Eating Disorders in the School Setting

Julie Rami, M.A. Ed., B.S. Spec. Ed.
McCallum Place Teacher

Nancy Anderson, B.S. Ed.
McCallum Place Teacher

Many times an educator is the first person who notices some of the warning signs of an eating order. Think of all the time that a student spends in a classroom setting and how many different people consistently see them everyday. This may be the core classroom teachers, the PE teacher, the school counselor and the nurse. So, what are the signs that these individuals should be looking out for?

What does an eating disorder look like in the classroom?

A student can be tired, have low energy, lack of motivation and drive that was previously there, high levels of distractibility, irritability, constant movement, forgetfulness, and overall just drastic physical changes. They might start missing a lot of school as they are just too tired to get up or just may truly not feel well. Missing assignments start piling up because they don’t have the energy or concentration to complete them. Then, inevitably, this leads to a change in overall performance and grades will drop.

What does an eating disorder look like among the peer group and social

Often isolation is the first outward sign of an ED amongst teenagers. A change in social habits can look like a child pulling away from the peer group and not engaging in the social patterns they previously enjoyed. They can isolate themselves as the eating disorder worsens as a means to hide their behaviors. At times, the patient can feel rejected or alienated when peers express concerns over their eating habits. Sometimes the ED has been precipitated by teasing and comments from peers. Other times, what starts as an attempt at improving health with diet and exercise gets out of hand but initially the body changes are reinforced through praise. Social media can play a negative role in the validating of disordered eating and body image. Parents should always be aware of their child’s presence and identity on all social media outlets.

What does an eating disorder look like from a nurse’s point of view? 

A student that struggles with an eating disorder may be a frequent visitor to the school nurse. Their symptoms can include complaints of nausea after eating small or normal amounts, bloating or water retention not attributable to other physical problems, constipation, reflux, chronic sore throat, swelling of glands around the jaws, frequent and unusual dental problems, general complaints of lightheadedness, fainting and frequently feeling cold.

What does an eating disorder look like on the sports field in and out of school?

This is a student athlete that is “practicing” or “training” for several hours a day and often secretive about their workouts. They can be quite rigid and compulsive with their drive to perfection. These students will find a reason to avoid eating with the team and will be averse to resting, rehydrating and refueling their bodies. They are at a higher risk for stress fractures and also can exhibit dizziness, weakness, fainting and weight loss. Their declining performance should be a red flag to those adults around them. An eating disorder takes on many different faces, but if everyone is aware of these signs and symptoms then help can be sought sooner than later.