Whether it’s long hours of studying or succeeding in extracurriculars, the pressures of school can already be immensely stressful. And from elementary school to college and beyond, if you have obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, that can make your academic life even more complicated.
Students with OCD may struggle to focus in class or complete assignments while frequently feeling the need to perform rituals like hand-washing, rewriting sentences or reorganizing notes. Intrusive thoughts can also be disruptive to the learning process, not to mention distressing. In some severe cases, students might need to miss days of school or drop out altogether.
If a student has OCD that goes undiagnosed or untreated, their academic future can be seriously impacted. Let’s explore exactly how OCD can affect academic success — and how resources can support students in and out of the classroom.
How can OCD impact your education?
OCD involves intrusive and obsessive thoughts, images or urges. These thoughts can lead to compulsions, or behaviors that someone may engage in to subdue intrusive thoughts or limit feelings of distress. While acting on these compulsions can produce short-term relief, it can make OCD symptoms worse in the long run.
OCD affects millions of people in the US, and many children. OCD can affect students in the classroom regardless of their age. Students may begin school with a diagnosis, or begin to develop symptoms later on.
A 2018 study examining the educational success of people with OCD in Sweden found that the diagnosis had a significant impact. Those with OCD were 40% to 60% less likely to meet educational milestones in their mid-teens.
This gap continued at the university level, where those with OCD were 28% less likely to start a program at university. If they did, they were 41% less likely to finish a degree and 48% less likely to finish post-graduate education.
From high-school to college-aged students, the study found that academic underachievement was consistent across the board.
OCD triggers in the classroom
OCD symptoms can emerge at any time at school — during a test, a break, group work sessions or extracurricular activities. As a high-stress and often fast-paced environment, school can present a number of OCD triggers that might make it difficult to stay on track. These include:
- Reading and writing assignments: Some rituals may include needing to read or write a sentence, paragraph or assignment perfectly without interruption. Students might spend hours on an assignment, turn homework in late or lose sleep repeatedly checking or redoing an assignment.
- Answering questions in class: Answering questions out loud — either during a class discussion or when prompted by the teacher — can also be a source of stress. Students may seek reassurance about their answers or exhibit anxiety about getting an answer wrong.
- Communal spaces: Spaces inhabited by lots of students, like bathrooms, locker rooms and the cafeteria, can create distress. This can also include shared supplies like pencils, scissors, glue, tablets or computers. Students may refuse to touch surfaces that have been touched by other classmates or even resist using the bathroom.
- Disorganized spaces: Places that appear unclean or disorganized may also be a trigger. Cluttered desks or messy lockers can be distressing for students with OCD.
- Windows and doors: Especially for students entering multiple classrooms or buildings a day, windows and doors can be triggering. Students may feel the compulsion to check and double-check that windows and doors are closed behind them.
- Teachers, classmates and roommates: Those with intrusive thoughts may avoid certain teachers, professors, classmates or others due to unwanted thoughts they have about them. This may also develop when living with other students in a college dormitory.
All of these triggers and many more can turn the classroom into a stressful and unfamiliar environment. Compulsions, rituals and intrusive thoughts can take up hours of your day, making it difficult to complete assignments, concentrate on work and participate in class. Most importantly, it can be a severe disruption to how you learn — and your enjoyment of the material.
Preparing for school with OCD
When a student shows signs of academic difficulties due to OCD, a proactive approach can help them cope and even thrive in the classroom.
Some coping options include:
- Sticking to the school schedule when possible, even if disrupted by OCD symptoms
- Having an open conversation with teachers and administrators about your OCD symptoms and how they manifest
- Coming up with a plan for how to handle stressful situations in the classroom
- Asking for accommodations from the school, which may be required by law under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
The best treatment option for OCD involves tackling these triggers head-on. Exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy is a form of treatment that helps people with OCD to face their triggers. Instead of engaging in compulsions to neutralize intrusive thoughts and avoid discomfort, with the help of a trained therapist, the individual is encouraged to sit with or allow those thoughts and emotions. Over time, repeated exposure to triggering stimuli will weaken the fear response to those triggers.
While it can’t cure symptoms overnight, ERP therapy has been found to be 90% effective in patients with OCD. Engaging in ERP with a trained therapist can help students develop strategies to practice overcoming triggers at school.
At NOCD, we can connect you with an experienced ERP therapist — for you or your child. I encourage you to learn about NOCD’s accessible, evidence-based approach to treatment. Our care team can help guide you through the next steps toward getting support. Our teletherapy services are affordable, accessible and available in all 50 states.