Talking to Your Child’s School

Approximately 1 in 200 children have OCD, although this may be an underestimate, as OCD is likely underdiagnosed in children for a variety of reasons. Given these large numbers (more than the number of kids with juvenile diabetes), and the disabling nature of OCD, it would seem sensible for schools to be aware of OCD. In an ideal world, all teachers would be fully aware of what OCD looks like and how to effectively assist their students with OCD. Unfortunately, this is far from the case.

No one would question that schools want to be of the utmost help to all their students. The problem is that despite the advances made over the last twenty years in raising awareness of OCD, there is still a great gap to be filled, and more can and should be done on both the national and local levels to accomplish these goals. Teachers and school counselors are over-burdened, and most do not receive any specialized training on how to work with children with OCD.

As a result, you will likely need to do a lot of advocating for your child to make sure his or her school and teacher understand what it means to have OCD, how it is affecting your child’s school work, and what the school staff can do to help. Here are some tips and guidelines that may help. More information about managing OCD in the school setting will be available on our Anxiety in the Classroom website.

Seriously consider disclosing your child’s diagnosis.

Many families are so worried about their child being stigmatized that they do their best to keep the condition a secret from the school. The fear is that it will somehow appear on a child’s record, make a child stand out in a negative way, cause the child to become isolated and picked on, and ultimately hamper the child’s ability to get accepted to a college at some later date.

In answer to these concerns, let me say that in nearly thirty years of treating children with OCD, I have never seen any of these things happen to any child whose school knew of their disorder. For one thing, even if it somehow did happen, it would be a clear case of illegal discrimination. For another, I have seen far more problems involving children who were struggling in school due to their disorder, unable to get extra help or resources that could have made a big difference if only the school had been informed.

Keeping secrets such as this can only increase the stigma of psychiatric illness. There was once a time when having depression was also treated as some kind of shameful secret. Nowadays, it is common to see commercials for antidepressant medication on television. As a further indicator of how times have changed, one of my own teen patients, with the encouragement of her guidance counselor, recently wrote her college essay on how hard she has worked to overcome her OCD. On the whole, I believe that it is better to share this information with those people who are responsible for educating your child rather than leaving them scratching their heads and feeling unable to help.

Engage your child’s teacher(s) from the start.

Be open and honest with your child’s teacher about your child’s diagnosis and how this has affected your child’s ability to do schoolwork and homework. Come to the meeting prepared with information about OCD such as printed out articles from this website or books that you can ask the teacher to read. Dr. Gail Adam’s book, Students with OCD: A Handbook for School Personnel, is a great suggestion for teachers.

If your child’s teacher is up for it, you might also consider having your child’s therapist talk with the teacher about your child’s treatment plan and what they can do to help. If your child is in middle or high school, there will be a number of different teachers you can approach and share information with. The goal is to get everyone on the same page.

Branch out and engage other staff members as appropriate.

This could include the school’s social worker, guidance counselors, and school psychologists. These are all personnel that a child with OCD might have dealings with who should be informed about OCD and its impact on students.

Request an evaluation from the school to see if your child qualifies for special education services.

OCD can significantly affect a child’s academic, social, and emotional functioning, which is collectively defined as his or her “educational performance” by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Fortunately, parents and educators can work together to address the educational needs of youth with OCD. In fact, schools are required by law to assist students with disabilities such as OCD. Under IDEA, any legal guardian can request an evaluation to determine if his or her child may benefit from special education services, though how schools respond may vary from district to district. To learn more about IDEA and how to advocate for education accommodations for your child, click here.

Make sure staff are trained to recognize signs and symptoms of OCD.

Some symptoms that might present themselves more commonly in a school setting include:

  • Lining up, checking, ordering, or arranging items on desks, in backpacks, or lockers repeatedly
  • Wanting to complete assignments “perfectly,” checking, and re-doing it.
  • Sloppiness or carelessness in completing assignments, which is not typical for the child.
  • Erasing repeatedly until the paper has holes in it, the ink is smudged, and the writing or drawing is illegible.
  • Reading letters, words, or sentences repeatedly, repeating syllables until they sound right.
  • Incomplete assignments or homework, although the child is capable of doing them
  • Frustration or anger when things are disorganized, interrupted, or routines change unexpectedly.
  • Asking the teacher or other students the same questions repeatedly even though the child knows the answer
  • Frequent trips to the bathroom either to use the toilet or wash hands
  • Refusing to touch others’ books, pencils, the ball in gym, etc. or getting upset if own personal items are touched by others
  • Sudden avoidance of familiar things or reluctance to try new things
  • Odd behaviors such as walking in specific patterns through doorways, counting tiles or syllables, touching or tapping in symmetry, or sitting and standing repeatedly
  • Opening doors, lockers, desks, or books with elbows or with tissue in hand, holding hands in the air to avoid physical contact, refusal to shake hands, share pencils, or other supplies.

Work to increase general awareness of mental health in the school.

Start by inquiring if there is a mental health unit as part of the school district’s health education program. When done well, these programs can do a lot to spread accurate information and decrease the stigma surrounding mental illness. If there isn’t, try working through your local SEPTA (Special Education PTA) to lobby the district to include one. If there already is one, see if they include accurate information about OCD.

You might try to get your school or district to sponsor an OCD Awareness Day. An even better idea would be to have them do it simultaneously with the IOCDFs annual OCD Awareness Week.

Obtain OCD books and materials for your school libraries.

One mother in Delaware went even further and got a state NAMI (National Association for Mental Illness) grant to buy children’s books about OCD to be distributed to school and public libraries throughout the state.

As you can see, there is a lot that can be done. The above list is by no means exhaustive, and there are no doubt many other things you can do if you put your mind to it. The things you do will not only benefit your own child, but many others out there who suffer from OCD. Get going today!

Adapted from an article by Fred Penzel, PhD