If a young person chooses to talk to you about their eating disorder, it’s a real sign of trust and it demonstrates that they’re ready to be listened to. The most important thing you can do is provide them with the opportunity to talk. No one expects you to know all the answers, but simply by actively listening you’re doing a really important job.
This post gives you a few ideas to make sure you’re listening as effectively as possible.
Make sure there’s no time pressure
A pupil will have to build up quite a lot of courage to have a conversation with you about their eating disorder, so if you suddenly have to dash off to do lunch duty after five minutes it can really shake their confidence. Although you may legitimately need to be somewhere else, the eating disorder is likely to make the pupil interpret the situation negatively and assume that you aren’t interested in what they have to say or you don’t want to help them or are disgusted by them.
So make sure you have plenty of interruption free time before you sit down to talk to a pupil. This can feel frustrating if a pupil says they want to talk and due to your other commitments you have to send them away until later – but if you make it crystal clear that it’s because you want to have enough time to really listen to what they have to say and offer what support you can then they will understand. You must agree a time and place to meet again as soon as possible and ensure that you are where you’ll say you’ll be.
If for any reason you can’t keep to the agreed time or place, you MUST let the pupil know.
Remove all distractions
You need to focus 100% on the pupil for the next few minutes. You need to really listen to them which means removing any distractions. Turn your phone off, turn your computer screen off. Make sure your door is shut and put up a note asking people not to disturb you. You can let the pupil see you make this effort to ensure you’re not interrupted and they’ll realise that you’re taking them seriously.
Use appropriate body language
Keep your body language open and approachable during the conversation. You need to make it clear that you’re paying attention and that you’re not horrified by what you’re hearing. Don’t cross your arms and legs and make eye contact occasionally if it feels appropriate.
Show you’re listening
You can show that you’re listening quite naturally by nodding your head, making ‘listening noises’ like “uhuh” or “mmm” periodically. Every now and then you should paraphrase what the pupil has said to you to show that you’ve been paying attention and understand. Of course, if there is anything that you don’t quite understand then you should explore this with the pupil too.
Keep your talking to a minimum
The pupil should be talking at least three quarters of the time. If that’s not the case then you need to redress the balance. You are here to listen, not to talk. Sometimes the conversation may lapse into silence. Try not to give in to the urge to fill the gap, but rather wait until the pupil does so. This can often lead to them exploring their feelings more deeply. Of course, you should interject occasionally, perhaps with questions to the pupil to explore certain topics they’ve touched on more deeply, or to show that you understand and are supportive. Don’t feel an urge to over-analyse the situation or try to offer answers. This all comes later. For now your role is simply one of supportive listener. So make sure you’re listening!
If you would like further support, Pooky can deliver an eating disorder training session at your school or college.