By Valerie Strauss
People with obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, suffer from unwanted and intrusive thoughts that they can’t seem to get out of their heads, called obsessions, which often compel them to perform ritualistic behaviors and routines, or compulsions, over and over to try to ease their anxiety. Children and teens may not realize they have it — and parents and educators often misunderstand or misdiagnose the condition.
Here, from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, is information for educators and school staff about how to recognize OCD in children:
OCD is like an unwelcome guest with bad manners. It moves into a mind — and it doesn’t want to leave.
Students with OCD may appear to be daydreaming, distracted, disinterested, or even lazy. They may seem unfocused and unable to concentrate. But they are really very busy focusing on their nagging urges or confusing, stressful, and sometimes terrifying OCD thoughts and images. They may also be focused on completing rituals, either overtly or covertly, to relieve their distress.
While frustrating to educators, OCD may be torture for the students who have it. This disorder may be difficult to identify because its observable symptoms are similar to other conditions and mental disorders, and mental rituals cannot be observed. Symptoms in children and adolescents can change over time, and they tend to wax and wane for no apparent reason. School personnel who have a good understanding of the variety of behaviors that may signal OCD are better equipped to initiate a plan to assist the student.
The Effect of OCD on Academic Performance
Even very bright and motivated students can struggle with OCD. Although students with OCD typically have average to above-average intelligence levels, they may be unable to learn the same way others do because their focus is frequently on their obsessions or compulsions. Depending on the severity of the symptoms, some students find it difficult to learn and, for some, it’s almost impossible to concentrate on and complete schoolwork.
Although they want to pay attention, participate in discussions or presentations, study, and complete homework, they feel compelled to respond to their obsessions or urges.
Students who have untreated OCD re likely to have a very difficult time concentrating in the classroom and completing homework assignments. They may experience overwhelming anxiety or strong urges, possibly describing the feeling of mounting anxiety or intensifying urges as if they were a rising volcano or a tea kettle about to boil — and relief comes when the pressure is released. Unfortunately, the release is usually a compulsive behavior that may be disruptive to learning and possibly to the classroom.
It may not be long before the student who has OCD falls behind and sees a drop in grades. In some cases, academic performance deteriorates abruptly and dramatically. And it may be nearly impossible to catch up unless a student can learn to manage the symptoms. For these reasons, it’s important that school personnel take OCD seriously and work with the student and the family to provide support.
What Does OCD Look Like at School?
A student may enter a classroom at the beginning of the school year with a diagnosis of OCD, or the disorder may develop later. Whenever a student begins to falter — academically, socially, or emotionally — educators need to intervene. A proactive approach can make an impressive difference in a student’s coping ability, academic performance, and interpersonal capabilities.
The first step is being aware of the behaviors that can signal OCD. The disorder includes a wide variety of symptoms in children and adolescents, which are not always obvious. It is important to keep in mind that OCD symptoms can look like other disorders, so it is critical that a mental health specialist trained in OCD and related disorders conduct a diagnostic assessment OCD can be confused for symptoms of ADHD and anxiety disorders, as well as acting out” or misbehavior not associated with a neurobiological disorder. Also, OCD changes in nature or scope from one set of obsessions and compulsions to another, with differing behaviors, and symptoms can worsen and or seem to disappear, often for no obvious reason.