What Is ODD?
Oppositional Defiance Disorder is a behavioral disorder. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms include persistent angry or irritable moods, extreme defiance for authority figures, frequent need to argue, and vindictiveness.
Students with ODD most often deal with other disorders simultaneously and in addition to ODD. Frequent issues that are found to have this comorbidity (simultaneously occurring with it) are
- anxiety disorders,
- mood disorders,
- learning disorders,
- or communication disorders.
The behavior of these students is beyond that of any “typical” difficult students.
There is still research being done, and although scientific research has yet to find a definitive answer on this, neurologists lean toward saying ODD has a biological or genetic factor. This is very important for teachers to understand.
Studies have shown that there are common differences among the brains of children and young people (as well as adults) who are extremely defiant, aggressive, and even violent. The reason this is important information for teachers is that understanding it as a biological, genetic, or physical disorder means that you cannot blame it on the parent or child. In addition, punishment, negative consequences, and/or social rejection do not help when dealing with these students.
While there is likely a genetic element to ODD, studies have shown that environment and upbringing can exacerbate the disorder.
These children are not children who will have five minutes in time-out and come out wanting to participate and be socially accepted. Rather, most displays of authority only serve to cause these students to raise their level of defiance. There is no limit to their strong will or determination.
How to Work with Students with ODD
It doesn’t sound overly positive, we know. If you’ve had the opportunity to work with one of these students, you know the struggle is real and intense. Dealing with them may cause you to feel like this year is your career-ender.
Perhaps it won’t surprise you to learn that many of these children develop more chronic behavioral disorders (one, in particular, is named, appropriately, “conduct disorder”) which displays itself in more intense defiance, often leading to illegal behaviors. Juvenile delinquency and life in prison are all many of these students can look forward to.
However, studies do show that there is hope.
First, there are different levels of severity, and as we mentioned above, the environment is an important factor, which means as much as the environment can exacerbate symptoms, it can also lessen them.
There is hope.
You may be all that stands between this student and a life in prison, though. Your response to their behavior is critical. It isn’t easy to work with these students, and we won’t even try to pretend it is. It is important, though. Here’s what we’ve learned.
Become an Advocate
If you find it difficult to spend anywhere from an hour to eight hours a day with this intense behavior, imagine living with it 24-hours a day.
Parents of these children come in all flavors.
Some parents are determined to break the will of these children and will discipline them to an extreme, possibly even crossing the line into abuse. Some parents may even have ODD themselves and clash violently with their ODD child (or children).
Some parents are so beaten down and defeated from constantly battling with these strong-willed children that they quit entirely and don’t even attempt to discipline. They may be afraid of their child, and at times these parents are abused by their child.
It’s likely that if you bring the behavior to the attention of the child’s parents or guardians, they will not be surprised.
If it is agreeable to the parent to discuss the behaviors, do all you can to encourage them to seek treatment. As professional educators, we are not acting as diagnosticians, so the term oppositional defiance disorder never needs to be part of the conversation from your end, but it is perfectly acceptable to share with parents that their child appears to be struggling more than most in your experience.
Be sensitive, and work to cultivate compassion when discussing these students. It’s often difficult to love them. They may be verbally, emotionally, and even physically abusive. But the only way to make a change with these troubled children is to advocate for professional care outside of the educational environment as well as inside.
A first step to suggest for parents is to consult with their family doctor to “get their opinion”. From there, the doctor may suggest psychological testing, therapy, medication, or a combination of all of those things. All you can do is suggest this, though. Remember, you cannot diagnose or give advice on treatment. You can only let parents know what you are seeing.
Sometimes parents are in between those extremes we mentioned above. They are neither in denial that their child is struggling, nor are they unduly strict and abusive. They may be hoping that their child is just going through a phase, acting out because of some life transition, or paralyzed with worry over what would happen if they seek help.
You can be a support for the family during this time by making the suggestion to consult their doctor.
