, is a clinical social worker in private practice in Toronto, Ontario.