I’ve been asked to write again for LEAPAsia. This excites me because it taps into parts of me that might not seem to go together on the surface. Isn’t it just one of the best feelings when that happens?! They are currently running a series on communicating with students and I’ve been asked to write two posts: one on eating disorders and one on addictions.
Sadly, you don’t have to be a teacher to need to think about these areas. So, though this was written from a teacher’s perspective, how could it benefit you? Jesus came that we might have life and wholeness and enjoy eating! Amen?!
As teachers we are fluent in the language of our subjects, be they mathematics, physical education or a foreign language. However, our subject is not the only language we need to speak in our classrooms. Although we do not need to know other “languages” fluently, we do need to be familiar with their dialects.
Today we’re going to explore the dialect of eating disorders. These are deep and complex subjects and I want to start off by assuring you that you do not need to be an expert or be overwhelmed by them. The more aware you are, the more you will be able to help your students.
Let’s start off with some basic terminology so we are on the same page.
Broadly speaking, eating disorders can be broken into three categories:
- Anorexia Nervosa – an obsession with food and being thin, sometimes to the point of deadly self-starvation and extreme exercise.
- Bulimia Nervosa — episodes of bingeing and purging. During these episodes, a person typically eats a large amount of food in a short duration and then tries to rid the extra calories through vomiting or excessive exercise. The person may be at a normal weight or even a bit overweight.
- Binge Eating Disorder — eat excessive amounts of food (binge), but don’t try to compensate for this behavior with exercise or purging as someone with bulimia or anorexia might.
Here is a list of signs and symptoms for each of the three. One of the greatest mistakes a teacher can make is believing that eating disorders are only experienced by girl students. While it is true female are more likely to experience an eating disorder, sadly, male students are more likely to go undetected because of the shame and stigma attached.
Let’s a take a closer look at the ways these eating disorders are different. Speaking in very broad terms, at its core, anorexia is about control. Most people who suffer from anorexia nervosa feel very out of control in one or more aspects of their life and they way they help to restore order is to control the one thing they can: their relationship with food and their weight.
For example, one of your students may have a loved one facing a health or work crisis, leaving your student feeling over come by helplessness and out of control. Or maybe a family member makes comments (whether true or not, it doesn’t matter) about your students weight or face or height. It is often through thoughtless comments we make vows to ourselves to NOT be that person and sometimes those private vows lead down very dark roads. Anorexia Nervosa would be one such road.
Bulimia Nervosa and Binge Eating, at their core, are different from Anorexia. If Anoreixa is about control, Bulimia and Binge Eating are about feeling empty. There is a hole inside of your students (not a real hole, but a hole in their hearts and emotions). Your student may feel profound emptiness and think they can fill the emptiness by eating food quickly, in private and in such large amounts it is not about food, it is about trying to fill the emptiness they feel inside.
In all cases of eating disorders, the problem is rarely about food, so the solutions are also not going to be about food. As the teacher, I know it’s easier to make comments about food – “Did you eat lunch today?” – than to ask about the deeper issues.
Today, familiarize yourself with the signs and symptoms so that if you begin to notice them in a student you are noticing them when they are in the beginning stages. Here is a simple test you could share with a student if you’re wondering if they have an eating disorder.
Practically speaking, what can you do?
- Once a week walk around your classroom asking the Master Teacher to help you know each student, to see who might need help, and to open doors for discussions with students.
- Look for warning signals. Ask yourself if you have any students who:
- Start to lose weight at an alarming rate
- Only play with their food and find ways to either give or throw food
- Spend breaks exercising obsessively
- Their front teeth are beginning to change color because the stomach acid from purging is beginning to eat away at their teeth
- Have parts of their lives that are out of control with health, work, or financial strain.
- Seem to have an emptiness about them.
- Talk to the counselors at your school and find out what you should do if you suspect a student of having an eating disorder. Also find out what sort of support and resources are available. It might surprise you what is available.
The Master Teacher gave a famous talk where called many people blessed. If he were talking to you, I believe he’d say: Blessed is the teacher who notices their students helps them, for they are true teachers.
- What is your experience with students with eating disorders?
- What resources have you found to be helpful?
- What question do you have for Amy about eating disorders?
This originally appeared at LEAPAsia