Recognizing OCD in Children

By Alison Dotson, author of Being Me with OCD

Recognizing OCD in ChildrenWhile I now know that I’ve had obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) since I was a child, I certainly didn’t know it at the time. As a nine-year-old, all I knew was that fire scared me to the point of tears and that I thought I had, at different points, breast cancer, brain cancer, and scoliosis. How could I have known at such a young age that all of these fears had something in common—a treatable disorder? And how could my parents have known how crippled I often felt by these fears when I never shared them?

Even if I’d told my parents or a teacher, so little was known about OCD at the time that it’s very unlikely they would have made the connection. After all, I didn’t wash my hands excessively or check to make sure the stove was off over and over again. My parents couldn’t see anything different about me while I was obsessing because any compulsions I engaged in were mental.

And I’m not so different from many kids today. We know so much more than we did thirty years ago, but if adults don’t know that some OCD symptoms are invisible, they can miss the signs. If adults are lucky, the children in their lives will simply tell them what’s going on, but they still will need to be equipped with a basic knowledge of OCD—children aren’t likely to say, “I have OCD.”

Of course, some children will have obvious compulsions, and their parents may notice the child engaging in the following:

  • Excessive hand-washing, often resulting in red, raw, or chapped hands.
  • Checking, such as making sure the oven is turned off or plugging in and unplugging a curling iron.

But some signs are less obvious:

  • Always late because the child is privately engaging in rituals.
  • Asking for reassurance: Is it my fault Grandma’s sick? What if I accidentally swear in church?
  • Taking too long to complete tasks, such as homework assignments, because they need to be done “perfectly.”

If symptoms seem to have come out of nowhere, it could be because a child has PANDAS (pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder associated with streptococcal infections), caused by the brain’s reaction to a strep infection, or PANS (pediatric acute-onset neuropsychiatric syndrome), caused by the brain’s reaction to other infections.

OCD is tricky for everyone, whether it affects adults or children, but it can be especially baffling—and heartbreaking—when it affects children, who can’t quite put their feelings into words. The International OCD Foundation has a site dedicated to the topic of OCD in children, and the section “What Is Different About OCD in Kids” may be particularly helpful.

Author Alison DotsonAlison Dotson was diagnosed with OCD at age twenty-six, after suffering from “taboo” obsessions for more than a decade. Today, she still has occasional bad thoughts, but she now knows how to deal with them in healthy ways. Alison is the president of OCD Twin Cities, an affiliate of the International OCD Foundation. You can read more about Alison on her blog at

Being Me with OCD Alison is the author of Being Me with OCD: How I Learned to Obsess Less and Live My Life.

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9 Ways Schools Can Support Trans Students

By Kelly Huegel, author of GLBTQ

9 Ways Schools Can Support Trans StudentsNever have transgender issues been in the mainstream as much as they are now. When I first wrote GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Teens in 2003, relatively few people, even in the gay community, understood or paid much attention to transgender issues. But today, transgender issues have come out from the shadows and into our living rooms: from legislative skirmishes over bathrooms to celebrity Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner’s before-our-eyes transformation to the hit Amazon show Transparent, which depicts an aging father’s journey into life as a woman.

Because of increased awareness of what it means to be transgender, people are recognizing they are trans at younger and younger ages. And that means more and more schools are faced with the issue of how to support growing populations of trans and gender-nonconforming students.

Without a doubt, issues around gender identity can be complex, but with some practice and sensitivity, schools can do a lot to help trans and gender-nonconforming students feel safe and accepted.

1. Have zero tolerance and nondiscrimination policies that include gender identity and enforce them.
Schools may have zero tolerance or inclusion policies but often fail to enforce those policies. Rogue teachers may refuse to use desired names or pronouns, or other students may bully and harass trans students. In all cases, it’s critical that administrators hold everyone at school accountable for following the policies, otherwise the policies are useless.

2. Use students’ preferred names and pronouns.
A trans student who is identified as Shawn on the birth certificate may wish to be called Shawna, and fellow students, staff, and teachers should be instructed to use the student’s preferred name along with the pronouns “she,” “her,” and “hers” rather than “he,” “him,” and “his.” Students who are gender-nonconforming may not identify as male or female. In these cases, the appropriate pronouns are “they,” “them,” “their,” and “theirs.” (English teachers, I understand that the idea of using “they” as a singular pronoun may be like nails on a chalkboard, but there is some precedent. In fact, in 2016 the American Dialect Society voted singular “they” as their word of the year.)

