Approaches to Dealing with Disordered Eating in Schools

Denise Hodgins

Reprinted from "Eating Disorders" issue of Visions Journal, 2002, No. 16, pp. 23-24

One of the goals at the BC Eating Disorders Association is to provide, encourage and facilitate education ranging from school-based prevention programs to broad public education campaigns. While disordered eating is not limited to gender, race, economic status or age, much of the prevention work we do focuses on reaching children and youth. It is our aim to help students develop, at the earliest stage possible, basic building blocks for wellness: self-acceptance, mindfulness, and balance.

Many programs approach disordered eating prevention by talking about the group at risk instead of equipping those individuals with skills, tools, resources and support to become a part of the change process. This is the type of approach we take in our Outreach Program. To best reach youth, we have developed a program that includes outreach talks to students grades four through university; specialized training sessions for students in educator-supported peer helper programs; and a variety of office resources including support for students, parents and educators. To ensure we are meeting the needs of youth, the program content is developed with the feedback we receive from hundreds of students and their educators each year.

To successfully work with youth, students must be engaged with the material and it must relate to their lives. Students ask for honesty and concrete information. They want to know more than what’s wrong, they want to know what they can do about it. Our aim is to do much more than simply offer information but to mentor students and include their voices in the effort to create social change about disordered eating. Our hope is that youth will feel empowered to take action for the promotion of self-acceptance in their lives, and within their peer groups, families and school community.

When BCEDA first began to offer presentations in 1993, the focus was primarily to give students information about clinical eating disorders, anorexia and bulimia. Over the years, the program developed to cover a much broader scope of topics, including our relationship with food, body image, sizeism, media literacy , and others. Outreach talks are not designed to scare students into wellness or to sensationalize the emotional aspect of dealing with disordered eating, but to seriously involve students in discussions about these issues. Talks are put together based on the age and needs of each group, with the students guiding the facilitators who lead the discussion.

Last year, our Outreach Program added training sessions for students volunteering as school-based peer helpers. One strength of peer helper programs is that youth tend to seek out information and support from their peers before they go to a parent or educator. Peer helpers are in a great position to support a student, to direct them to services, and to encourage a positive school environment. In recognition of this, we developed a project that builds on the existing peer helper skills, and offers specialized training for disordered eating prevention and intervention. During a total of five training hours, students are given the opportunity to learn more about disordered eating (signs, symptoms, underlying issues, resources) and what they, as peer helpers, can do in terms of prevention and intervention. The students discuss these issues as they relate to their experience as peer helpers as well as act out various role-play scenarios, such as how to support a friend, what to say if you are concerned about someone, and strategies for promoting an accepting school environment.

We also provide students with information, support and guidance through our newsletter, drop-in office, phone line, library and web site (www.preventingdisorderedeating.org). The number of students using our office resources has increased dramatically. Often students will have seen a presentation or will have participated in a training session, and will come to the office for more information and/or support. These students look for treatment options, and learn how to support or advocate for their friend/sibling who is struggling. More and more students are taking the initiative to seek out information and to organize their own awareness-raising projects. They are interested in, and are fully capable of, participating in the creation of change.

As we continue to develop our Outreach Program, we are broadening the opportunities for students to become even more involved in the preventing and intervening of disordered eating. In November, we will be facilitating a discussion at a disordered eating conference with two of the students who participated in our peer helper training sessions, and we look forward to further strengthening our connection with youth in the years ahead. For us, working with youth in the prevention of disordered eating is more than a one-time presentation. It means being available throughout the year to provide information, support and on-going opportunities for youth to become a part of the change process.

 
About the author
Denise Hodgins is the Executive Director of the BC Eating Disorders Association in Victoria and brings a combination of personal experience with disordered eating, an academic background in Art History and Early Childhood Education, and a work history in School Aged Child Care and Pre-Kindergarten Education to her current position
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