The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Elizabeth Smith

Eating disorders: laying the groundwork for positive discussion

Any lesson on eating disorders should be framed with clear, pre-determined ground rules and an emphasis on coping strategies, so you may lead pupils into a confident discussion.

When addressing topics as sensitive as eating disorders, it is absolutely vital to establish clear rules before any discussion can take place. These will be different from the normal classroom rules and should be reinforced at the start of each lesson so that all pupils feel safe emotionally.

These rules must be negotiated with pupils so they may take ownership of the discussion, even though you will have a good idea as to what said rules will be. 

It is important to establish the following core principles. 

  • What is said in the room stays in the room.
  • We will share at their own comfort level and speak for ourselves.
  • We will respect each other’s opinion and there will be no ‘put downs’.

If a pupil with anorexia has been open about their condition, it will be important to discuss what will be taught prior to the first lesson.

If it is a condition that is known about but has not been disclosed you may wish to consider sending a letter home to parents of all students in the group explaining what will be covered and how support can be accessed both inside and outside school.

Focus on constructive responses rather than the logistics of the conditions

You might wish to compare these 'agreed rules' to those suggested as pre-requisite for PSHE or SRE lessons.

For more, read Vicky Fenlon's guide to laying the groundwork for a sensible discussion of topics that may at times be 'loaded with awkwardness and embarassment'

Beginning the discussion

Rather than focusing immediately on eating disorders, I would perhaps begin by looking at how women and girls are portrayed in the media, using images and articles collected from magazines and newspapers.

Depending on the time you have available to teach this topic you could set up a debate around issues such as whether airbrushed images should be permitted in magazines or look at some of the most popular teenage magazines and ask students to decide which pictures depict women with a healthy body weight etc.

Coping str​ategies

Another approach would be to focus on stress and coping strategies. Pupils could share their own coping strategies, positive or negative, and then explore some healthy ways to deal with stress. Again, it is important to adhere to the rules that were initially established.

To begin with, look at myths and realities related to the topic. Pupils are given a list of statements, and asked to categorise them as either a ‘myth’ or ‘reality’. Consider the two below.

  1. ‘People with eating disorders are attention seeking.’
  2. ‘People with eating disorders tend to be teenage girls and they grow out of it.'

Addressing these popular misconceptions of eating disorders is a good way to spark some debate. 

Focusing on constructive responses as opposed to the logistics will prevent any conditions from being encouraged or glorified. For instance, it's important not to focus on how a bulimic person would induce vomiting, but instead on how someone might overcome bulimia or find support. 

Whatever approach you choose to adopt, remember to include:

  • places a pupil can go to access support (such as Young Minds)
  • how to support friends who may have one of these conditions and what might make it worse.

With this emphasis on the positives over the negatives, you will be creating opportunities for pupils to discuss in confidence - an invaluable part of any lesson.  

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