3. Make sure the dress code is inclusive of trans students.
Many school dress codes make distinctions about appropriate attire for male and female students. Trans students should be permitted to dress in accordance with the gender they identify as, and policies should accommodate gender-nonconforming students who do not identify as male or female.

4. Make gender-neutral bathrooms and locker rooms available.
This is what got the country riled up in the first place—fear that the availability of gender-neutral bathrooms would endanger women and children. In a controlled environment like a school, these fears are especially unfounded, and having gender-neutral private spaces available for trans students is an essential part of supporting them. Having gender-neutral bathrooms available also supports trans staff and teachers as well as trans parents who may visit the school.

5. Hire openly trans staff and teachers.
Give full and fair consideration to applicants for staff and teaching positions who are openly trans, gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Having staff and educators who reflect society inside and outside school walls goes a long way toward engendering a climate of openness and acceptance for all students.

6. Educate.
When it comes to complex issues, communities often learn together. Take time to discuss trans-inclusive policies at parent-teacher and community meetings and send home letters explaining the policies. For staff and educators, provide special training and/or welcome a trans person to be a guest speaker to talk about trans experiences so that employees can gain a richer understanding of the issues at play and put a human face to them.

7. Include trans people and issues in the curriculum.
A great way to normalize the subject and educate students—and educators—is to include trans people and issues in the curriculum (as well as gay, lesbian, and bisexual people and issues). For example, when studying Native Americans, include mention of two-spirit people. When assigning speech and debate topics, include the issues of transgender bathrooms, trans people in the military, or similar topics and let students explore the issues and educate one another.

8. Support GLBTQ student groups.
Many schools have GLBTQ student groups (often called GSAs or gay-straight alliances). Being supportive of these groups—such as inviting them to put together special school projects for Pride month (June)—shows the whole school that these students and their allies are welcome and supported.

9. Realize trans students may be struggling at home.
Though our understanding of trans issues is increasing, gender identity is still a confusing topic for many. Lots of trans students are not fully supported by their families, and that can be extremely distressing for young people. Additionally, some students may be taking hormones as part of a physical transition process, so they may be experiencing challenging mood and physical changes. Trans students might benefit from extra support from teachers or guidance counselors. Even an extra effort to be friendly and check in with trans students can go a long way toward helping them feel welcome and accepted.

Laws and regulations regarding protections for trans students vary widely from state to state. Lambda Legal provides some excellent resources on legal and other issues surrounding transgender people. Additionally, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) offers a great deal of school-specific information.

Author Kelly HuegelKelly Huegel Madrone is a freelance writer, editor, and educator. She has worked for the Metropolitan Washington, D.C., chapter of PFLAG where she helped provide support and educational services to GLBTQ people and their families. The author of two books and more than one hundred published articles, Kelly holds a degree in secondary education. She lives in Colorado with her wife, Margaret, and daughter. Kelly welcomes readers to follow her on Twitter at @GLBTQguide or visit her website at

GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning TeensKelly is the author of GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Teens.

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Healthy and Appropriate Food Talk in the Classroom

By Liz Bergren

Healthy and Appropriate Food Talk in the ClassroomAt times, an elementary classroom teacher is responsible for overseeing the distribution of food in the lunchroom or classroom. More than likely, discussions around food and what kids are eating will come up in these circumstances. The words you use to describe food can be critical. In the United States, we are a society obsessed with thinness, and food is at the epicenter of our social lives. Statistically, obesity rates are at their highest in history, and Americans currently are the heaviest people in the world.

There seems to be a disconnect here: How are we obsessed with thinness yet extraordinarily overweight? Why has there been unprecedented growth of eating disorders and disordered eating in the past two decades?

One of the most important relationships we will ever have is the one we have with food. This relationship develops very early. How does what you think about food relate to what you learned about food as a child? Think about how food was discussed in your household. Were you told never to eat sugar or that certain foods are considered “junk”? Were there “good” foods and “bad” foods? Were you told that you had to eat everything on your plate before you could leave the table? Were you told that certain foods make you fat while others do not?

