7 fundamentals schools need to know when helping kids with school avoidance and OCD

The post-Covid school returns have brought many more demands on families, students, and school professionals. Families of kids with obsessive compulsive disorder and school avoidance are highly stressed as they try to help get their kids back to school. And we know school personnel must adapt and respond to the many issues facing our kids.

We want to help by sharing proven ways schools can help students with school avoidance and OCD get back to school.


1. Learn the facts about OCD and school avoidance

Our assumptions about OCD and school refusal are not necessarily accurate. It's essential to understand what these kids are dealing with to help them properly. Here are a few basics, but realize that other critical facets to OCD and school avoidance need to be understood.

Some OCD facts:

  • It’s not just about contamination
  • You may not see signs in the classroom
  • Kids work hard to hide their OCD
  • It interferes with many aspects of school life (learning, concentrating, time management, listening, socialization, transitions, routines, schedules, avoidance, fear)
  • Getting through a day with OCD can be exhausting for a child

Some school avoidance facts:

  • It is different from truancy. Parents of kids with school avoidance know where their kids are. They are usually in their rooms.
  • A child's avoidance may “seem" defiant or oppositional. However, only a small percentage of school refusal kids have oppositional disorders.
  • It is unkind to judge the parents. In most cases, they are trying their best to help their kids.
  • Kids don't want to be alone in their rooms. They would rather be “normal” and be in school.

2. Many kids with school avoidance or OCD will qualify for 504 plans or IEPs.

These legal instruments exist to ensure children with disabilities get a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Schools should utilize them to help these kids access their education by providing appropriate accommodations, modifications, and services. Since a quick response is critical for school avoidance, schools should consider utilizing the intervention team while waiting for a 504 or IEP to be approved and initiated. 

504 Plans

According to the Office of Civil Rights (OCR): To be protected under Section 504, a student must be found to:

"Have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; or have a record of such an impairment; or be regarded as having such an impairment.”

Both OCD and school avoidance can substantially limit one or more major life activities, such as learning, going to school, leaving their homes, or having relationships with their peers.

Individualized Education Plans

According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). “In order for a student to qualify for an IEP, they must be found to have one of the 13 Characteristics of special education, and it must adversely affect their educational performance.”

Both OCD and school avoidance can adversely affect a child's ability to learn, concentrate, or attend school.


3. Utilize exposure therapy

Exposure therapy is a first-line treatment for OCD and school avoidance. Exposure therapy is the slow process of confronting fears based on a hierarchy from least anxiety-provoking to most. With each level of mastery, the child sees they can handle that exposure and can continue along their ladder of exposures. Schools may utilize this approach and call it gradual reintroduction back to school. Schools should also consider having a staff member get professional training on exposure therapy.

4. Establish a team

Helping kids with OCD and school avoidance get back to school requires collaboration. Teams must always include the parents and their mental health professional or learning specialist. They may consist of the principal, guidance counselor, child study team, intervention team, regular education teachers, special education teachers, and possibly outside providers.

Your school district may also consider establishing a dedicated school avoidance team. All members of this group must agree with the planned strategies, each person's role, and steps for implementation.

5. Incorporate home visits

To help kids with OCD and school avoidance, you may need to consider different strategies. Many state chronic absenteeism guidelines include having school staff connect with kids outside of school, making home visits to establish trust and connections. Many therapeutic school specialists and regular school districts successfully employ this strategy, and it works. 

6. Success won't be linear

The path back to school will have ups and downs. Getting kids back on track won't follow a straight line toward success. Kids with school avoidance and OCD have deeply embedded fears and avoidant coping mechanisms. It takes time, and school professionals need to stay the course, be patient, and mitigate academic demands. 

7. Your dedication and compassion are essential

Some families and kids have lost hope. These kids and families need your support to help them get back to school and back to themselves. Do not underestimate your power to help. Your intervention can save a life.

Additional resources

by Jayne Demsky, Founder of the School Avoidance Alliance

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