Identifying and Supporting Students with OCD

By Alison Dotson, author of Being Me with OCD

Identifying and Supporting Students with OCDI’ve struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) for most of my life, and let me tell you—it’s tricky. I have it, and I get it, but it’s so complex it even throws me for a loop. As a teacher, you have so much on your plate that trying to pin down a student’s diagnosis and particular needs can be downright overwhelming.

In an ideal scenario, any students with OCD have already been diagnosed and their parents have let you know what’s going on. If that’s the case, keep the lines of communication open. Share any issues you’re seeing at school and encourage parents to update you with any changes at home.

It’s very possible, however, that not even the student knows he has OCD, let alone you or his parents. Arm yourself with knowledge so you can recognize the signs. One student’s symptoms may be rather obvious: He’ll show up to school with red, cracked hands from compulsive washing, and he’ll constantly ask to be dismissed to use the bathroom. But another will keep everything inside, and your only clue may not immediately signal OCD to you: Her homework is always late, and when you finally see it, you notice that she’s rubbed through the paper in several places with her eraser. After some digging, you might realize she couldn’t convince herself that she’d done everything just right and started over many times.

OCD Education Station shares several examples of how OCD might manifest in a school setting. Here’s a sampling from their site of compulsions due to obsessions such as a fear of contamination, uncertainty that a task has actually been completed, or scrupulosity:

  • Refusing to eat in the cafeteria
  • Asking to leave the classroom to recheck a locker or its contents
  • Reading words or pages a certain number of times, causing delays in completing assignments
  • Going back and forth through doorways a certain number of times before it’s okay to enter the room
  • Apologizing or confessing that something was (or is thought to have been) wrong, such as breaking rules, including religious, classroom, or school rules

Combating OCD takes time, and your student will likely backtrack in his recovery process. How can you help in the meantime?

  • Focus on the student’s strengths. OCD can be draining and make a person feel unworthy. Praise him for a job well done, and try your best to be patient with OCD-related behavioral issues—they’re likely beyond the student’s control, and he already feels pretty terrible about them.
  • Remind your student OCD doesn’t define her as a person. She isn’t OCD; she has OCD. Stigma is an unfortunate reality for anyone afflicted with a mental illness, and it can lead to feelings of shame. Make it clear that a mental illness is no different or more embarrassing than a physical illness.
  • Let the student defuse. Seat the student near the doorway so he can discreetly leave the classroom when his anxiety has built up to an unmanageable level. OCD Education Station recommends coming up with a hand signal or making a card the student can flash before leaving.
  • Tailor homework—and your expectations. No student should spend hours on homework, especially due to compulsions. If your student is unable to finish standard homework because she thinks it needs to be perfect, assign less or talk with her parents about setting a nightly time limit on homework.

This is why working with the child’s parents is so important. If you’re able to confer with the student’s therapist as well, even better. Barring that, get as much information as you can directly from the parents, and make a point of asking them what advice the therapist has given. Has your student been given “homework” for the week that you can help monitor? While your job isn’t to administer exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy to one student all day long, you can help ensure that your student isn’t regressing in your classroom every day because you’re accommodating his every need.

I highly recommend both the International OCD Foundation and Beyond OCD and its OCD Education Station. Both are incredible resources run by caring, knowledgeable staff who want students to succeed.

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

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