When working with students, it is very important to leave your opinions and personal experiences with food out of the classroom. If food conversations happen, model healthy food talk. Here are some thoughts on how to approach this sometimes sensitive subject:

  1. Food is fuel for our bodies. This is one of the most important messages to convey. Talk with children about how food works in our bodies and how certain foods can make us feel energized and alert while others can make us feel tired and sluggish. Other conversations can focus on how we need food to help us jump, run, climb, play an instrument, and so on.
  2. Avoid using scare tactics. Statements such as “If you eat this, then this will happen to you” only increase anxiety around food. My mom used to tell me that too much sugar would cause all my teeth to fall out. You can see how comments like this can increase anxiety for some young children who have a higher tendency to take these types of comments seriously. Avoid labeling food with words and phrases such as “junk,” “good,” and “bad” food. All foods can fit into a healthy diet.
  3. The key words to use are balance and moderation. Foods that most of us know aren’t healthy for us should be consumed in moderation. I used to tell my students that they can eat desserts every day as long as they know how to portion sweets. Depriving ourselves of foods that are enjoyable can lead to potential bingeing down the road.
  4. Refrain from comments about a child’s body shape and size. Complimenting a child’s outfit, accessories, or accomplishments is appropriate, but keep the focus away from physical features. I have heard adults say things to children like, “Oh, you’re so skinny. You’ll appreciate that when you’re older.” Or, “Boys need to grow up to be big and strong.” Those comments only send the message that your body should look a certain way for you to be happy.
  5. Eat with your students from time to time. This will give you a chance to model healthy eating and answer any questions that come up.
  6. Watch what you say with other adults. Try to avoid getting into conversations about dieting or body shaming with other staff or faculty. This is particularly important when you are around students. Avoid saying things like, “She’s so skinny—she’s so lucky,” “I feel fat today” (fat is not a feeling), or “I need to go on a diet.” Changing the subject to take the conversation in a different direction can be helpful in these situations.
  7. Intervene when necessary. Step in if you hear students having conversations using negative food talk or body shaming. For example, if one student tells another that the food she is eating will make her fat, remind both students that anything we eat has a nutrient that can be valuable to our bodies and that it is rude to comment on or to judge what other people are eating. Look for teachable moments to reinforce safe and healthy food and body talk.
  8. Be mindful of cultural differences around food and body shape and size. This post addresses issues identified with Western culture, which may not be relevant to all the students you work with. For example, students may be fasting for religious purposes. Or, not all cultures idealize thinness, so discussions that come up regarding being “skinny,” “fit,” or “thin” will not resonate with all students.

Liz BergrenLiz Bergren is Free Spirit’s education resource specialist. She is a former teacher with 15 years of classroom experience. In addition to being a teacher, she spent five years working for Park Nicollet’s Melrose Institute where she counseled and taught classes to patients who struggled with eating disorders. She has a B.A. in health and secondary education from the University of St. Thomas and an M.Ed. in family education from the University of Minnesota.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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Creating an Inclusive Classroom for Students with Special Needs

By Andrew Hawk

Creating an Inclusive Classroom for Students with Special NeedsPull-out teaching models are falling out of use whether we agree or disagree with the change. Every year, federal and state departments of education raise the amount of time special education students are expected to spend in general education classrooms. Some states, such as Ohio, have moved to full inclusion for all special education students who do not require a self-contained classroom. Finding the best practices to set up an inclusive classroom is vital. Here are some tips you may find useful if you are faced with this rewarding challenge.

Start with the Individual Education Plans (IEPs)
While there will be some similarities among most inclusive classrooms, the finer details may be quite different. This is because teachers tailor their inclusive classrooms to meet the specific needs of their students. This process starts with a detailed review of each student’s IEP. Pay close attention to students’ exceptionalities, goals, provisions, and accommodations. Check the goals to see if you will need to collect data. The provisions will tell you if the student will spend any time in a special education setting or if the student receives any additional services such as speech or physical therapy. The accommodations will describe any special things you will need to do for the student, such as preferential seating or restating directions to check for understanding.

Check Your Room Arrangement
Does one of your students use a wheelchair? If so, you need to check the space between desks and tables to make sure there is adequate space for the student to maneuver. Also, check to see if classroom items are within reach. Does one of your students have low vision? He or she should be seated close to the instructor. You will also need to print everything you can in a larger font.

These are the kinds of things that will need to be considered. The good news is that a lot of this information is included in the student’s IEP. Be prepared to make changes if something is not working.

