Obsessive-compulsive behaviour

Children with obsessive compulsive behaviour (commonly known as OCD, obsessive-compulsive disorder) 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.

Spotting 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 might be on the autistic spectrum) so it’s important to think about the child as a whole, how they are generally functioning, and to discuss any concerns with your pastoral/special educational needs 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/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 with OCD may be a target for bullying. If the child 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 child for behaviour they can’t control.

But it’s important that children with OCD, like other children, are helped to learn good behaviour and obey rules. It’s also important they miss out on opportunities so help them to ‘face their fears’. Help them to focus on their strengths and on areas where they feel confident.

If a child 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’s worries, e.g. maths might be tricky for a child who worries about numbers.

Related resources

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