Teaching Strategies

6 Ways to Help Students with ODD

Offering kids choices, safe spaces, and positive reinforcement can help teachers avoid problems—or manage them when they arise.

January 15, 2021
Elliott Golden / The iSpot

Most children will, at times, argue and test limits. Yet some kids are defiant and hostile to a degree that interferes with their daily lives—behavior that’s sometimes diagnosed as Oppositional Defiant Disorder, or ODD, according to a story by WeAreTeachers.

“Students with ODD disrupt their own lives and often the lives of everyone nearby,” write the report’s authors. “[They] push the limits of defiance far beyond reason. Their problem behavior is much more extreme than that of their peers, and it happens much more often.”

According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, kids with ODD exhibit “an ongoing pattern of uncooperative, defiant, and hostile behavior toward authority figures that seriously interferes with the child’s day-to-day functioning,” for six months or more. Symptoms like frequent temper tantrums, excessive arguing with adults, and mean and hateful speech when upset, are usually seen across multiple settings, but especially at home or school. While a direct cause remains unclear, “biological, psychological, and social factors may have a role,” the academy notes. Up to 16 percent of children may have the disorder, and children with ADHD are especially prone.

Though a teacher’s first reaction to ODD might be to react defensively, this can backfire and create a power struggle with the student, say experts. Instead, teachers who’ve worked with students with ODD recommend a set of strategies that will address challenging behavior, and help you start building relationships with hard-to-reach students.

“We all have the capacity to learn, change, and grow,” writes special education teacher Nina Parrish. “When given the right tools and environment, students with problematic behavior can learn more productive strategies that will help them have positive and effective interactions with others.”

1. Be Calm and Consistent: As a new teacher, Parrish says she quickly learned that reacting with anger when her students with ODD acted out made the behavior worse and students became “amused or encouraged by upsetting an adult.” Instead, Parrish recommends trying to keep a positive tone to your voice, adopting neutral body language, and being “cautious about approaching the student or entering their personal space as this might escalate the situation.”

Consistency with words and actions is also important when working with kids with ODD. Teacher Brandy T. tells WeAreTeachers she routinely uses the same set of “trigger words” so her students know she’s serious. When students in her class begin to argue with her, “I simply say either, ‘not now,’ ‘later,’ or ‘fix the issue.’” When her students hear ‘fix the issue,’ for example, she says that’s the signal to “go to their chill-out space if they need to calm down.”

2. Reinforce Positive Behavior: For all kids, but especially children with ODD, it’s important to “switch your focus from recognizing negative behavior to seeking out demonstrations of positive behavior,” writes Parrish. She sends home positive notes when students show behavior improvements, even if they’re small gains.

Additionally, consider offering students the opportunity to earn certain privileges, suggests WeAreTeachers, rather than “taking those privileges away as punishment.” For example, give kids the opportunity to earn rewards—like a bit of iPad time or lunch with a teacher.

3. Find Out What’s Going On: Behaviors, notes Parrish, help students “obtain something desirable, or escape something undesirable.” She suggests thinking about behavior as feedback, or a way of communicating, an approach that’s “helped me work more effectively as a teacher with students who display problem behaviors.” Figuring out factors that contribute to students with ODD acting out can help you develop a plan for addressing their difficult behaviors in the classroom.

Sometimes, it’s a matter of picking up on a student’s signals that their emotions are building long before things reach a breaking point. When students who’ve experienced trauma are beginning to feel upset, they often show physical signs of their mounting distress: balling up fists, withdrawing from classroom interaction, or clenching their jaw, writes Micere Keels, an associate professor at the University of Chicago and a trauma-informed educator.

“Many educators tend to ignore students’ increasing signs of agitation, hoping they’ll eventually calm down. But when disregarded, these minor behaviors can quickly escalate,” writes Keels, who also recommends identifying students’ triggers, like touch or emotionally difficult anniversaries, to avoid situations entirely.

4. Create a Safe Reset Space: Kids with ODD “can learn to recognize when they’re feeling overwhelmed and getting ready to challenge or defy,” according to WeAreTeachers. “Giving them a safe space to calm down and rethink their choices can be beneficial.”

At Fall-Hamilton Elementary, a trauma-informed school in Nashville, Tennessee, for example, every classroom has a nook—called a peace corner—with a comfortable seat, a timer, and items like stuffed animals, sensory squeeze toys, and simple drawing and writing supplies. It’s a spot where kids can take a break and reset. The school also recognizes that teachers may need a time out too. Using a strategy called Tap-in/Tap-Out, teachers can ask a colleague via text message to briefly cover their class if they are about to lose their cool.

"A dysregulated adult cannot regulate a dysregulated child,” says school principal Mathew Portell. “Use strategies that honor the student’s emotions and need for space while also getting their systems to calm in a safe way.”

5. Offer Choices: It’s important to “affirm your students’ autonomy by giving them choices,” writes Keels, about best practices for de-escalation. When kids feel respected, “their sense of belonging and mood will often improve.”

She recommends avoiding ultimatums like “You better sit back down or I’ll send you to the office.” Instead, clearly communicate expectations and limits so kids understand. You might say, “I see you’re upset, but it’s not OK to yell at me. You can either go get a drink of water and come back in five minutes, or sit in the reading chair and I will check in with you in five minutes,” says Keels.

In the heat of the moment, it’s important to avoid an argument, teacher Holli A. tells WeAreTeachers. “State your choices, then walk away,” she says. “Give the student time to process and decide which choice to make. If they don’t like the choices, don’t engage. When they try to argue, repeat the choices, and walk away again. If the student still will not choose, they do not get to participate in their preferred activity.”

6. Build Connections: Often, kids with ODD “are looking for a relationship with a teacher who can help them deal with problems on their own, instead of making them stand out in a negative way,” according to WeAreTeachers. “Building a connection with them will help get to the root of the behavior.”

Though teachers can feel the need to create boundaries with students, simply talking with them informally can build invaluable connections that influence their behavior in the classroom, says middle school math teacher Cicely Woodard.

Woodard says she intentionally makes herself approachable to students and tries to learn interesting details about them. “Some of my students tell me stories about their lives during the five minutes between classes,” Woodard says. “I stop what I am doing, look them in the eyes, and listen.”

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  • Mental Health
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Student Wellness

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