Make a Logical Seating Chart
Forget the alphabetical order or random first-day seating chart that many teachers use. There are two trains of thought on how to group students in an inclusive classroom. You can intermingle at-risk students with higher achieving students. This offers an opportunity for peer tutoring. The second approach is to group the students together by their ability. This gives you the opportunity to deliver a lesson to the whole group and then offer remediation to at-risk students. Having at-risk students seated together makes re-teaching material easier.

Make a Schedule That Includes Services
If you have an inclusive classroom, one or more of your students may regularly receive speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, counseling, or social skills services. These services can make it challenging to find times for students to be away from the room without missing important content or instruction. Work with other school personnel to fit in these services during times that will cause fewer difficulties. When you have a student who is pulled out of class often, this can feel impossible, but it’s worth the effort to try.

Choose the Right Materials
When you are teaching students at very different skill levels, it can feel like you have to write individual lesson plans. This is a challenge when you’re trying to meet the needs of a classroom full of students. Finding the right materials to meet the needs of your students is crucial. This might be as easy as differentiating your regular classroom materials. However, sometimes you may need to use completely different materials. Find out what resources your school has available. A lot of free resources are available on the Internet, so check them out as well.

Collaborate with the Special Education Teacher
I know the things I have described sound like a lot of work. The good news is that you are not in this alone. Work with your school’s special education teacher to get help setting up your classroom and meeting the needs of your special education students. The special education teacher may even have materials that you can borrow if necessary. This person should be a great resource to you as you work through the school year.

Consider Co-Teaching
If your administrator agrees and your special education teacher is available, consider co-teaching for a portion of the day. Co-teaching holds vast potential for meeting the needs of special education students in an inclusive environment. Some of the benefits of a co-taught classroom include the following:

  • It gives teachers the opportunity to build leadership skills.
  • It offers a smaller student-to-teacher ratio.
  • It offers expanded opportunities to differentiate instruction.
  • Students often enjoy the opportunity to receive more adult attention.

Final Thoughts
Depending on a given group of students’ needs, inclusive classrooms can look very different from one another. Be ready to think outside the box, and do not be afraid to try creative solutions. The answers to some problems only come after a little experimentation. No idea is ever really a failure so long as it helps you know what to do differently in the future.

Andrew HawkAndrew Hawk has worked in public education for fourteen years, starting as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He has taught first, second, and fifth grade as a classroom teacher, and for the past three years, has worked as a resource room teacher, providing services for fourth and fifth graders. Working as a special education teacher has given him the opportunity to work with a variety of age groups and exceptionalities. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

Suggested Resources
Teaching Kids with Learning Difficulties in Today’s Classroom
The Survival Guide for Kids in Special Education
The Survival Guide for Kids with Physical Disabilities & Challenges

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7 Tips for Raising Emotionally Resilient Kids

By Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D., author of Ollie Outside: Screen-Free Fun

7 Tips for Raising Emotionally Resilient KidsIn the 1984 movie The Karate Kid, a teenage boy becomes disheartened when his karate teacher has him doing chores to exhaustion day after day. Instead of teaching the boy fighting techniques for his upcoming competition, the master instructs the boy to paint his house and fence, sand his floors, and wax his many old cars. The boy listens to his teacher but eventually grows impatient and expresses strong negative feelings. When the master commands the boy to show him the moves the boy learned to complete the myriad of boring and laborious chores—sand the floor, wax on/wax off, paint the fence, and so on—the boy realizes that he was actually being trained all along. He is then able to easily learn the formal karate moves that he wants and needs for the competition.

I suppose the above movie scenario could be interpreted in different ways, but the take-home message for me is that committing to hard work leads to growth and success. Sure, the boy finally learned karate, but more importantly, he learned the importance of patience, delaying gratification, concentration, self-discipline, perseverance, being in the moment, and selflessness.

As loving parents, we want our children to grow up to be happy, and it’s natural to also want our children to do as well professionally, if not better, than we’ve done. Certainly, early academic and cultural enrichment opportunities, tutoring, and other after-school social, educational, and athletic activities can all contribute to our children’s happiness and success. But do we spend an equal amount of time teaching our children how to “wax on, wax off”?

Psychological/emotional resilience and grit are areas of study that developmental psychologists know to be important when it comes to a child’s later happiness and success in life. A child who possesses adequate psychological or emotional resilience can encounter significant challenges or adverse experiences and continue to develop well. And a child with grit will persevere toward long-term goals despite encountering obstacles along the way.

