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OCD and Education

Teachers are uniquely poised to show students with OCD that life can be enjoyed.

Key points

  • OCD can be hard for educators to detect in children.
  • OCD’s inward-looking nature can make it difficult to identify.
  • Students with OCD can face educational challenges—and overcome them.

"If you wait for the perfect moment when all is safe and assured, it may never arrive. Mountains will not be climbed, races won, or lasting happiness achieved." — Maurice Chevalier (1888 – 1972)

Chevalier, a popular French entertainer in the 20th century, observed that people can focus so much on fearing the details of life experiences that they can be paralyzed and unable to appreciate simple achievements. People with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can find themselves likewise paralyzed by such fear and can have trouble understanding it. Young students, in particular, can struggle to understand and explain their OCD symptoms because of their limited life experiences and communication skills.

Educational experiences can offer environments in which students and teachers can teach each other to sympathize, understand, and overcome challenges presented by OCD. In this article, we explore the nature of OCD experienced in an educational context in terms of detection, interiority, and overcoming challenges inherent to education.

Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash
Education can be just as exciting for students with OCD, if not more.
Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash

Detection in Students

Educators often miss the signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in young students, and students often fail to signal their symptoms because they do not recognize them. A common response by children with OCD is to stop going to school in order to reduce perceived triggers for their obsessive-compulsive cycles. Such school refusal is often difficult for therapists to identify without thorough behavioral assessments (Abramowitz et al., 2019).

An OCD sufferer can privately experience recurring, intrusive thoughts that are unwanted (i.e., obsessions). These thoughts often cause distress and can spawn ritualized behaviors (i.e., compulsions) that provide temporary relief to sufferers (Abramowitz, 2021; SAMHSA, 2016). OCD seems deliberately designed to “torture” individuals in ways most pernicious to them (Abramowitz, 2021, p. 9; see also Culkin & Culkin, 2021). This sinister nature stems from the disorder’s disruptive hold on everyday life. The foundation for these obsessions and compulsions is comprised of fear, doubt, and uncertainty.

People are becoming more aware of OCD occurring in the general population. Almost 1 in every 40 people has it or a related disorder, impacting 2-3 percent of adults and 1-2 percent of children (Abramowitz, 2021). This ratio has increased from estimates of 1 out of 2,000 people in 1964, primarily due to advances in neuroscience and clinical techniques to uncover harbored secrets (Hyman & Pedrick, 1999).

Recently, medical taxonomists have placed OCD and related disorders in their own category (SAMHSA, 2016). Compounding the singular impact of OCD is a prevalence of comorbidity—i.e., the presence of two or more lifelong mental disorders—in persons with OCD. Comorbidity often translates into more severe symptoms and less response to treatment (Clark, 2020). In this complex mental health care landscape, how society perceives mental disorders directly affects sufferers and their loved ones.

The Interior Focus of OCD

OCD can leave a person overly focused on themself. Over time, this pattern of perseveration can affect how a sufferer relates to others, especially loved ones. Lacking empathy can be a concern, especially for those with narcissistic parents, because it means they have not developed healthy boundaries and the sensitivity needed to be empathic (Brown, 2001).

Popular culture commonly misrepresents OCD as a set of harmless, quirky traits (such as cleanliness, hoarding, organizing, ritualized touching, and checking) without the accompanying pain (Abramowitz, 2021). “I’m so OCD,” said flippantly in a passing conversation, can inadvertently sting sufferers and their families while diminishing their experiences. Conversely, more popular examples, like Howard Hughes with his myriad paralyzing obsessive-compulsive characteristics, highlight that OCD occurs to “everyday people” more than we think.

Overcoming Educational Challenges

People with OCD can often find it a challenge to enjoy life. Simple pleasures—e.g., sipping coffee, walking outside, and spending time with loved ones—can trigger obsession-compulsion cycles that seem to absorb any joy to be had. Individuals with this disorder often experience challenges in educational achievement, social skills, and occupational interactions at higher rates than the general population—unclear when compared to other mental disorders (Clark, 2020). As a result, some areas for potential research include how students communicate possible symptoms to adults, how teachers can identify potential OCD indicators in the classroom, and the value of public dialogue on OCD in educational environments.


We explored the nature of OCD experienced in an educational context in terms of detection, interiority, and overcoming educational challenges.

Have you been educated about OCD and how to overcome its challenges?


Abramowitz, J. (2021). The Family Guide to Getting Over OCD: Reclaim Your Life and Help Your Loved One. The Guilford Press.

Abramowitz, J., Deacon, B., & Whiteside, S. (2019). Exposure Therapy for Anxiety: Principles and Practice (2nd ed.). The Guilford Press.

Brown, N. (2001). Children of the Self-Absorbed: A Grownup’s Guide to Getting Over Narcissistic Parents. New Harbinger.

Clark, D. (2020). Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for OCD and Its Subtypes (2nd ed.). The Guilford Press.

Culkin, D., & Culkin, M. (2021). OCD and Marriage: Pathways to Reshaping Your Lives Together. Specialty Press, Inc.

Hyman, B., & Pedrick, C. (1999). The OCD Workbook: Your Guide to Breaking Free from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Impact of the DSM-IV to DSM-5 Changes on the National Survey on Drug Use and Health [Internet]. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2016 Jun. Table 3.13, DSM-IV to DSM-5 Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Comparison. Available from:

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