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Eating disorders

Q What can teachers do to help what seems to be an increasing number of children with anorexia?

A It is hardly surprising that eating disorders are so prevalent when young people are constantly urged by the media and their peers to be thin.

This idealised image is experienced by children at a time when they are searching for an identity and trying to negotiate the transition to adulthood. As a result, some become obsessed with body image.

A distinction can be made between anorexia nervosa, which manifests itself in extreme dieting and false perceptions of being overweight, and bulimia nervosa, which is characterised by episodes of binge eating and subsequent vomiting. Allied to this is often the use of large amounts of laxatives and excessive exercising. Anorexia is ten times more common in girls than boys; bulimia about six times more frequent.

The long-term physical consequences of eating disorders are serious and professional help is often required. Teachers have an important role in recognising problems and, where necessary, should bring these to the attention of the school nurse and parents.

Teachers can help talk problems through with the youngster, yet it is wise to point out to the child that issues that are weight or food-oriented should be discussed with a specialist.

To reduce the tendency of the illness to dominate a child's life, it is helpful for school staff to encourage the youngster to maintain a range of interests.

Occasionally, some colleagues in school will be dismissive of the child's condition, considering her to be attention-seeking or self-obsessed. Where possible, try to challenge such beliefs and encourage recognition of, and sensitivity to, the child's condition.

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