School and OCD

From daily routines like catching the bus and studying, to the constant pursuit of academic and extracurricular success, school is pretty intense. Add to that the insecurities that come with growing up and trying to fit in, and anyone can imagine why today’s students are stressed out. Now throw OCD into the mix. Doing so makes everything more complicated — homework, sports, socializing, test taking and so on. These things can be more difficult and require more time and attention than they do for other students. While stressful and sometimes alienating, the good news is that you’re not alone in your battle and there are plenty of people and resources that can help you excel.

How can OCD at school affect my experience or performance?

OCD symptoms can appear at any moment — during recess, test time, group work sessions and after-school activities. Sometimes OCD might lead you to get off track with school work, keep you from wanting to make new friends and even impact your grades. But don’t worry. It’s possible to stay on track.

Some OCD triggers at schools might be:

  • Communal spaces like bathrooms, coat closets, locker rooms and the cafeteria. You might feel the urge to resist using the bathroom until you get home or avoid touching certain items that have been touched by classmates.
  • Sharing school supplies and devices like crayons, pencils, scissors, glue, iPads and computers.
  • A classroom or locker that looks disorganized or unclean.
  • Windows and doors. You might feel the urge to check and re-check that the windows are closed and the door is locked behind you.
  • Other classmates or teachers. You might avoid certain classmates or teachers because of the unwanted thoughts that you have about them.
  • Certain activities, classrooms or hallways.

It’s possible to anticipate these triggers by:

  • Maintaining your daily routine even if OCD symptoms pop up. For example, going into a classroom that makes you anxious despite the stress it causes.
  • Exposing yourself to the thing that gives you anxiety. Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) is a type of therapy that should be administered by a professional therapist. Once you receive instruction from your therapist, you can begin to practice these exposures at school.
  • Keeping an open dialogue with your teachers and the administration. Make them aware of your OCD and how it manifests. They can help set up a plan for handling stressful situations.

Tips for staying on track:

  • Get a good night’s sleep.
  • Take bathroom, water and food breaks as needed.
  • Exercise. When you exercise your body releases endorphins, which help create serotonin so make the most of gym class or recess activities.
  • Eat well. Healthy foods rich in tryptophan, like turkey, eggs, cheese, grains, salmon and pineapple, boost serotonin levels in the body.
  • Engage in mindfulness techniques like deep breaths or simply allowing your thoughts to be present in the moment and float by.

How do I talk to a teacher about my OCD?

It’s tough enough to talk about your OCD with friends and family. It can be even harder to approach your teacher about it. You might be scared of rejection or getting laughed at. The thing is, teachers are understanding and want to see you succeed. They’re capable of helping you reach your goals, even if you have OCD.

If you’re in elementary, middle or high school, you and your parents (or sometimes just your parents) should contact the school to arrange a meeting with your teachers. This meeting is simply to explain to them that you have OCD and might need some extra time taking tests or special accommodations when you’re experiencing symptoms. By talking about it upfront, your teachers will be much more understanding of your illness and find ways to get you what you need to succeed. For young children in therapy, your parents might ask the therapist to join the meeting or write a letter. Parents should go to the meeting prepared with educational materials to share with the teacher.

If you’re in college, you should set up time to speak with your mentor and/or your professors at the start of each semester. If you’re in a big class and your professor isn’t as accessible, sending an email often easier, and that’s totally fine. Just know that it might take time to get a response or you may not even get a response back at all. On the flip side, your professor may want to talk about it in person after you’ve sent the email. Be as honest as possible so your professor can be more understanding. You can even ask your therapist to write you a letter.

What resources or accommodations can I make?  

For elementary, middle and high school students:

  • Schools are required by law to accommodate any legal parent or guardian that requests special education for his or her child under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Depending on the school district, some children qualify for these services. Learn more here.
  • Educate teachers and school staff on common OCD symptoms such as checking and re-checking, rearranging school supplies or lockers, refusing to touch items shared with classmates, avoidance of activities and frustration over things that are unorganized.
  • Keep your teachers and guidance counselors up to date on your OCD, especially if you’re in therapy. You could write in a diary or even have your parents ask the therapist to write progress letters. This should include notes about the support you’re receiving or not receiving at school.
  • Sometimes OCD sufferers obsess over the way something is read. Ask if you can skip reading out loud, or reduce the amount of times that you’re requested to do it.
  • When you experience worry or anxiety, it’s best to stay in the moment or situation until it goes away. If it’s too much to overcome, take a short break and shift your focus.
  • You might want to ask to be seated near the door in case you need to leave the classroom when experiencing OCD symptoms. This will reduce distraction. If you talk with your teacher, you might decide on a nonverbal signal or not even need to ask for permission to leave every time.
  • Ask for more time to complete a homework assignment or test if OCD symptoms are getting in the way.

For college students:

  • When you’re experiencing OCD symptoms, you and your professor might agree to letting you leave class early.
  • If you can’t make it to class, your professor should be open to emailing you the lesson so you don’t fall behind.
  • If you’re having trouble concentrating during a test due to your OCD, you might consider asking for permission to complete the test during his or her office hours.
  • Schedule regular ongoing therapy sessions. If your therapist is in a different city than your college, you both might consider telehealth through Skype or FaceTime. Ideally, your therapist should be able to recommend a new local therapist.
  • If you’ve gone through Exposure Response Prevention therapy (ERP), always make time to do your exposures and try to preempt your intrusive thoughts.
  • Try mindfulness techniques like breathing exercises, meditation or yoga. Or simply allow your thoughts to be present and accept them. Don’t try to control or push them away.



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