As well as you or your colleagues picking up on eating disorders warning signs, it is also possible that pupils will raise concerns about a peer if they’re worried, or a pupil may even talk directly to a teacher or other member of school staff if they’re concerned about themselves.
Whilst knowing the risk factors and warning signs is a real help in spotting problems, there is nothing more reliable than a disclosure from a pupil or their peers. But unfortunately, our research has shown that less than 10% of pupils would feel confident in talking to a member of staff at school about their problems – for a range of different reasons. By understanding these reasons and thinking about whether they apply to your school, you can begin to think about how you might put measures in place to overcome these barriers and make pupils more likely to confide in a teacher about their concerns. This is vital because if a pupil or their peers disclose their concerns to you about a possible eating disorder (or other mental health issues for that matter) you will be in an excellent position to offer early help and the best possible support.
Pupil 1: Even if I wanted to talk to a teacher it would be virtually impossible. Our teachers don’t have offices or anything so it’s virtually impossible to speak to a teacher in private.
The basic problem here is that it’s not possible to have a private conversation with a teacher in a lot of schools. What could be done in your school to improve this?
Pupil 2: I wouldn’t know who to talk to. My school is obsessed with policies and procedures so I’d probably have just built up the nerve to talk to one teacher and I’d be told ‘sorry, you’re not supposed to speak to me about this, you have to speak to X’.
This pupil wouldn’t want to talk to a teacher because she doesn’t know who she should be talking to. Have a think about how this could be addressed in your school – if there is a specified person, think about how to communicate this with pupils, otherwise have a think about how to make it clear that they can talk to any member of staff about these types of concerns. Whilst it may not make for a neat policy, this is often a good idea because pupils are not always comfortable talking to the person that we’re supposed to!
Pupil 3: There’s no way I’d tell a teacher, they just wouldn’t take it seriously, they’d say I was over-reacting
This pupil feels that if she told a teacher then her concerns would be dismissed and not treated seriously. How could you address this issue in your school? What steps could you take to convince your pupils that the school staff do take eating disorders seriously and that you won’t dismiss concerns of this type if they are brought to you?
Pupil 4: I wouldn’t tell anyone at school. They’d be totally judgemental.
This is similar to the previous concern in that the pupil is concerned about how a teacher will react to their disclosure. What efforts could your school make to let pupils know that eating disorders will be treated appropriately and non-judgementally and that the key aim of school staff is to offer help and support?
Pupil 5: Teachers can’t be trusted. They wouldn’t do what I asked them or what was best for my friend, they’d barge into the situation, mishandle it, and I’d lose the trust of my friend.
This pupil is scared and doesn’t feel he can trust teachers. He doesn’t know how a teacher will respond to the situation and doesn’t expect to be listened to and involved once he’s shared his concerns – what could your school do to help pupils understand how their concerns are likely to be handled?
Pupil 6: They’d tell my friend’s parents without even discussing it with my friend first and that would just make things worse.
This pupil wouldn’t want to share their concerns because they aren’t confident that they’ll be dealt with appropriately. Here, the specific concern is that parents will automatically be instantly informed without any discussion with the pupil who is causing concern. This was an often expressed concern among pupils and some suggested that informing parents might make the situation worse.
How could you and your school ease apprehension that all information will automatically be shared with parents regardless of a pupil’s wishes? You need to be careful here that your school doesn’t make promises that it can’t realistically keep, like promising not to tell parents of concerns. Instead you could think about how you might educate pupils to understand why it’s important to work with parents, and think about how teachers could work with the pupil and approach the parent together.
Pupil 7: Why would I tell a teacher? They wouldn’t know what to do. They don’t know anything about this kind of stuff, we know way more than them.
This pupil simply doesn’t think that a teacher can help. He thinks that pupils are more well versed than teachers when it comes to eating disorders and therefore may be better placed to help. How can you overcome this attitude? Our research shows there may be a grain of truth in this attitude, and you might like to think about how you can educate staff in your school about eating disorders.
Pupil 8: I’d feel too bad telling them face to face, even if I thought it would be helpful to tell a teacher, I’d want to be able to be anonymous – at least at first.
This pupil doesn’t want to talk to a teacher face to face. We came across this attitude a few times. Some pupils didn’t want to be seen to be going behind their friend’s back, whilst others simply felt too scared or anxious to have the conversation – or just didn’t know what to say. Can you think of any ways in which your school could make it possible for pupils to anonymously disclose their concerns about a friend to a teacher?
For each barrier consider:
- Possible ideas for addressing this
- Who needs to be involved?
- Success criteria
- Next steps
It may help to work in conjunction with other staff – and pupils too.