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Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Special Needs Factsheet

Reviewed by: Shirin Hasan, MD

What Teachers Should Know

Students with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have upsetting or scary thoughts or images (called obsessions) pop into their minds that are hard to shake. Common obsessions include contamination, safety, and need for symmetry. Unwanted and intrusive thoughts can be of an aggressive or sexual nature.

People with OCD feel strong urges to repeatedly do certain things — called rituals or compulsions — to banish the scary and intrusive thoughts; ward off things they dread; or make sure that things are safe, clean, or right in some way. Common compulsions include cleaning, checking, counting, repeating, arranging, touching, seeking reassurance.

Doctors consider obsessive thinking and rituals to be OCD when they do one or more of the following:

  • take up more than 1 hour each day
  • cause distress
  • interfere with daily activities

OCD in kids is usually diagnosed between age 7 and 12. Since these are the years when kids naturally feel concerned about fitting in with peers, the discomfort and stress brought on by OCD can make them feel scared, out of control, and alone. Stressful events (such as starting school or a loved one's death, for example) can trigger or worsen OCD.

Students with OCD may:

  • miss class time to talk to a school counselor or other mental health specialist
  • need extra time to complete assignments because they reread and rewrite assignments
  • need to take medicine
  • have rituals and preoccupations that seem odd to other students, which may make them a target for bullies
  • benefit from special education services, such as individualized education programs (IEPs) or 504 education plans

What Teachers Can Do

Because OCD symptoms can interfere with learning, some students with the disorder require instructional accommodations, including extra time with assignments or learning breaks if they're feeling anxious.

Teachers need to understand that a student's ritualistic behaviors are part of the disorder. Talking with a school counselor and the student's parents or guardians to learn about the student can help. You might be asked to help the student redirect the behavior or ignore the behavior instead of correcting it or issuing a consequence.

OCD is treatable, but overcoming it isn't a quick or easy process. Students with OCD usually need to work with a therapist and take medicines to help manage their behaviors and the accompanying thoughts and feelings.

Reviewed by: Shirin Hasan, MD
Date reviewed: May 2019