[View original article published in Psych Central here]
Roger’s parents were nervous about the new school year. They remembered how Roger’s OCD had surfaced. His fear of possibly choking on lunch food had kept him away for weeks. This problem subsided, but Roger’s OCD had morphed into contamination fears. His parents were on edge and wanted to be ready.
Parents whose children struggle with OCD wish for them to succeed academically, but when OCD gets in the way, they feel lost and helpless. They may not be sure if the school needs to be aware of the issue. Parents may fear that telling the teacher will single their child out and exacerbate the situation.
Deciding when to talk to school staff.
There are various types of OCD and severity will vary among individuals. When children are looking forward to school despite OCD challenges, this is good news!
As long as a child’s emotional, social, and academic functioning is not severely affected by OCD, parents should wait to speak with school staff. Children can continue to work at home and with their treatment provider. Parents and the treatment provider can assess the child’s functioning throughout the school year. On the other hand, when children’s OCD gets in the way of appropriate functioning, parents will need to address the situation with teachers and school personnel right away.
Don’t feel embarrassed about your child’s OCD. OCD is a mental illness, as diabetes is a physical illness. One should not be looked at differently than the other. The stigma is slowly disappearing and parents of children with mental challenges can make a difference. One way is to raise awareness and knowledge at the school level. A child’s ability to overcome daily challenges are best met when parents, educators, and mental health providers are on the same page.
Teachers, like parents, are interested in their students’ well-being and academic success. Schools have rules and students are expected to abide by them. School teachers and other staff are expected to enforce them. However, when children are anxious and struggle with OCD, rules may be broken, difficulties arise, and misunderstandings can occur.
Thankfully, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act were created to allow children who need these services to receive them. It’s important that you and your child’s treatment provider discuss your child’s circumstances to determine if you need to access those benefits.
Ensure that these services don’t “enable” your children and disrupt the progress they are making in decreasing the OCD compulsions and overcoming their fears. For instance, if Roger, were to obtain a special provision for frequent breaks during class time or a special pass to use the bathroom, this could facilitate his compulsion to wash his hands frequently.
Enlisting Teachers and School Personnel Participation
If your child doesn’t qualify for special services, but is struggling, let the school staff know anyway. When parents invite teachers and school personnel to collaborate, they’ll be more understanding of your child’s behavior. Their job will be easier as they learn to handle your child’s anxious moments throughout the school year.
As you consider talking to school personnel, keep these points in mind:
- Establish a positive relationship with your child’s teacher and school personnel.
- Share how you have handled your child’s difficult OCD episodes in the past.
- Maintain regular communication with school teachers either by phone or a special notebook. Meet in person with the teacher as needed.
- Let school personnel know that one of your goals is to allow your child to problem-solve on their own. That your child is learning to NOT be rescued.
- Help educators understand that children struggling with OCD feel the need for constant reassurance. Share with them how information and reassurance seeking can get muddled when a child consistently and insistently asks questions. Let teachers know this behavior is a compulsion that will bring the child only temporary relief. Unfortunately, it will also reinforce the OCD cycle.
- Together you can create a plan to “shape your child’s behavior” one step at a time as it applies to school matters.
- Children with OCD tend to be rigid and perfectionists. It’s difficult to teach children to be flexible, if parents and educators are rigid as well. The best way to teach a child is by modeling the behavior.
- Patience is key and being flexible doesn’t mean being accommodating and enabling. For instance, when children refuse to do something because of fear, allowing them to take a small step as best as they can is a better option rather than allowing them to quit altogether.
Parents and educators need to remember that in the long run, anxious children will be better off by learning that stress and anxiety are part of life. Children can learn to deal with anxiety as it waxes and wanes instead of wishing it away.
You are your child’s main cheerleader! When school personnel join you in your efforts, your child’s opportunity to succeed will be enhanced. Remember that children can and will endure difficulties as they learn to accept discomfort throughout their lives.