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Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Factsheet (for Schools)

Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
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What Teachers Should Know

OCD is a mental health condition that causes unwanted and upsetting thoughts (obsessions), anxiety, and behaviors (compulsions).

Students with OCD get caught up in a stressful cycle of these thoughts, anxiety, and rituals.

It's not always easy for teachers to recognize OCD in the classroom. Students may keep their worries and concerns to themselves. They may try to do rituals in ways that others won't notice. But teachers may notice that a student seems stressed, anxious, or preoccupied. Or they may notice behaviors that could be signs of OCD rituals.

Obsessions

OCD obsessions can include worries or fears (about germs, sickness, or getting hurt), concerns with the way things need to be (even, symmetrical, in order), recurring doubts and concerns (about being completely sure, correct, perfect, or certain).

OCD can cause distressing thoughts and concerns to come to mind over and over. This can make it hard for students to concentrate on schoolwork or to be attentive in class.

Compulsions

Compulsions (also called rituals) are actions a student with OCD may do to try to get rid of worries and doubts, and the anxiety they cause.

At school, students with OCD may:

  • ask the same question many times or ask for reassurance
  • erase, re-write, re-do schoolwork or tests
  • re-read material or start over many times
  • have trouble reading aloud
  • skip items on tests or homework (because of concerns or fears about specific numbers)
  • tap, step, or touch things in an unusual way or a set number of times
  • check, re-check, re-organize a backpack, locker, or desk many times
  • have chapped hands due to frequent washing
  • wash or clean things more than needed
  • have trouble making choices, often say, "I don't know"
  • take a long time to complete work

What Teachers Can Do

Depending on an individual student's age and needs, and whether or not you know a student has a diagnosis of OCD, consider these ideas:

If you've noticed possible ritual behaviors that seem to impact a student's schoolwork, talk privately with the student. In a supportive way, share what you've noticed. For example, "I've noticed that you spend a lot of time checking and rechecking your work — so much that it's hard to finish. That's got to be stressful for you. How can I help?"

Talk with the student's parent to learn more about the student. Share what you've noticed. Ask how you can best respond to a student's rituals that might happen at school or in class.

Some students benefit from special education services, such as individualized education programs (IEPs) or 504 education plans. If a plan like this is in place, find out what accommodations it includes for the classroom.

Teachers can also consider these ways to help:

  • Give extra time with assignments and taking tests.
  • Give extra help to get work completed.
  • Have a student work with a peer to complete a specific assignment.
  • For students who have trouble taking notes and listening in class (because of the need to correct, perfect, or re-write notes), give prepared notes.

Some students may need to miss class time to talk to a school counselor or other mental health specialist.

The right treatment can help students with OCD, but overcoming it isn't a quick or easy process. Students with OCD usually need to work with a therapist for a few months or longer. Some take medicines to help manage their anxiety.

Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: July 2021