Oppositional defiant disorder in the classroom

Written by: Dr Nicola Davies | Published:
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I work in a school where I know a student with ODD. This is not a made up disability due to defiant ...

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Pupils who present with ODD – oppositional defiant disorder – are often very challenging for classroom teachers. Dr Nicola Davies looks at what ODD is and how teachers might support those with the condition

The goal of a student with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) is to gain and maintain control by testing authority to the limit, breaking rules, and provoking and prolonging arguments. In the classroom, this can be distracting for both the teacher and other students.

Professor Tamsin Ford, of the University of Exeter Medical School, is researching the effectiveness of training teachers how best to manage ODD in the classroom and says: “The management of behaviour that challenges others is a major source of stress and distress for teachers and in the UK an often cited reason for exit from the profession.”

Unless teachers have an understanding of ODD and the appropriate strategies to employ, disruptive behaviour will continue or escalate, affecting the learning environment for students and the work environment for teachers.

What is ODD?

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th edition), ODD is characterised by “a pattern of angry/irritable mood, argumentative/defiant behaviour, or vindictiveness lasting at least six months”. It also includes arguing with authority figures, such as teachers, and refusing to comply with school rules.

ODD is reported to affect between two and 16 per cent of children and adolescents in the general population, and is more common in boys. Studies show that at least 40 per cent of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have co-existing ODD, according to the UK’s Learning Assessment and Neurocare Centre (LANC). In fact, in their own studies the figure was as high as 50 per cent for co-existence with ADHD.

Children can develop ODD at any time, and if left untreated, the condition can lead to more serious issues such as drug misuse, crime, and serious mental illness. This is not a simple case of a child learning how to be independent – rather, ODD is a serious disorder that requires medical intervention.

The cause of ODD is thought to be environmental, genetic and/or biological/medical in nature. Often, children are from dysfunctional families, have little support, or sometimes have demanding parents who micromanage their children’s learning. Additionally, there is often a history of mental illness in other family members. Genetically, there may be defects in certain areas of the brain. No definitive cause has been determined, however.

There is no known cure for ODD, although there are several treatments for the disorder once it has been diagnosed, including medication, behaviour modification, psychotherapy, parent management training, family therapy, and skills training.

What strategies create a successful learning environment?

One of the most important elements of education is to create an environment that is conducive to learning for everyone. This isn’t easy at the best of times due to different learning styles and ability levels, not to mention the presence of medical conditions and the impact of problems at home.

However, the behaviour of a student with ODD can affect everyone in the classroom, and having strategies in place that are applied consistently is a way to maintain a positive learning environment.

Planning and preparation are important elements in devising strategies for teachers to help students diagnosed with ODD to achieve successful learning outcomes. Although a structured classroom may appear the best solution for most children, this is not often the case for those with ODD.

Prof Ford says: “Teachers often have very little training in how to understand and manage disruptive behaviour, despite the importance of good classroom management techniques to attainment, and the existence of several interventions that are gathering a considerable evidence base.”

Potential interventions

The Incredible Years Teacher Classroom Management: This American programme is designed for use with children between the ages of three and eight. It promotes positive and proactive teaching strategies that foster better student-teacher relationships, as well as strong parent-teacher relationships. Effective classroom management strategies help prevent or reduce disruptive behaviour in the classroom and facilitate an increased interest in learning. This programme works to break the negative coercive cycle that can develop with ODD children and addresses conduct problems through cognitive social learning and applied relationship theories.

PATHS: The Promoting Alternative THinking Strategies curriculum is used in a number of countries and is aimed at reducing aggressive and disruptive classroom behaviour by promoting empathy and responsible decision-making. The latest version of the PATHS curriculum focuses on each individual grade, from pre-school to year 6.

The Good Behaviour Game: The Good Behaviour Game reduces disruptive behaviour by encouraging students in groups to ignore pre-determined bad behaviour and focus on their peers’ good behaviour. Teachers who practise positive reinforcement have found this game easy to implement and just as effective. It engages the students in rewarding the good behaviour of their peers and not giving attention to disruptive behaviour. In one study, aggressive students who played the Good Behaviour Game were found to have decreased aggression in subsequent years.

