How to Help a Student With Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder


I’ve been there. My obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) just about destroyed my education. After sixth grade, I had to be homeschooled due to my inability to function at school. Even in high school, I remember being so nervous to go to school one day that I vomited outside my classroom. I would get intrusive thoughts and just leave class. I spent way too much time in the school office, lying on the bed that was supposed to be for the students who were actually “sick.”

I played clarinet and piano from a young age. First period was band. Every rehearsal was a living nightmare. At the time, my obsession was “what if I faint?” My leg would be shaking uncontrollably, and I would frequently put down my instrument, lay my face in my hands and pray the overwhelming feeling of lightheadedness and panic would pass. You guys, I have legitimately walked off stage in the middle of a concert due to panic. And yes, this was in front of the entire school.

Even now, in my master’s program, I struggle to be in class when certain topics are discussed. I will read the syllabus ahead of time and decide if the topic will trigger me. If I think it will, I will either stay home and take the hit on my grade (attendance policy!) or I will take a very long “bathroom break” while the professor talks. This bathroom break consists of me calling my mom, crying and begging her for reassurance… simply because I had just heard something that triggered my thoughts.

I specifically remember failing a portion on a master’s level exam because of my inability to study or even read a potentially triggering section of the book. You would think after 20+ years of living with OCD, I would have gotten a handle on this. But, this is a chronic illness that doesn’t go away. This all being said, I’ve compiled a list of tips I wished my teachers and professors could have read when I was their student. One in 100 children have OCD. It’s not uncommon, and I truly believe in the importance of education on this subject. My hope is that this will be a valuable resource for teachers, ultimately better equipping them to provide an education to students of all ages who have OCD.

1. Educate yourself.

OCD is hugely misunderstood and stigmatized. We already have enough people in our lives who don’t understand us. If you want to truly help us, the first step is educating yourself about what OCD is and what OCD is not. Consider going to the International OCD Foundation’s website, reading personal memoirs or simply doing your own research.

2. Understand that OCD is not our fault.

We didn’t choose this. It’s not something we want or enjoy. In fact, we would do anything to make it go away.

3. We’re trying to pay attention, but sometimes we just can’t.

If you notice we are not paying attention, don’t take it personally. We are constantly battling disturbing, unwanted, anxiety-provoking thoughts. We try to quell these thoughts by performing compulsions. These compulsions feel absolutely necessary to us. This being said, our compulsions take first priority over anything else, often including paying attention in class. We are not trying to be defiant.

4. Understand that OCD presents itself in many different ways.

The media tends to add to the stigma by portraying OCD as an obsession with cleaning, counting or washing. This being said, the way our OCD presents itself may look very different than what you imagined OCD to be like. Please understand that OCD can take the form of many themes. These themes include, but are not limited to:

Contamination OCD
Checking OCD
Scrupulosity (a fixation or worry about our faith)
Somatic OCD
Harming Intrusive Thoughts
Sexual Intrusive Thoughts
Relationship OCD
“Just Right” OCD
Perfectionism OCD

5. We can’t “just stop.”

You might see us frequently performing compulsions, ultimately interfering with our ability to be present in the classroom. We don’t enjoy our compulsions. However, they bring us momentary relief that feels absolutely necessary in the moment. Please don’t get mad at us for not being able to stop. If we could stop, we would.

6. If you truly want to help us, don’t give us reassurance.

Engaging in compulsions ultimately makes our symptoms worse. Seeking reassurance from others is one of the biggest and most detrimental compulsions in which we engage. Although you might feel like you’re helping us by telling us what we want to hear, you are actually perpetuating the cycle. Instead, say something like, “I’m not going to give you reassurance.”

7. Don’t add to the stigma.

Discourage statements like “I’m so OCD” in the classroom. When statements like this are made, it belittles the struggle endured by those of us who battle this illness daily. It is not something to be taken lightly or joke about. It can and has led many people to suicide.

8. Understand that we are tired.

You might notice we seem “spacey.” Please understand that our minds are never at rest. Our brains are constantly being flooded with intrusive, disturbing thoughts, images and urges. It takes all of our energy to fight against them. We are fighting every minute of every day — from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed. We are so tired.

9. Understand that we are just plain scared.

We know it must be frustrating for you, as a teacher, to see us so lost in our own minds that we cannot focus on learning. Instead of getting mad at us or scolding/calling us out in front of our peers, simply try to understand that we are scared. Public shaming is the worst thing you could do for us.

10. Be patient with us.

We are not trying to be difficult; we simply can’t help it. Although we may appear “normal,” we are struggling with an invisible battle every minute of every day. Give us grace.

11. Care about us.

Although we cannot expect you to be an expert on OCD, we ask you simply show us that you care. We already feel like a burden to our family and friends; Please don’t make us feel like a burden to you.

12. Talk to us about how you can make learning easier, more effective and ultimately set us up for success.

There is no magic strategy I can give you here, as each student’s needs differ. Some of us will need to take tests alone. Others will need extensions on projects. We simply ask you communicate with us to see what we need and develop a plan of action from there.

Follow this journey on the author’s blog.

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Thinkstock photo via monkeybusinessimages

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