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.
I 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.