Supporting Kids With Oppositional Defiant Disorder in the Classroom: What Teachers Need to Know


What Teachers Need to Know About Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)

Is there anything more frustrating than a student who is the three Ds: defiant, disrespectful and disruptive? You know the one. They’re throwing books, pushing classmates, yelling out obscenities, refusing to do any work and insulting your hair – all within the first twenty minutes of class. Just one student can make us dread getting up in the morning and cause us to seriously consider changing career paths. Knowing there’s a reason for the behavior often makes it easier to handle. A psychological condition called oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) might be at play. Understanding ODD is the first step in creating a more peaceful classroom environment.

What is Oppositional Defiant Disorder? 

Dr. Deborah Wilkins is a psychiatrist who works with children ages 3-18. ODD is one of her specialties. She explains, “Oppositional Defiant Disorder is a behavioral disorder in which children and adolescents are consistently defiant and argumentative with authority figures and refuse to obey rules or requests. They often talk back to adults, have anger outbursts if told no to something they want to do, and can be verbally or physically aggressive. They are also easily irritated by others, often seem angry and resentful, try to deliberately annoy or upset other people, and may be spiteful or vindictive.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, ODD is believed to be caused by a combination of biological, genetic and environmental factors. Up to 16% of children and teens have symptoms of ODD. Mental health professionals use interviews and assessments to determine if the child meets the criteria for ODD outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Children with ODD often also have other conditions including learning disabilities, anxiety, depression or ADHD.

What are the symptoms of ODD in the classroom?  

“Children with ODD often refuse to follow classroom rules and argue with teachers or other school authority figures. They may refuse to do their work or comply with requests from a teacher and can become excessively angry if forced to do so. They frequently are easily frustrated and often have difficulty managing their anger,” Dr. Wilkins explains.

Other oppositional defiant disorder symptoms may include:

  • Difficulty transitioning from activity to activity 
  • Limited peer group
  • Social isolation
  • Argumentative
  • Easily annoyed
  • Purposely seeks to annoy others
  • Very sensitive
  • Low self-esteem
  • Irritable
  • Fatigued
  • Non-compliant
  • Engages in physical aggression with peers and adults
  • Poor impulse control
  • Mean and spiteful when they feel they’ve been wronged.

How Can A Teacher Best Support A Child With ODD?

Dr. Wilkins suggests implementing the following strategies.

Dr. Wilkins suggests implementing the following strategies: positive reinforcement, consistent rules, and consequences working as a team with home and creating a behavior plan. Here are some tips for implementing those and other effective strategies in the classroom.

1. Work together on a behavior plan. 

Behavior plans address the prevention of challenging behavior and what to do when they occur. It’s a written plan usually put together with input from the teacher, administration, student support services, parent and the student, as much as appropriate. A written plan helps ensure everyone is on the same page.

2. Document to find patterns. 

Dedicate a notebook to the child with ODD. Jot down the time and what’s happening when undesirable behavior occurs. Once you have several days or weeks of data, look for patterns. Are the major outbursts during transitions, before lunch, when it’s time to do math? Then you can work to determine why and how to make it less triggering. Aso write down what’s happening when the student is being calm and compliant so you can try to replicate those conditions more often.

3. Use positive reinforcement. 

Pay close attention to positive choices the student makes and focus on them instead of the negative. “You hung your backpack up so quietly this morning. Good work!” or “It was so kind of you to offer your classmate paper when they said they left their notebook at home!” 

4. Keep your cool. 

Kids with ODD are looking to get a rise out of you. Choose your battles. Ignore negative behavior when possible. If it needs to be addressed, do it without emotion. Have a plan in place to call someone in if you need a quick break to breathe and regroup.

5. Have clear and consistent rules and consequences for everyone. 

Make the classroom rules and consequences clear and consistent for everyone, not just the student with ODD. Involve students in the process of creating expectations and consequences. Try to engage students with challenging behavior in the process. Uphold the rules and the consequences for all students equally.

6. Work as a team with home. 

Have a meeting with the student’s parents or guardians. Ask what challenges they have at home, what strategies have been successful and which haven’t. Keep the lines of communication open. Many teachers and families find a short daily email exchange between school and home to be helpful. Children with ODD often have tendencies to lie or shift the blame to others so communication between home and school clears up many miscommunications. 

7. Look for connection. 

Dr. Becky Bailey’s Conscious Discipline model is based on the power of relationships. Having connected relationships with our students helps them know they’re seen and loved, which can lessen challenging behavior. Get to know the child, not just the behavior. What are their talents and interests? Talk to them about it and encourage them to explore those things more. Show students they aren’t just a behavior problem.

8. Teach emotions. 

Some kids need help building their emotional intelligence. They might only recognize happy and angry, so they transform any uncomfortable emotion to anger because they don’t know what to do with it. Talk about feelings and managing emotions as a class. It will benefit the whole group.

9. Hand out jobs. 

Everyone feels better with a purpose. Offer a special job to the student. For example, make them the Kindness Catcher. Instruct them to be on the lookout for others doing kind acts. They can then fill out a ticket and put it in a special box. Jobs give students something positive to focus on.

10. Model moving forward. 

Though they don’t show it, many kids with ODD feel deep shame about their actions. They don’t know how to process those feelings, which often results in escalated behavior. Let them know everyone makes inappropriate choices sometimes and you do your best to fix it and then move on, working to do better next time. Give them opportunities to do repairs, such as cleaning up a mess they made or writing an apology note to a classmate after being unkind.

Real talk from a school psychologist:

Dr. Ben Springer, a school psychologist and author of “Happy Kids Don’t Punch You in the Face, says “ODD is notable due to its dramatically overt in-your-face misconduct.” He adds the following honest perspective on oppositional defiant disorder at school based on his education, research, and experiences.

  • “It’s a long, hard road. Improved behavior and interactions take longer than the 9-month school year. Think marathon state of mind, not a sprint.”
  • “The younger the onset of ODD, the poorer the prognosis for the child. Early-onset conduct problems stick children in ruts that can be extremely hard to get out of. Extra effort in early childhood grades and early intervention is often warranted.”
  • “These children prize authenticity above all else.  They’re actually seeking out approval/acknowledgment and they won’t be satisfied with the approval/acknowledgment of a shallow relationship. They want the real thing (just like the rest of us). Unfortunately, they go about it in a disordered fashion.”
  • “The best situation for children (and their teachers) is to be confident, comfortable, and cool under pressure. That comes via experience and high-quality training for both educators and parents.” 

Dr. Wilkins says, “Working with children and adolescents with ODD can be very challenging for teachers. It is important to remember that having ODD doesn’t mean that someone is a bad child – it simply means that he/she displays some undesirable behaviors.”

Self-care and having a strong support system (both professionally and personally) are especially important when you have students who require extra energy. By doing your best to provide a safe, caring, consistent learning environment you’re showing even the most challenging students you believe in them. That has a big impact on a child. P.s. Your hair looks great.

Also check out:

Supporting Kids With Oppositional Defiant Disorder in the Classroom: What Teachers Need to Know

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Rachael Moshman
Rachael Moshman, M.Ed. is a mom, educator, writer, and advocate for self-confidence. She’s been a teacher in classrooms of infants through adult college students. She loves pizza, Netflix and yoga.
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