Eating Disorders and Special Education

It is National Eating Disorders Awareness week.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, “among U.S. females in their teens and 20s, the prevalence of clinical and sub-clinical anorexia may be as high as 15%.” What’s more, “[a]norexia nervosa ranks as the 3rd most common chronic illness among adolescent U.S. females.”  The most common eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder. Eating disorders aren’t always obvious.  You can learn more about the warning signs and symptoms of eating disorders here.  You can also learn more about the types of eating disorders and the treatment by reading this: “Eating Disorders: About More Than Food,” a National Institute of Mental Health publication.

People don’t often think about eating disorders when they think about special education, but eating disorders can have a significant impact on education.  Eating disorders can impact cognitive functioning.  Children with eating disorders often have co-occurring disabilities, like depression and anxiety.  If a child has an eating disorder, it is important to look at the impact on education and, if necessary, put plans in place to address the child’s educational needs.

The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) has a very useful toolkit for educators.  In it, the NEDA explains that eating disorders may impact cognitive functioning, attention, behavior, and attendance.  The NEDA toolkit includes strategies that may help like “alternative assignments for physical education requirements, extended time on assignments/tests, peer tutoring, copies of class notes from missed days, and access to a quiet study location.”  These are helpful ideas, but remember that all interventions need to be individually tailored to the student and based on assessment.

If your child has an eating disorder, she or he may need a 504 plan or special education services.  Whether your child qualifies for special education depends not upon your child’s diagnosis, but upon whether he or she has a disability that adversely affects educational performance and requires specialized instruction.  Obtaining special education is a process that starts with a referral and a request for evaluation.  Reasons for referral include: poor attendance, repeated suspensions, unsatisfactory behavior, unsatisfactory progress in school, and difficulties with/withdrawal from social engagement.  Parents can make a referral by writing to a school administrator and requesting that their child be evaluated to determine if he or she needs special education services.  For more information on the process for getting your child identified, check How Do I Get My Child Identified to Receive Special Education Services? and Can Kids with Anxiety and Depression Receive Special Education Services?