How to Understand and Help Students with Oppositional Defiant Disorder

Sandra Burns
Sandra Burns
Elementary school principal; M.Ed. in Educational Leadership
Outline of a head with ‘Oppositional Defiant Disorder’ text in the middle.

What is Oppositional Defiant Disorder?

According to the Mayo clinic, oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) is a condition in which children display “frequent and persistent pattern of anger, irritability, arguing, defiance or vindictiveness toward you and other authority figures.” A doctor must diagnose this condition as well as it often coexists with other disorders.

What are Symptoms of Oppositional Defiant Disorder in Children?

It may be very challenging to recognize a child with oppositional defiant disorder in compensation to a child who is demanding and strong willed. It is also common that children go through phases, that often appear as ODD, but that isn’t always that case.

Signs and symptoms of ODD typically start every early in age, and often as early as preschool. It is not unheard of for symptoms to develop later than this, but often symptoms do surface before the teenage years.

Signs of ODD generally begin during preschool years. Sometimes ODD may develop later, but almost always before the early teen years. These behaviors can cause significant concerns within families, building relationships, being part of a team, and almost always interferes with social interactions.

It may be challenging to identify is a student is showing signs of ODD, or if they are just having a difficult time. Typically, symptoms last longer than a six-month period of time and include someone who is easily annoyed by others, is often angry and resentful, and is argumentative and defiant. These types of behaviors can occur within the classroom and a student may often argue with adults, include those of authority, and often actively will defy or refuse to comply with even the most basic requests of an adult.

How can Oppositional Defiant Disorder Affect the Classroom?

Students with ODD often have trouble forming relationships. Going back to setting the example, getting to know your students likes and dislikes, and really building a relationship with them is one of the best examples to set. Building a bond with the student and a trusting relationship can help the child get through some difficult days.

It is also important that educators avoid power struggles and pick and choose your battles when working with students who have challenging behaviors. This could involve differentiating a lesson to best accommodate the student’s needs based off of the day that the student is having. Naturally, if a child has an IEP all of the accommodations and supports within that IEP must be in place as we know that this is a legal document of all the supports that the students must receive in order to be successful.

Students who are diagnosed with ODD, may also need more social skills instruction. Often classrooms for students with emotional disturbance or behavior issues offer small group social skill instruction to help build social skills. This is something several school districts are able to provide to help their students who have trouble socially among their peers. This would help a student with ODD who has trouble forming friendships.

Ways to Support Students with Oppositional Defiant Disorder

Just as all behaviors can impact a student socially or even academically, there is some hope on what educators can do to assist our students who are diagnosed with ODD. When students are confronted about a misbehavior, is it comment for them to get very upset or angry. Instead of focusing on the negative behavior, educators can point out positive behavior and let the students know what they have done a good job. Explaining what they did correctly and also an explanation as to why you are proud of them, is important as you reward them for something that they have earned.

Concrete rules and expectations should be set from the very beginning. A review of these rules should occur frequently. Having rules and expectations in place allow for a clear understanding and do not permit any room for uncertainty.

Leading by example is always an expectation from adults. Exposing our students to social scenarios that may occur at school with enhance their coping skills. By helping a student cope through social scenarios, we may be able to teach them skills that will carry over into other settings as well. If students do not follow the rules that are in place, an educator must not be lenient with consequences. Being firm, clear, precise, and direct are all ways to ensure and promote positive behavior.

Clear expectations also go hand in hand with established routines. By creating routines, we are helping our students stay on track. Giving our students the opportunity to create their schedule with you also allows for a sense of ownership and pride to take place. Redirecting students back to the schedule, especially during transition times, will help reinforce the importance of making good choices, following a schedule and hopefully eliminate any outbursts from occurring.

A higher-level support that can be provided to students who have been diagnosed with ODD is behavior modification techniques that incorporates therapy. This therapeutic approach can assist with chipping away at negative behaviors. While working with a behavior specialist or counselor, they can help create a behavior treatment plan that can also be utilized within the school setting. Agencies can also allow behavior support to go into schools to help support students as well. Often having this behavior support in place provides a therapeutic approach that focuses on the positive in an attempt to eliminate negative behaviors from occurring. The more support that students have in place, the more successful they will be during their educational journey.

All students from time to time will display inappropriate or unacceptable behaviors. We all can relate to what it is like to have a bad day. But, we must keep in mind that a child with oppositional defiant disorder does have a medical diagnosis, which leads to more than just the student “having a bad day.” It is up to us as educators to be sure we understand the whole child as well as know how to best prevent outbursts as and respond to the situation that the student may need your help getting through. The more we get to know our students and understand their needs, the less likely it is that student will act out in the classroom.

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