Some research has even found that psychological/emotional resilience and grit are as important as, if not more important than, having a high IQ. As a psychologist, I have witnessed this when some teenage clients of mine have been accepted and gone to four-year colleges but failed out of school within a short period of time. In these instances, the teenagers were smart enough to be at school—they earned the GPA and the SAT scores to get in—but they lacked the emotional resilience and grit to thrive once there.

Researchers believe that emotional resilience and grit develop in an unfolding process alongside specific factors like family support, community and social support, a positive self-concept, flexible communication and problem-solving skills, and the ability to manage strong feelings and impulses. Problems with emotional resilience and grit can start at a young age, but parents can help their children become emotionally strong and passionate about their lives and toward their pursuits. Whether your child is three, nine, or sixteen years of age, it’s never too late to help him or her become more resilient.

Here are seven helpful tips to consider:

  1. Teach your child the value of a dollar. If we buy kids whatever they desire, they will have a difficult time developing a strong work ethic of their own. Instead, set age-appropriate goals for items that kids can take actionable steps toward earning or buying themselves. It’s one thing to buy your child a new video game, for example, but it’s much better if your child has to earn it.
  2. Give your child chores. Whether your child is three years old and helps to carry his or her dish to the kitchen after a meal or is seventeen years old and mows the lawn, having chores provides a sense of responsibility. If practiced consistently, chores can lead to a sense of accomplishment, cooperation, and pride.
  3. Encourage your child to take risks. Like many people my age, my parents gave me the freedom when I was a young boy to take risks and to explore. From climbing trees to the highest branches and swaying back and forth without fear to biking around town all summer with friends in search of adventure, this freedom benefited me in many ways. We should do our own children the same service. It’s important for kids to separate from parents (safely and within reason) so they can find their own voices and legs within their peer group and the larger world.
  4. Let your child get dirty and get hurt. Structured activities are important for kids, but so are unstructured ones. Blisters, bruises, and dirt under the nails after a fun day of unstructured play outside are good. Let your kids scrape their knees—physically and socially so to speak—so they can learn what works and what doesn’t in their environment and with their peers.
  5. Adhere to the “If this, then that” approach to getting things. If you reward your child for good behaviors and accomplishments, he or she will begin to learn the relationship between hard work and its payoff. This is essential for setting the foundation for a work ethic that is healthy and strong. Similar to how you wouldn’t allow your child to have dessert before dinner, don’t give kids what they want before their responsibilities are completed. Consistently doing homework or chores before playtime or screen time will lead to a more emotionally durable and responsible child.
  6. Encourage your child to be selfless and to do good deeds. Developmentally, children and teens are self-centered, but it’s our job as parents to challenge them to look beyond themselves. Practicing kindness, volunteering, and giving back to others in need are good expectations to have of your children. Increasing empathy and compassion will contribute to emotional resilience and grit.
  7. Model resilience for your child. Life is a series of conflicts and resolutions, and it’s good for our kids to see us manage upsetting moments in positive ways. Being patient, flexible, committed, and disciplined—and delaying gratification and persevering—are all things that you can model for your children during a conflict. So the next time you get a flat tire, for example, be mindful of the things you say and do in your children’s presence because they’re learning how to manage their own emotions from you in that moment.

At the end of The Karate Kid, the boy wins the competition, and he even wins over the girl he likes and wins respect from some of the bullies in his life. That doesn’t all just happen to him by chance, but rather it happens by pushing through his physically and emotionally upsetting and painful moments. Through perseverance and passion to be the best, he learns the importance of “wax on, wax off.”

Author Michael OberschneiderMichael Oberschneider, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist and the founder and director of Ashburn Psychological and Psychiatric Services, a private mental-health practice located in Northern Virginia. He has been featured as a mental-health expert on CNN, Good Morning America, and other popular media outlets, and he has written articles for several news agencies, including The Washington Post. Dr. Oberschneider has also received Washingtonian Magazine’s “Top Therapist” honor for his work with children and adolescents. He lives in Leesburg, Virginia, with his wife Liz and two children, Ava and Otto.

Ollie Outside: Screen-Free FunMichael Oberschneider is the author of Ollie Outside: Screen-Free Fun.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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