* O is for Oppositional defiant disorder

As a longtime teacher of kids with emotional and behavior disabilities, I did see my share of students with a clinical diagnosis of ODD.  Oppositional Defiant Disorder is more than crankiness or ‘tude.  It is characterized by at least 6 months of a frequent and persistent pattern of anger, irritability, arguing, defiance or vindictiveness toward others.

ODDI found that these kids usually struggled with ADHD as well.  More than that, their parents were harsh and inconsistent, often neglectful and abusive.  Many of the parents were at least as oppositional as their kids, and occasionally, both kids and parents were acting out at school.  And with relatives. And in the neighborhood.  And with the law.  These families were frequently shattered and poor, with substance abuse issues and limited education.

Genetic or environmental?  Both probably.  It didn’t really matter.  I was occasionally successful in forming alliances with parents to improve their responses to kids, but mostly that was a wash.  Instead, I focused on my relationship with these kids.  What did I do?

  • Set clear and consistent boundaries and expectations.  My classroom management system was overloaded with positives and a predictable, calm response to misbehavior.  It cost me a small fortune to keep my classroom “store” stocked with goodies; I also spent a lot of time with kids out of school in mentoring relationships.
  • Created powerfully engaging projects, an abundance of field trips, and a classroom of pets (those were the days before school boards outlawed critters in classes).  I also encouraged kids to participate in woodworking and other projects from which they would normally be excluded.  What?  Give these kids a saw?  Oh yes.  And take them everywhere, publicly?  Yes!  I wanted them to empower them, to help them become fearless without hurting others.
  • Taught social skills all the time and enlisted kids from other classrooms to serve as buddies.

Was I successful?  A lot of the time.  By the time they were aging out of my class, they usually looked terrific at school.  Unfortunately, leaving my class was traumatic for those who had become especially close to me and my assistants.  The kids were still living in those desperate environments.  They had been slow to trust me and now had to start afresh with new teachers.  Some of these kiddos still stay in touch with me and have started their own, more successful families.  Some are in jail.  I loved each one of those kids except the one I thought was on his way to becoming a serial killer.  And that’s another story altogether.

* Oppositional and defiant kids #1

Let me describe Tim.  When I first saw him, he was under a desk, trying to whack kids’ legs with a ruler.  He immediately noticed my arrival and scowled.  I remained impassive and waited until he looked away before I started recording the observation on my clipboard.  Within 10 minutes, I had several pages of notes on his behavior.  He interrupted the teacher, refused her directions to leave his spot under the desk, and made threatening faces and gestures towards his classmates.  He ended up locking himself in the bathroom.  I sighed and left the classroom.  Tim was on track for a special education label; the referral listed behavior problems as a primary factor, including aggression, hyperactivity, noncompliance, and bullying.  He was also a non-reader in first grade.

His background information was pretty dismal.  His father was in jail, his mother struggled with him and a “delinquent” older brother, and there was a family history of psychological and learning problems.  His mother said she had finally learned to read in high school.

After my observation, I was most struck by how quickly he spotted me when I came in the room.  There was something in his scowling expression that made me think of embarrassment.  I kept that in mind, remembering how many oppositional kids I’d taught who were non-readers. I started forming hypotheses about Tim’s problems in school.  No, I didn’t write them down and they were all tangled with one another, but here’s a more manageable version what I was thinking:

Hypothesis #1:  Tim was acting out because he couldn’t read.  He’d rather be a terror than stupid, but nevertheless believed he was stupid.  Fact:  When the psychologist completed a cognitive evaluation (IQ test), Tim had a profile that was all over the map, but did have some above average numbers in there.

Hypothesis #2:  His brother was probably struggling with the same reading and behavior issues and therefore tormented Tim.  Tim’s response was to torment smaller kids.  Fact:  His mom confirmed some horror stories regarding his brother’s bullying.  Tim was larger than his classmates, having already been retained in kindergarten.

Hypothesis #3:  Tim did not feel safe or loved.  Fact: see #2 above.

Hypothesis #4: Tim had a serious reading disability.  Fact:  He could not identify all the letters of the alphabet, for starters.  He could not read or write his name.  (And in real life, “Tim’s” name was relatively long.)

Even during the special education labeling process, I pulled Tim into my room for further assessment and to start some relationship building.  He was anxious and oppositional, even on the way to my room.  I used my typical reward system with him, five happy faces on a chart equaled “free time,” an opportunity to use the computer, play with Legos, etc. for a prescribed period of time at the end of a session.   I also used my “three strikes and you’re out” system (no happy face if he had 3 reminders from me to follow directions).  However, as with all newbies, I kept the “reminders” in a prompt category so he could experience initial success.  (To clarify, I would redirect him, praise him even for looking at me, and continue the activity without counting my redirection as a “reminder.”  I tightened up that approach  slowly and carefully.)  Combined with simple but engaging activities, he was immediately successful.   I also kept my ratio of praise to correction really high, at least 6:1, even in the hallway (especially in the hallway!).  I had talked to his mom and him about his interests and incorporated those into our lessons.

Tim was finally placed and eligible for services with me.  Apart from keeping him out of the classroom (where he was miserable and made everyone else miserable),  my primary focus was getting him under voice control.   I steered clear of  obvious reading tasks.  Instead, I had him creatively decorate his name, using every kind of material I could find (pasta, beads, clay, Legos, cereal, etc.).  I displayed these all over the room and could see that Tim cared a lot about success at school (despite his nonchalance as I drew attention to these name cards).  I stifled other kids’ potential remarks about his “baby work” by regularly reminding kids that everyone was responsible for their OWN work.

Tim disliked all the other kids in his group.  After a couple of sessions, the feeling was mutual.  I kept praising the kids for saying kind things to one another and set up a bonus system for positive comments.  Tim actually became a top earner for positive comments, but I kept a close watch on his hands and feet at all times.  I added Tim to a social skills group, where his flair for drama was useful.  We role-played how to make friends, what to say when frustrated, and watched puppets who described their own struggles in school.  Tim was fascinated with puppets.  At first, Tim’s puppets were quite aggressive, but my reminder system held him in check.  My room was a very safe place for Tim, with consistency and (teacher) acceptance.

Some other strategies that worked well:

  • Role-playing and videotaping.   Tim loved watching his role plays on videotape.  He learned to sit in a chair and pretend to work.  Not long after starting his sessions with me, he began to sit quietly in his classroom, also pretending to work.
  • Extreme modifications to his classroom work.  I created basic, sort-of-reading assignments for him and fastened them into a serious-looking, third grade workbook cover.  Tim then appeared to be working above grade level.  He would not let anyone get close without slamming his workbook shut and glaring.  Most kids didn’t want to get too close, anyway.
  • Gradual introduction to specialized reading instruction.  I mean, this was gradual.  Like watching-a-plant-grow gradual.  His inability to read was near the core of his anger about himself and school.  Even though I knew that he must learn to read, I had to approach it with kid gloves or risk losing his willingness to try.

Wow, this post is getting long.  I will fast forward a bit.

It took me a year to truly love Tim.  I was inwardly upset that he hurt other kids, although my behavior towards him was always positive and calm.  I discovered that his memory was something akin to a blank hard drive.  It took him over a year to memorize his name.  I can only imagine how he felt about school, but he tried hard and actually started learning to read.  His behavior was no longer a routine problem in the classroom, but he continued to be an aggressor at recess if not monitored.  Tim made his way through elementary school with pull-out support and I lost track of him in middle school.