Obsessive-compulsive behaviour

Children and young people with obsessive compulsive behaviour (commonly known as obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD) have repeating thoughts, images or feelings that are distressing. They also carry out rituals or habits (compulsions) to temporarily feel better.

OCD is a type of anxiety disorder. Sometimes these behaviours can become a coping mechanism to manage other stressful life events. OCD rituals can be obvious to others (like checking door locks or washing hands) or they can manifest themselves as mental rituals such as persistent and uncontrollable thoughts, impulses, worries and fears.

Identifying the signs

Some common obsessions:

  • fears about dirt/contamination
  • worries about safety and harm – to themselves and others
  • anxiety if things are not symmetrical or even
  • need for perfection

Some common compulsions:

  • checking things over and over again
  • hoarding or collecting things that appear useless
  • arranging things so they are ‘just right’
  • washing and cleaning
  • repeating and re-doing things 

Some obsessive behaviours may also be indicative of other needs (e.g. that a child or young person might be on the autistic spectrum) so it’s important to think about the child or young person as a whole, how they are generally functioning, and to discuss any concerns with your pastoral or ASN/SEN/ALN lead.  

It’s also important to remember that everyone has quirks and habits. But when they start to become stressful for the child and impact on their school or family life and relationships, then it can be a sign that something more significant is wrong.

Top tips

Good communication between home and school is important

A ‘diary’ or ‘concerns book’ can help to monitor and share progress. A child or young person with OCD may be a target for bullying. If the student and family are in agreement, it can help to have a classroom discussion about OCD so that classmates understand it better.

Don’t be impatient or criticise/punish a student for behaviour they can’t control

Help them to focus on their strengths and on areas where they feel confident.

If a student becomes anxious in the classroom, it can help to recognise this

Options are to help them ‘sit out’ their anxiety, discuss it, or take a short break. Be aware that some subjects may be more difficult depending on a child or young person’s worries, e.g. maths might be tricky for someone who worries about numbers.

Further support

OCD Action is a national charity offering support to those with OCD. Young people can get in touch with them on the phone on 0845 390 6232/020 7253 2664, or via email youthhelpline@ocdaction.org.uk.

What schools and further education settings can do

Related resources

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Debunking the myths of OCD video
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Debunking the myths of OCD video

This animated TED talk debunks some of the common myths surrounding OCD.

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