The Role of School Personnel: Recognizing OCD at School

The Role of School Personnel - Help for Students Who Have OCD

Identifying OCD at School

The first step in helping a student with OCD is to recognize the presence of potential OCD symptoms.  School personnel can’t expect that parents will necessarily alert them to their child's problems.  In fact, research has indicated that parents may not be the first to realize that their child is experiencing difficulties with OCD.  Also, it is very unlikely that the students themselves will volunteer to discuss their problems with school personnel.  Because of the shame individuals with OCD usually experience, they frequently keep their symptoms hidden, or secretive.  In fact, one researcher dubbed OCD the "Secretive Syndrome."  Unfortunately, even when a student has been diagnosed with OCD by a clinician, parents and the student sometimes choose not to share this information -- or others have recommended that they not share this information -- with teachers and other educational staff.  It is, in many cases, an alert teacher, school psychologist, school nurse, social worker, counselor, paraprofessional, administrator or other staff member who recognizes that a child is having difficulties.

A number of different scenarios may characterize the status of a student with OCD symptoms:

  • The student has been diagnosed with the disorder, and the family has already obtained professional treatment to help their child learn skills to overcome the obsessions and compulsions.  Moreover, the family has discussed this issue with teachers and other pertinent school staff members.  This is the best scenario possible because the student has a treatment plan in place, and school personnel and the family have forged a working relationship to help the student manage the OCD. 
  • The student has been diagnosed with OCD and is receiving professional help.  However, the family has opted not to share information about OCD with school personnel.  It may be difficult to understand why parents would choose such an option.  There are a number of reasons, however, why they may have reached this decision.  First, parents sometimes fear that, if they reveal their child's OCD, he or she may be labeled or stigmatized.  And although much progress has been made, misconceptions and stigma surrounding mental illness still abound.  Of note is that, in some cases, it is the student who prefers that school personnel not be told for fear that he or she will be singled out or receive special treatment from the teacher.  Second, some parents have concerns that, if school personnel learn about the child's illness, they will immediately try to persuade the family to put the child on medication -- a decision many parents are hesitant to make.  Third, parents sometimes fear that the information they provide school personnel will not remain confidential and privacy will be breached.  Finally, many parents have been counseled by clinicians, either directly, or indirectly via various articles, publications, etc., that there is no real need to inform school personnel about their child's OCD if it isn't interfering with school performance and symptoms aren't present at school.
  • The student and his or her family are struggling with confusing symptoms and do not understand what is happening as OCD progresses.
  • The student is hiding symptoms of OCD either at home or at school.  This means either parents or school personnel do not see the child or teen struggling with the anxiety or discomfort associated with OCD, and may not see any compulsive behavior.  Academic performance may be affected -- but it will be harder to uncover the fact that the student has OCD because the teacher and the parents are dealing with two different sets of observations about the student’s behavior.  It is important to note that, whenever parents inform school personnel about difficulties with OCD at home, it is critical that educators take parents at their word.                               
  • The student is hiding OCD symptoms both at home and at school. 
  • The student is experiencing a sudden onset of OCD symptoms, switching from “normal” behavior to being overwhelmed with obsessions and compulsions almost overnight.  A sudden onset of OCD symptoms has usually been reported in conjunction with a certain type of strep infection which may trigger OCD in those children who have a genetic predisposition to the disorder.  This type of OCD, Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Strep, or PANDAS, affects only a very small percentage of children.  Researchers continue to conduct studies to learn more about this topic.  Due to the sudden appearance of symptoms with PANDAS, the student is most likely to get help quickly because both parents and school personnel will see such a dramatic change in an otherwise “normal” student.

In all of these situations, school personnel need to know what behavior may signify OCD in order to formulate a plan to help the student.  When educators are knowledgeable about OCD, they are in an excellent position to recognize symptoms early and set a course of action to help.  Without knowledge about OCD symptoms, educators are ill-equipped to manage the student or, in some cases, the classroom, when OCD is present.

Click here to review symptoms of OCD.

When School Intervention Is Needed

When a student is in need of help, it’s often up to school personnel to intervene.  Parents may or may not be aware that their child is suffering.  If symptoms are obvious, many parents take a proactive approach by bringing the child to a doctor for an assessment, and securing the appropriate treatment.  But due to the nature of OCD, children and adolescents are inclined to hide symptoms.  When symptoms are observed, they can be very confusing.  As a result, parents may not associate a child’s academic decline with a mental disorder.  And of all the mental illnesses, OCD may well be the one that is least likely to come to mind when a student is “acting strangely.”

