The past year of living in a pandemic has been hard on all of us. Teachers are exhausted. Parents are frustrated. Kids are missing a sense of normalcy. The instability and uncertainty are especially difficult for children with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). These students may be exhibiting increased intensity and frequency in the already challenging behaviors associated with ODD. This is likely making pandemic teaching even more difficult for their teachers.

Ryan Wexelblatt, LCSW, explains, “ODD is a description of a group of behaviors. The behaviors are rooted in inflexibility, problems with executive function, anxiety, and a need for control.” He says ODD behaviors are often seen in children who have been diagnosed with learning disabilities, anxiety, depression, or ADHD. Many children with ODD behaviors have suffered from childhood trauma. Children with ODD often struggle with authority figures and may act defiant, argumentative, and disruptive in class.

See Supporting Kids With Oppositional Defiant Disorder in the Classroom: What Teachers Need to Know for more information.

ODD and online learning

Some children depend on school as the only safe, consistent, and predictable place in their lives. Jason Drake, LCSW-S says losing the structure, routine, and normalcy of physically being in school is a huge challenge for many students. “The uncertainty of what school will look like, and if school will remain open or will need to close for a period of time, can create stress and anxiety for students. This can worsen symptoms of ODD, causing more disruptive behavior that could interfere with learning.” 

Wexelblatt agrees that online learning is a huge challenge for many kids with ODD. “The students I work with are struggling with virtual learning. It just is not conducive to how they learn most effectively.” 

He suggests the following tactics to make online learning more manageable for children with ODD.

1. Frontload the schedule

Tell students what’s next. Go through the day’s agenda every morning and continue discussing it throughout the day. 

2. Allow time to transition

Prepare students for transitions. Give warnings like, “We’re going to work on our math for five more minutes and then we’re going to put it away and move on to language arts.”

3. Empathize

When unexpected changes or events pop up, empathize with ODD students about how hard it is. Tell them that many adults also have a hard time when things don’t go as planned. Acknowledge the struggle. 

4. Recognize even small efforts

“Give purposeful recognition to any display of flexibility, resiliency, effort, and thoughtfulness,” Wexelblatt advises.  “When kids diagnosed with ODD are recognized for even small things, it helps tremendously because they are used to the opposite.” Maybe they read quietly for five minutes today, which is an improvement over the two minutes they were on task yesterday. Recognize their improvement.

5. Minimize tech

Wexelblatt says kids with ODD are often mesmerized by online games and videos. Once they start, it can be very difficult to get them to transition to something else. He suggests limiting access when possible, such as downloading a video to show students instead of sending a link so that students only have access to one video instead of all of YouTube.

6. Make learning interactive

Use games, visuals, discussions, and activities that are highly engaging and interactive. Keeping students busy and engaged reduces outbursts.

7. Movement

Get kids up and moving throughout the day. Movement is great for emotional regulation. Try these brain breaks that incorporate movement. This is important for both kids in a physical classroom and for those learning at home online. 

Wexelblatt says most children with ODD have social and behavioral skill deficits, just as other children may have challenges when it comes to communication or cognitive function. Online learning is challenging for many of us – both teachers and students – for a variety of reasons. Remembering the behavior isn’t a personal attack on you as a teacher and that the child isn’t simply “bad” makes it much easier to respond with patience, empathy, and understanding