How to Get Students with Oppositional Defiant Disorder on Your Side

books, pencil, hands

By Cindy Schwartz, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Secondary Education

How many of you have had a student in your classroom who defies class rules, annoys other students intentionally, blames others for their mistakes, loses their temper often and is usually angry and irritable?

I have certainly had students like that in my classroom and sometimes there have been more than one.

Henry David Thoreau, the 19th century naturalist, writer and philosopher once said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” An advocate for calm, peaceful retreats into nature as a way of re-grouping and rejuvenation, Thoreau lived for two years, two months and two days by Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts discovering and ultimately modeling a simpler, more committed way to living mindfully and ethically. Respect for nature and the simplicity of its complexity was how Thoreau hoped we would all live our lives. 

But how do we do that when it seems a hormonal teenager is doing everything in their power to make your life difficult? And how do we deal with students who are leading “lives of quiet desperation” and are unable to self-regulate and be less oppositional and reactive in the classroom?

nature, grass, sunset

Perhaps we need to “bend with the wind” as teachers by thinking compassionately, by attempting more creative and positive reinforcement strategies while making sure to establish clear parameters and consequences about what is and what is not acceptable in our classrooms. 

The oppositional student

Edutopia tells us that up to 16% of all children and 40% of students diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder have oppositional defiant disorder, ODD, as well.

Dr. David Anderson, director of the ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute in New York City, found that “the words ‘oppositional’ and ‘defiant’ show up in parents’ vocabulary fairly frequently.” The Child Mind Institute tells us that children who exhibit symptoms of oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) are generally diagnosed during their early years in elementary school. These children tend to be unusually angry and irritable, easily annoyed, disrespectful of authority figures, unable to self-regulate, dismissive of rules, vindictive and prone to blaming others for mistakes. They have temper tantrums often. Difficult to manage at home, negative reinforcement by parents and ultimately teachers at school simply exacerbates the problem, often making it unmanageable. 

So what does a teacher do if this student is in their classroom?

If this happens… a student is losing their temper, defying your rules, arguing with you or deliberately annoying other students, try this…these methods have worked for me.

Just breathe

Both you and your student should take deep, deep breaths together. Model the self-soothing behavior that you would like to see your student learn. 

Name it to change it

journal, notepad, notebook

Ask your student to express what’s wrong. Ask your student to write what is wrong.

Validate their feelings and share when you have felt that way too. When a teacher shows compassion and vulnerability it allows a student to feel safe and compassionate, as well. 

Ask them to help you

Move this student to a quiet part of the room by telling them that you need them to help you teach something to the others. Always have backup work for the class to do while you are handling a child that needs your immediate attention. Then, follow through and ask this student to either help you distribute work to the other students or help you set up your technology for the lesson.

Positive reinforcement

board, chalk, stumble

Always make positive reinforcement your first “go to.” Praise the student’s ability to focus, self-regulate and contribute!

Invite them to connect with you by walking in your shoes

Ask this student to help you teach a class in the future. Ask the student to tell you about their hobbies and interests so that you can tailor a class that allows them to share those passions!

When in doubt, color it out!

crayons, coloring book, coloring

Encourage the entire class to take a break from their classwork and color!! Have mindful coloring books on hand or copies of mandalas for coloring for days like these. Self-soothing activities take precedence over curriculum content always. If an administrator suddenly pops in for an observation, simply admit to a situation that required you to calm a student down immediately before work could be completed. You are on solid ground here.

Self-soothing distractions

Ask the student to quickly come up to your desk because you have something special that you need to show them. Always have a self-soothing type of squeeze ball, a visual picture of a serene ocean or lake, an interesting vintage item like an old transistor radio, flip phone, pager on hand…something interesting that will immediately distract the student.

Ask the student if any of these items interest them and ask them why. The goal here is to calm the student’s hyper-arousal response and to move them into a different direction for the moment.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

help, hand, offer

If you have been unable to help this student calm down or self-soothe and the student is either becoming physically unstable or unable to be settled down, then use your in-class intercom system to contact the main office for additional help.

After class, reach out to the student’s parents letting them know what transpired in the classroom, your efforts to help the student calm down, and ask for any and all information that might help you understand if the student has recently experienced any trauma or has had issues with oppositional behavior in the past. Experts tell us that negative reinforcement and inconsistencies in parenting at home can often contribute to oppositional defiant disorder. You need a window into the student’s life outside the classroom.

Reach out to your school’s Social Worker and/or School Psychologist for an assessment of the student’s past academic and emotional performance.

Bend with the wind

Finally, bend with the wind…find creative ways and positive ways to address oppositional behavior. Model self-regulating behavior. Have your classes quiet down with meditation chimes, breathing exercises, physical movement and lots of praise. 

Henry David Thoreau would tell us, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

See the whole child. Inquire about the child’s history. And finally, love the child. Child experts tell us that oppositional behavior can be softened by consistent positive reinforcement, compassion, parameters and consequences that are fair, developmentally appropriate and sensible.

I hope that this has provided you with some doable tips on identifying and addressing students with oppositional defiance disorder in your classroom. Drop us a comment below if these tips work for you or if you have any suggestions on what you have done in your classroom to address oppositional behavior. 

This blog post has been adapted from this week’s Attentive Teaching podcast, available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and other major podcast platforms.

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