A school intervention can take several forms.  The make-up of the team conducting the intervention can differ by school, by the type of OCD involved, by the personality and needs of the student, and by the willingness of parents to participate.

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Communication with Parents

Parents generally expect to interact with their child's teachers through the more traditional means -- parent-teacher conferences, parent-teacher association meetings, and open house events at school.  They are also accustomed to the stream of home-school communications, such as school program announcements, progress notes regarding the child's behavior, telephone calls, and email.  Parents usually expect that their communication with teachers will be based upon typical issues such as the well-being of the student or the student's academic progress or social behavior.  However, parents may not expect to hear from educators that their child is experiencing problems in school that go beyond normal, developmental "growing pains."  Even when parents are observing OCD behavior at home (or their child has been diagnosed with OCD), it may be difficult for them to hear that their child is having difficulties in school.  When a student's behavior at school isn't like anything the parents are seeing at home, learning about these behaviors may be especially difficult for parents.  Therefore, school personnel should exercise great care when communicating with parents of a child who may have or has OCD.  Communication with parents about sensitive issues like these must be grounded in a separate process that includes problem identification, observation, documentation and suggestions for help.      

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Managing OCD in the Classroom

Children and adolescents spend many hours of the day in school.  In fact, students in the United States spend somewhere in the vicinity of 1,100 hours a year in the school setting.  And the time students spend learning and interacting socially with classmates can be either an opportunity or an obstacle course.  Therefore, it’s vitally important that teachers and other school personnel manage OCD behavior -- and its possible effect on the classroom -- carefully.  How teachers cope with OCD-related situations can make or break the classroom climate.

To give a student who has OCD a fighting chance at academic and social success, teachers can help immensely by making even relatively simple accommodations in the classroom.  By learning to manage the challenges of OCD, school personnel can provide critical support to the student who has the disorder.  They can also develop a valuable skill set that will likely be utilized multiple times over the course of a career in education.

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There are a number of school-related challenges that children with OCD face, but some of these difficulties occur outside the classroom and are not easily monitored by school personnel.  Completing homework, for example, can pose serious problems for students with OCD and their families.  But teachers and other school staff can still be effective in helping the student meet and overcome these challenges.

Other potential roadblocks include ‘high stakes” issues such as taking tests, doing independent study assignments and completing long-term projects.

With understanding and planning, a student can improve his or her approach to common challenges related to:

  • Studying effectively, including studying for tests
  • Completing homework assignments
  • Avoiding school
  • Managing study and sleep time
  • Test-taking at school
  • Fears about homework or school in general

Understanding the Law as it Applies to Students with OCD

The federal government has established laws regulating the education of children who have disabilities.  Although OCD is considered a disability under federal law, the process for providing children with OCD the most appropriate education is not always clear-cut.  Both the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 provide protections for children who have OCD.  Parents may need the help of school personnel to determine the law under which it is most appropriate to seek services for their child who has OCD.  Therefore, it is extremely important for teachers and other educators to be familiar with the provisions of both IDEA and Section 504, especially as they apply to OCD.  Knowledge of these laws will enhance the ability of school personnel to collaborate with parents to determine the best course of action for the student with OCD.                  

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Resources to Help School Personnel

Beyond OCD provides other tools and resources to help school personnel learn about OCD.  When teachers, administrators, school nurses, counselors, psychologists and paraprofessionals have accurate knowledge about OCD, students who have the disorder will benefit greatly.

Visit the Tools and Resources section of this web site to learn about selected books and web sites for school personnel.

School personnel can also learn about OCD from the perspective of children and adults who have battled the disorder.  Visit the Success Stories section of this web site for first-hand accounts of what OCD feels like and how those who have suffered with the disorder -- and their loved ones -- have gotten better with treatment.

Beyond OCD’s popular OCD Guides are available as downloadable pdfs in the OCD Guides section.

Find out more about Beyond OCD and why we created the OCD Education Station by visiting the About Us section of this web site.

And learn how to help bring education about OCD to parents, individuals, families, teens, medical professionals, educators and clergy.  Visit the How to Help section of this web site.

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