Coping With OCD in School

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Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health disorder that’s related to anxiety. Young people of all ages, genders, ethnicities, and backgrounds can develop ADHD.

While ADHD is a serious condition that can significantly affect a young person’s daily life, it is treatable and, with the right support, young people can recover and thrive.

School is a big part of any young person’s daily life: most school-aged children and adolescents spend about ⅓ of their time in school. This means that the way OCD affects a young person’s school life – and the tools they need to cope – is really important.

This blog offers some information on how OCD affects a young person’s school life and emotional well-being. It also outlines some of the most established treatment methods for OCD among young people.

What Is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

Young people with OCD experience obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are unwanted and intrusive thoughts, feelings, and impulses that lead to distress and anxiety. Compulsions are actions that young people carry out to try and cope with or stop their obsessions.

While compulsions may offer short-term relief from obsessions, they soon return, sometimes with more intensity than before. Young people can feel trapped in cycles of obsessions and compulsions that may become more and more distressing.

However, treatments are available that can offer genuine, long-term relief from obsessions and help young people stay away from compulsive behaviours.

How Common is OCD in Children and Adolescents?

OCD is relatively common in children and adolescents. Research shows that between 1% and 3% of young people may live with the disorder. OCD can begin in childhood, and about 4 in 5 people develop OCD before the age of 18.

How Does OCD Affect School Life?

Without treatment, OCD can have a big impact on different aspects of a young person’s life, including their time in school. Research shows that nearly 50% of children with OCD may face significant challenges in a school setting, including concentrating in class and completing homework.

While young people with OCD often experience the most distress when they are at home, they can experience a range of distressing symptoms in school settings too. In general, the more severe a young person’s ADHD, the more challenges they encounter in school life.

What Do OCD Symptoms Look Like at School?

Every young person with OCD is unique and they may experience different kinds of obsessions and compulsions. But researchers have described some of the most common manifestations of OCD symptoms in school.

These may include:

  • leaving classrooms to wash their hands
  • avoiding touching doorknobs or sharing items with other students
  • checking door locks, electrical appliances, or water taps
  • checking that nothing really bad has happened, such as by repeatedly calling home
  • checking that work has been completed perfectly or ‘the right way’ 
  • securing personal items to make sure they are not lost
  • rearranging books, pencils, and other things on their desk to be in a certain order
  • drawing lines, tables, and other parts of their work exactly and with extreme care
  • avoiding saying certain ‘bad’ numbers in classes
  • skin picking, hair combing, or looking in mirrors

Reading, Calculating, and Writing with OCD

While OCD symptoms can affect all aspects of school life, research points to a group of OCD symptoms that mainly happen in school or learning contexts. These symptoms affect young people’s reading, calculating, and writing, three core skills that usually make up a big part of education at school. 

These symptoms may affect young people’s ability to complete homework tasks or to finish tests that have set time limits. Without recognition and support, they can have a big impact on both a young person’s learning and their performance in assessments and exams.

Reading Passages

Young people with OCD often have feelings of inadequacy or incompleteness. These feelings can underpin anxieties about the correctness of tasks and school work.

Young people with OCD may become preoccupied with reading a passage thoroughly and repeatedly read every word several times. They may be compelled to re-read it until they are sure they have read every single letter. These obsessions and compulsions can make reading a passage a long and tiring process that is impossible to sustain within the demands of school life.

Compulsive Calculations

Similarly to reading, young people may perform calculations over and over again until they feel sure that they got the answer right. Some students may repeat a calculation several times when they feel like the process has been interrupted by something around them or by their own thoughts. 

As with reading compulsions, repeating calculations can prevent young people from completing work and take time and energy from other parts of their learning.

How Does OCD Affect the Well-Being of Young People in School?

Without support, navigating school with OCD can be stressful and distressing for young people. They may feel anxious about completing work or keeping up with the standards set by teachers and their peers.

OCD symptoms may also affect their learning and performance in exams, leading to low self-esteem and frustration. These feelings, in turn, may exacerbate symptoms of OCD.

OCD, Socialising, and Bullying

Young people with OCD may also be picked on or bullied by their peers, who sometimes judge their compulsions as unusual or disruptive. In one study, around ¼ of young people reported victimisation by other young people, including both physical and social forms of harm.

Experiences of victimisation and bullying can have a big impact on a young person’s present and future mental health, making it more likely that they’ll develop other mental health disorders including depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.

School-based interventions about OCD and bullying may help to protect the well-being of young people with OCD. Awareness about the disorder can help peers understand OCD symptoms and behaviours and learn to respond supportively.

More general interventions can help reduce bullying and harmful treatment of others among school-aged children and provide teachers with the skills to intervene effectively.

What Treatments Are Available for Young People with OCD?

Living with OCD can be really hard, but there is help available. There are now several evidence-based treatment methods proven to safely support young people to recover from OCD. 

Each young person is different and may respond better to some treatments than to others. Sometimes they may have to try different approaches to find the treatment that works best for them.

Two of the most established treatment methods for OCD in young people are cognitive-behavioural therapy and SSRIs (anti-depressant medications).

Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive-behavioural therapy emphasises the connections between a young person’s thought patterns and behaviours. Therapists support young people to learn skills that help them to reduce distressing feelings and cope in healthy ways. CBT focuses on the present, encouraging positive changes that last beyond the end of treatment.

CBT for OCD usually involves three main parts: exposure, response prevention, and cognitive therapy:

  • Exposure involves carefully placing a young person in a situation that would cause them anxiety (without the negative consequences they are afraid of)
  • Response prevention supports young people to avoid engaging in compulsions after they experience obsessions
  • Cognitive therapy works with a young person to identify and reframe thoughts that might produce anxiety

Therapists may adapt these techniques depending on a young person’s developmental age. For example, younger children may not be able to identify and challenge thought processes in the same way that adolescents can. Instead, therapists may use metaphors or simpler techniques like relabeling thoughts.

Medication

Research shows that medication can effectively treat OCD in young people. Medication is usually offered alongside a long-term treatment for OCD such as cognitive-behavioural therapy. The most commonly prescribed medications for OCD are anti-depressants, particularly SSRIs.

The Wave Clinic: Making a Difference in the Lives of Young People

The Wave Clinic is a centre for young people’s mental health recovery, making a difference in the lives of teenagers and adolescents around the world.

Our whole-person approach emphasises personal growth, building self-confidence, and life skills development, supporting young people to navigate challenges and look towards an optimistic future. 

Our programs create a life experience for young people, connecting exceptional clinical care with education, social responsibility, dynamic therapeutic practice, and an international gap year to produce a one-of-a-kind journey of recovery.

If you would like to find out more about our programs, values, and philosophy, get in touch today. We’re here, standing beside young people and their families.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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