OCD and School
By William M. Gordon, Ph.D.
Compulsive homework can be a crippling habit that seriously undermines a young person’s
educational attainment, mood, and self esteem. Although there is no exact definition of the
problem, it primarily involves spending excessive time and energy doing homework. The
individual will study too much too long. Because homework becomes excruciatingly painful,
procrastination is common. Once started though, the person finds it hard to stop working
until the assignment is perfect. There are frequent doubts that certain areas or sub-areas
require further work because each topic/sub-topic can generate new areas of supposed
ignorance. The process can become endless. Fuzzy assignments such as general essays can be
especially difficult because the student has to select a topic and define the range of the paper.
Indecisiveness, perfectionism and doubt make such assignments especially troublesome. The
student is unable to define “good enough.”
Compulsive homework extends to all subjects. All assignments must be done perfectly. Lab
assignments can turn into 60 pages. Because the work is done so thoroughly and perfectly,
the individual receives high praise from the teacher or professor. This praise reinforces the
excessive studying and creates an elevated standard for subsequent homework. The process
thus becomes self-reinforcing. When the work is finally completed, I have seen students not
hand it in because they think they still might be able to improve upon it. By then it is overdue
which creates embarrassment. Lower grades, dropped courses and incomplete courses result.
Compulsive homework usually begins during grammar school or high school. Because these
students often are quite bright, they are able to finish their assignments during their early
educational years despite their poor approach. However, as the curriculum becomes more
complex and demanding, they cannot meet their excessive personal standards. They may drop
out of college or take twice the amount of time to get their degree.
While this painful educational process is slogging along, the person is feeling depressed and
overwhelmed. Sleep, socializing and fun get short shrift. Parents also might feel frustrated,
resentful and helpless. Power struggles over doing too much homework ensue. This conflict
further bogs down attempts at work.
Some of the psychological processes operating during compulsive homework are similar to
those in typical OCD rituals. In general, OCD takes a virtue and turns it into a vice by carrying
it to an extreme. Here the virtue is seriousness and diligence about school work. The vice
is compulsive homework. Many students compulsively reread assignments or redo papers
because of an erasure or awkward sentence. This repetition of course is the hallmark of OCD.
Doubt permeates all areas of OCD including compulsive homework. The person wonders
whether he truly has done the assignment adequately. Because no precise answer exists,
it leaves room for further work. It reminds one of the compulsive checker who wants to be
absolutely sure the door is locked. Often work is done until it “feels right” to stop.
These patterns of behavior are difficult to change. Addressing the problem early on before
it becomes solidified is helpful. Teachers, parents, and the therapist need to agree on a
treatment plan which reinforces:
- good as opposed to perfect work
- reasonable time limits for doing homework - and at first limited amounts of homework
- limiting the number of courses taken and their degree of difficulty until learning how to
approach homework more reasonably
- a quick 5 minute survey of assignments to reduce avoidance and procrastination
- writing quick rough drafts rather than perfecting each sentence as it is written
As in all OCD the “Exposure” part of the treatment is anxiety producing at first. Here the
exposure involves experiencing doubt about the quality of one’s work. The Response
Prevention is to STOP STUDYING. As reasonable study habits develop, it becomes easier to
complete assignments, lead a more balanced life and actually learn more. Students need to
realize that their extreme effort in all assignments is misdirected and counter-productive. I
liken it to feeding filet mignon to cows. It’s great food but entirely unnecessary and too costly.
One needs to start feeding the cows grass and studying more reasonably.