Teaching Oppositional Defiant (ODD) Students

My daughter has ODD and been suspended 9 times this year. Her school doesn't seem to be giving her any support, just suspending her. She is getting really upset as she thinks everyone is giving up on her. What can the school do to help?


Teaching Oppositional Defiant (ODD) Students—

If you are a teacher who finds that "nothing works" to manage some students, this article may help. It's way past time for you to learn about ODD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder.

In college, you probably got very little training on basic mental health, but if you've been teaching for more than five minutes, you know that little bit of training wasn't enough. Here's just a quick peek at what they should have taught you in college about basic juvenile mental health.


"Oppositional-Defiant" is a mental health diagnosis that describes kids that have consciences but sometimes act like they don't. This diagnosis can only be applied by a mental health professional but will be very important for any youth worker to know and understand. This diagnosis is far more hopeful than "conduct disorder," which means the child lacks a conscience and a real capacity for relationships. While the oppositional- defiant child (ODD) may also appear to have little conscience or relationship capacity, you may be able to improve that with the right approach and methods. With conduct disordered youth, such improvement may not be possible.


Oppositional-defiant kids are often some of your most misbehaved students. They may disrupt your class, hurt others, defy authority and engage in illegal or problematic conduct. Though they may look similar to conduct disorders, their bad behavior is usually less severe, less frequent, and of shorter duration. The ODD label is often inaccurately applied as this dynamic can be a difficult concept to grasp and apply. Many ADD youth are also ODD, and boys dominate this category.


The thrust of helping the ODD child must focus on:

1) Skill building, plus

2) "Pulling up" that conscience and

3) Improving their relationship skills.

For skill building, teaching them how to regulate their anger, actions, peer skills, verbal output, etc. will be critical. But equally important, this child must be aided to care about others and to be guided more by conscience.


To help "pull up" the child's conscience, use this intervention. It can be used pro-actively or reactively (before or after the child has engaged in misbehavior.) For example, let's say the child has stolen the teacher's pen; you can say "I want you to imagine that we're making a video about your life. Are you impressed?" That "uncomfortable sensation that the child may have in reaction to this intervention may be the conscience stirring.

Another intervention to stimulate the conscience—

After the child has engaged in a problem behavior, such as stealing a pen, as in the example above, ask the child, "So what's your integrity worth to you?"

To adapt the intervention shown above for young children, simply rephrase the question to "So what's people believing in you, worth to you?" Or, rephrase it to "So what's people trusting you, worth to you?"

Before a child undertakes a problem behavior, ask the youth to imagine that s/he will read about that act on the cover of the local newspaper in the morning. Ask the child their reaction. If they say that they wouldn't want to read about it in the newspaper, the next morning, then you can say "Then don't do it!" This image makes a fast and easy guide for kids to follow to evaluate whether or not to do questionable behaviors. This intervention is a good choice to use with children whose conscience provides little guidance.

Educational Implications—

Students with ODD may consistently challenge the class rules, refuse to do assignments, and argue or fight with other students. This behavior can cause significant impairment in both social and academic functioning. The constant testing of limits and arguing can create a stressful classroom environment.

Instructional Strategies & Classroom Accommodations—
  • Allow sharp demarcation to occur between academic periods but hold transition times between periods to a minimum.
  • Allow students to redo assignments to improve their score or final grade.
  • Ask parents what works at home.
  • Avoid “infantile” materials to teach basic skills. Materials should be positive and relevant to students’ lives.
  • Avoid making comments or bringing up situations that may be a source of argument for them.
  • Establish clear classroom rules. Be clear about what is nonnegotiable.
  • Give 2 choices when decisions are needed. State them briefly and clearly.
  • Make sure academic work is at the appropriate level. When work is too hard, students become frustrated. When it is too easy, they become bored. Both reactions lead to classroom problems.
  • Maximize the performance of low-performing students through the use of individualized instruction, cues, prompting, the breaking down of academic tasks, and debriefing, coaching, and providing positive incentives.
  • Minimize downtime and plan and transitions carefully. Students with ODD do best when kept busy.
  • Pace instruction. When students with ODD have completed a designated amount of a non-deferred activity, reinforce their cooperation by allowing them to do something they prefer or find more enjoyable or less difficult.
  • Post the daily schedule so students know what to expect.
  • Praise students when they respond positively.
  • Provide consistency, structure, and clear consequences for the students’ behavior.
  • Remember that students with ODD tend to create power struggles. Try to avoid these verbal exchanges. State your position clearly and concisely. Choose your battles wisely.
  • Select material that encourages student interaction. Students with ODD need to learn to talk to peers and to adults in an appropriate manner. However, all cooperative learning activities must be carefully structured.
  • Structure activities so the student with ODD is not always left out.
  • Systemically teach social skills, including anger management, conflict resolution strategies, and how to be assertive in an appropriate manner. Discuss strategies that the students may use to calm themselves when they feel anger escalating. Do this when students are calm.

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