Classroom strategies for dealing with ODD

  • A regular reminder of the teacher’s understanding and respect for the student.
  • A reward system – students with ODD do much better with rewards than sanctions.
  • Opportunities for the student to demonstrate the skills they do well.
  • When the schedule changes or a different activity has been scheduled, prepare children with ODD individually.
  • Praise positive behaviour both individually and for others to hear.
  • Remind the student that you are not the cause of their defiance but rather its outlet.
  • Remind yourself that you are human and may need a moment (or more) to calm down and redirect your frustration – and that this is okay.

Success stories

Student A was placed in a private school by her father after she caused great disruption with her ODD behaviour at her previous mainstream school. He teacher said: “She was very angry after her parents’ divorce. Her father had custody and all her anger was taken out on her teachers. When a project was given she would roll her eyes and refuse to do anything. I would ignore her insolent stares and say that she could start when she felt ready.

“After everyone else was absorbed in what they were doing she would see she wasn’t getting any attention, nor did she have anyone to talk to, so she would start. Eventually, her defensiveness dropped and she was just like any other child in my class, although she remained confrontational with those teachers who didn’t have a clear and consistent approach to working with her.”

The teacher offers a further example of working with ODD students: “At a mainstream school I worked at, one of the teachers knew just how to deal with a boy with ODD and ADHD. When the student became difficult he would suggest in a friendly manner that he take a walk around the school to check on various things. He would suggest, for example, ‘see if the doves are still sitting on eggs in the tree in the courtyard’. The boy never took longer than five minutes, after which he would return to class, report back on his mission and be ready to carry on. There was no loss of face in this interaction. It seems that this teacher ‘read’ the youngster well and had no confrontational issues with the boy.”


Working with a student exhibiting ODD can be challenging on several levels; on the professional level, facing a belligerent student in the middle of class can seem like you are chasing your tail.

From the two vignettes above, it can be seen that engaging in a confrontation will only fuel the situation. In contrast, what worked for both teachers was remaining calm and not adding fuel to the fire. Each teacher had a certain rapport with the ODD student, based on respect and acceptance, as well as the maintenance of boundaries.

It is also important to remember that working with ODD children who seem to reject any gesture of good can take a toll on the teacher’s emotional resources and patience. Therefore, it is imperative to understand the mechanisms behind ODD and the techniques that can help make the ride smoother for both teacher and pupil.

  • Dr Nicola Davies is a consultant psychologist and freelance writer.

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I work in a school where I know a student with ODD. This is not a made up disability due to defiant behavior. The student doesn’t just ignore, he gets up and tries to leave to go home, he kicks the door, he has and can be aggressive to anyone who stands in his way. These kids test their limits and try to seek control. They cannot handle their emotions and their defiance to authority becomes their outlet uncontrollably and deliberately. Not an easy disability to deal with.
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Only someone who has no experience of ODD would say that. Lou you really need to think about this. Why would the authorities acknowledge these set of symptoms as a behaviour disorder if it didn't exist? If it's just an excuse for bad parenting and badly behaved kids then I think we'd all come under that banner at some point in our lives. Having a son who has recently been diagnosed with ODD and having been through hell for the last 14 years trying to get someone to acknowledge that he was 'different' to other kids has not been a walk in the park and a disorder that both he and my family could have done without. Had I known I would have just come to you for a diagnosis and we'd be sorted! We aren't a 'troubled' family - we are quite the opposite with two professional parents and a loving extended family. Please think before typing these kind of comments as some of us are going through something you know nothing about.
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Ok Lou so if your the expert and think it's a load of rubbish what would you suggest is wrong with our kids and how should we deal with it. Also if you think this is rubbish why are you subscribing to it. My child has adhd and odd he's not really a bad kid he is an ill child in need of help which he is beginning
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Lou, is demonstrating the perfect response of an ODD individual. Challenging authority and being disrespectful. Lou, your behavior is showing me you are in need of attention.
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What isn't rubbish Lou is that our children are facing mental health issues and the aim is to provide consistent and robust support to help them learn coping strategies, resilience and experience success to build their self confidence. People who refuse to acknowledge these challenges by way of a lack of understanding make our job so much more difficult.
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ODD is the biggest load of psychological rubbish and yet another label that parents and children use to justify their behaviour.
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