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Executive Function Issues: OCD

When children suffer from executive function issues, it can contribute to separate, but related, disorders. Children who have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) often struggle with executive function (EF), such as the ability to shift their attention to a new idea once they get stuck in a repetitive cycle. A child with OCD won’t necessarily experience every type of executive dysfunction — many have no problem staying organized, for example. They can, however, experience problems that make it difficult to stay productive with their time, as their thoughts continually turn back to specific rituals. Scientists are only beginning to explore how OCD and executive function relate, but there is a connection that parents and teachers cannot ignore.

Common OCD Behaviors

Children with OCD may struggle in a classroom setting because it requires them to change the focus of their attention throughout the day. If they get stuck on a concept, topic, or even a sentence, it can be difficult to switch gears to something new. Executive function helps children to break out of repetitious behaviors, and without this skill set, they may constantly feel compelled to do things such as wash their hands, check on something, or hoard specific items. These compulsions relieve stress when a child with OCD experiences troubling thoughts, and a lack of EF skills exacerbates the problem.

The Role of Executive Functions

Executive functions help to regulate cognitive processes such as prioritizing actions, planning for the future, and dealing with unfamiliar situations. The part of the mind that controls these responsibilities has recently been linked to OCD by researchers. Children with OCD tend to obsess over certain thoughts and ideas in a way that other children do not. They cannot simply “let go” of these intrusive thoughts, because their executive dysfunctions prevent them from seeing the bigger picture in a situation. So while it might seem illogical for a child to tap their pen exactly 50 times before eating dinner, the child simply views this action as a way to cope with stressful thoughts. The fact that pen tapping has no effect on their surroundings, or that it takes significant time to complete, is not important to the OCD sufferer who cannot prioritize effectively.

What this Relation Means

No matter their functioning or abilities, every child deserves to learn and grow in a way that works for them. Children with executive dysfunction and OCD face unique challenges, but these obstacles can be overcome. Parents, teachers, and caregivers can learn to recognize the symptoms of OCD by observing EF skills in children. A child who feels the need to repeat an action or ritual may not have the skills necessary to regulate these behaviors. Keep an eye out for children who fall behind in class because they have trouble adjusting to new situations or topics. If a child seems to get stuck on one thing while their peers move on to another, the problem may lie in their executive function skills. These children need specialized attention to keep up with their classmates, so if you think a child is suffering, don’t be afraid to seek assistance.

Executive function skills are easy to take for granted — until you see a child who experiences problems with them. The early years of a person’s life are critical for developing effective learning habits, and executive dysfunctions tend to disrupt healthy development. If you know a child whom you suspect to have OCD or EF difficulties, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Get accurate data on a child’s executive function skills so you can take appropriate steps to improve their education and opportunities.

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