Having a child with a serious disorder can be demoralizing and isolating. Offering a non-judgemental opinion may be a lifeline for parents who think they must be over-exaggerating or struggling with feeling that they are inadequate as parents.
Regardless of what parents do or don’t do outside of school, you may be able to begin the formal pursuit of educational assistance in the form of a 504 or an I.E.P.. Talk to your diagnostician, special education colleagues, and/or counselor. Keep your administrative team in the loop, and as always, be absolutely sure you are documenting.
We’ve suggested here in the blog before that teachers keep A.B.C. documentation - antecedent, behavior, and consequence. These forms can be found online, you can create your own, or you can purchase them (we’ve had lots of luck finding great ones on Teachers Pay Teachers, but we’ve also found them for free online sometimes). A good form can save you hours of work, and in these cases, we feel this is the best way to document.
In general, you may have great success with a class contract or more informal agreements with students. In years past you may have never had to say, “We don’t punch other students.” Perhaps it was just understood.
Not so with these students.
In fact, as your other students participate and follow class contracts, your student with ODD will likely see a class contract as a detailed list of personal challenges. They may determine, either subconsciously or not, that they will have to find a way to break each of the rules as quickly and soundly as possible.
So how can you discipline these students? How can you establish an agreed-upon routine and keep everyone safe?
These students are highly suspicious of any sort of manipulation. They will not adhere to any idea that isn’t “theirs”.
Your best bet is to pick your battles to begin with. These are children likely to look straight at you while they defy you. They will yell at you or other students, they will shout profanities, and they may even do physical harm.
They are easily set off. They are often angry and irrational.
So if this student is tapping their pencil on their desk - especially if you think they’re doing it to annoy you - don’t confront them.
The more lines you draw in the sand, the more opportunities you’re giving them to openly defy you.
The more times you send them to the office, the more likely they are to escalate their behavior.
So in the simplest things, do not approach them. Don’t react. Don’t ignore. Just be. Observe.
These students need their own set of rules, and they need to negotiate and have the power to create the rules for themselves.
When they are not right in the midst of an attempt to defy you, sit and talk with them. Tell them you need their help (and you do). Tell them what you’re having a problem with, and ask them how they can solve their behavior. The more control you give them, the more choice they have, and the more “purchase” they have, the more likely it is that you will be able to agree to reasonable terms.
Many teachers are absolutely not willing to do this. The classroom is “theirs”, and students are expected to behave according to a set group of rules. This sort of inflexibility is very likely to get you or a student physically injured when you are dealing with a physically aggressive student with ODD, to be frank. The only inflexibility you can have in this situation is a refusal to fight over who has the power.
The more you make your classroom a battleground for control, the more you will lose.
In order to “win” with these students, you have to be willing to share.
That’s not to say that you cannot discipline or keep the other students safe - not at all. Safety needs to be a non-negotiable, but how your student with ODD approaches it can have the necessary “choice” factor. He or she may need space. You may be able to agree to let them step outside for a few minutes or request an aide to take them for a cool-down or break. You need to find out what works for this particular student, and to do that will take cooperation.
Whenever possible, do not show up for the power struggle.
These students do respond very well to positive reinforcement. They are rarely praised for things, so “catching them being good” is really important and influential.
Remember not to try to be manipulative. You can acknowledge that they are hard to love, but always follow that up with appreciation.
Let them exist “outside the box”. Give them room to be themselves while also doing all you can to help them with building their social skills, academic resiliency, and behavioral flexibility.
Strategies based on cognitive behavioral therapy are most useful for these students.
Students with oppositional defiance disorder are at war with everyone around them. It’s exhausting for them as well as being exhausting for everyone dealing with them. They want to be loved, and they want to belong but often have few skills and no idea how to make that happen.
In dealing with them, be just as determined and just as defiant, but focus all of that onto making a place that’s safe for them to learn and grow, too.