Recognizing OCD at School: Effect of OCD on Studies and Grades

How OCD Affects Studies and Grades

OCD is like an unwelcome guest with bad manners.  It moves into a child’s or adolescent’s mind and, as sometimes described, “It doesn’t want to leave.”

OCD is associated with unwanted and often overwhelming fears, doubt, anxiety and/or urges as well as a need to perform corresponding rituals.  This continuous loop of obsessions and compulsions may be relentless and, while all this is going on, it’s just about impossible to feel -- or even act -- “normal.”  In fact, a student who has OCD often can’t “hear” what the teacher is saying because of the OCD messages coursing through his or her brain.

Students with OCD may appear to be daydreaming, distracted, noncompliant, disinterested or even lazy.  They may seem unfocused and lacking in the ability to concentrate.  In truth, they are very busy -- focusing on the 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.  For example, instead of hearing the teacher describe how to solve a particular kind of math problem, a student with OCD may only hear the inner voice of OCD.

What OCD Sounds Like -- An Example:

Uh-oh. What if I forgot my homework for the next class?  I think it’s in my book bag.  But I don’t know for sure.  I thought it was in my book bag, but it might not be.  I think I checked last night, but maybe I moved it.  If it’s not there, I’ll get in trouble and nobody will understand that I forgot it.  They might think I did that on purpose.  I did the work, but I didn’t pack it in the bag.  Wait...maybe I didn’t actually DO my homework.  What if I forgot to do it last night?  Oh, no.  Now I really WILL be in trouble.  I might not have done it.  Only bad students don’t do their homework.  I must be bad.  I can’t look in my book bag to see if my homework is there because the bag is in my locker.  Did I forget my homework?  What if I did forget I’m in trouble.  I’m going to get punished.  I wish I had done my homework.  If I could only check and see if maybe it really IS in my book bag.  Ooooh.  But what if my book bag isn’t in my locker?  Did I forget my book bag?  No, I think I brought it.  But what if I didn’t?” and so on.

With thoughts and worries like these running through the student’s mind, there is little chance that the voice of the teacher will penetrate the OCD “noise.”  At best, it might sound as if you tried to watch two television channels simultaneously -- you can listen to the sound track of only one or the other.  In the case of OCD, the disorder may be so insidious (and so insistent) that the child will most likely be “tuned in” to the OCD instead of the teacher or the class work.

The Impact on Learning

OCD’s impact on learning cannot be underestimated.  Several years ago, some U.S. researchers conducted a study to examine the psychosocial functioning of children and adolescents with OCD.   This study examined the ability of students with OCD to function in three different areas or domains: (1) home/family; (2) school/academic; and (3) social.  Researchers found that almost 90% of the parents and children surveyed reported a significant problem in at least one of the domains; almost half of the parents and children reported at least one substantial problem in all three domains.  Interestingly, the two most common problems reported by these young people and their parents -- across all three domains -- were concentrating on work and completing homework.

This study was repeated by a different group of researchers in Norway and Sweden.  The results of this research confirmed the results of the U.S. study: parent and child reports showed that the majority of children and adolescents with OCD experienced significant impairment -- especially in the home/family domain, but also in the school and social domains.  Intriguingly, within the school domain, the top two concerns reported by parents and students alike were identical to those reported in the U.S. study: doing homework and concentrating on work.  It is evident that these two school-related issues are of paramount importance to school personnel.

Even very bright and motivated students can struggle with OCD.  In fact, most students with OCD have average- to above-average levels of intelligence.  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 school-related work.  Following are some of the learning difficulties students with OCD may experience:

  • They often are unable to listen effectively and concentrate on what the teacher is saying.
  • They may not be able to read without their minds being drawn away from the words and into a world of relentless worries.  They may also be unable to read because of the need to perform rituals (e.g., count every fifth word in each sentence or each paragraph).
  • They may not be able to pay attention to visuals very well because of lack of focus and concentration on anything other than the mental stream of worries, urges or compulsions.  In fact, OCD may be mistaken for AD/HD due to what appears to be inattentiveness.
  • They may not understand the key points that the teacher stresses; they are not able to absorb the meaning and insights because they are distracted by the OCD.
  • They may be embarrassed -- or in some cases, reprimanded by the teacher -- if they don’t have an answer when called upon due to the OCD distractions.
  • They may do poorly on quizzes or exams because they have not been able to prepare properly -- OCD kept them from studying effectively both at home and in school.  Or OCD may interfere with their ability to concentrate on and complete tests/exams.
  • They may experience high levels of anxiety that build until some kind of release is found which may involve a ritual or another behavior -- including an outburst -- that can be a disruption to the class.  As the anxiety is building, the student is focusing only on that feeling, not on learning.
  • When they leave the classroom to carry out rituals (e.g., going to the bathroom to perform washing rituals), they may miss out on potentially important academic information.
  • They may be extremely tired because of the strain and effort of trying to fight OCD, which can sap one's energy.  A lack of sleep may also be caused by staying up late studying.  Students with OCD often take longer than usual to study or do homework assignments because they are distracted by the OCD.  In addition, recent research suggests that a large percentage of young people with OCD experience one or more sleep-related difficulties such as being overtired, having nightmares, a need to sleep next to someone in the family, and having trouble sleeping.
  • They may miss out on important instruction when tardiness and school absenteeism became a problem due to OCD symptoms (e.g., carrying out washing, dressing, eating rituals before school; not attending school because of triggers on that environment).  Gaps in instruction, in turn, may lead to serious academic problems; when they miss instruction in important skills, they are likely to have difficulty learning concepts and new information built upon those skills.
  • They become adept at devising “workarounds” to try to counter OCD obsessions, frequently by avoiding people, places and things that might trigger their symptoms.  Understandably, avoiding certain tasks related to reading (e.g., the student avoids reading any material that is written or highlighted in red because of an association with blood), writing (the student cannot write cursive letters that contain loops, such as an uppercase "J," because of a fear that a loved one may get "trapped" in the loop), or math (e.g., the student cannot do problems that contain a "6," because 6 is associated with evil) can have serious negative effects on learning.

It may not be long before the student who has OCD falls behind in schoolwork, produces less work and experiences a drop in grades.  In some cases, academic performance deteriorates abruptly and dramatically.  And it may be nearly impossible to catch up unless he or she is able to learn to manage the OCD symptoms.  This is why it’s critical that educators take a proactive approach to becoming aware of what OCD is, and to alert parents when any potential signs of OCD are observed at school.

Back to Recognizing OCD at School

Go to the Role of School Personnel section

Back to Home Page