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What is the best way to work with oppositional defiant high school students?

The first thing to keep in mind is this 10 letter word: PREVENTION. Once an ODD student has it out for you (i.e., you’re on his/her hit list), then it is nearly impossible to re-establish a positive relationship with that child. It is helpful to understand how ODD children think when trying to come up with prevention methods.

How does a student with ODD think?
  • “Because I know how much you want me to change, I will be very stubborn about changing behaviors.”
  • “I am equal to those in authority.”
  • “In spite of experiencing your intended punishments and/or rewards, if I change, it will be on my time and for me.”
  • “My greatest sense of control comes from how I make others feel.”
  • “No one has the right to tell me what to do.”
  • “When you punish or reward me, I feel that you are trying to control or manipulate me.”
  • “Yes, I sometimes do the wrong thing, but it is usually your fault.”

Now let’s look at the prevention methods that work best with ODD students:

1. Act, don’t discuss. Prompt actions work better than trying to reason with a student that has ODD. It can quickly turn argumentative.

2. Address the student’s basic needs of belonging, competence, independence, and generosity.

3. Avoid disliking the ODD student (he/she will pick up on your ‘dislike’ because ODD kids are very perceptive).

4. Build a good relationship through consistent boundaries and respectful attitudes.

5. Create a distraction. Think of a happy or funny moment and remind the student of it.

6. Create a predictable environment within the classroom and have a safe-haven for the student (some place he/she can go when he/she need space).

7. Do not bring up the past. You can do nothing to change it.

8. Don’t ‘react’. Do ‘act’. If you react, you are giving the student exactly what he/she wants.

9. Educate yourself thoroughly about ODD.

10. Embrace the student’s feelings, “I see that this is really important to you.”

11. Find an area of interest or expertise and ask for the student’s help.

12. Find the time to help the student develop life skills for impulse control, anger-management, decision-making skills, and social-skills.

13. Have clear rules and appropriate consequences in place.

14. Have the ODD student answer the question, “What has anger done for you lately?”

15. Have the student get involved in a service-learning project.

16. Help the student set a goal each day. Also, help him/her monitor success.

17. Help the entire family. Educate family about ODD (if needed) and work together to help the student.

18. Keep a relaxed facial expression when the ODD student “gets to you” (i.e., he/she says or does something that makes you angry). Composure is contagious (i.e., you stay calm – the ODD student will likely stay calm too).

19. Keep a volcano calendar: Use an illustration to help the student keep track of the intensity and frequency of anger situations.

20. Know that an ODD child is, by definition “oppositional.” This means, in a way, that he/she will do the “opposite” of what you ‘want’ or ‘need’. Thus, be careful not to use phrases like, “I need you to pay attention” … “I want you to sit with your head up” … “I would like for you to stop tapping your pencil” …etc. You will likely get the opposite of what you want in these cases.

21. Phrase directions as statements not as questions. If you ask an ODD student to do something he/she probably won’t.

22. Pick your battles carefully. Keep in mind the struggles that students with ODD go through every day and be willing to ignore some of the less serious behavior.

23. Practice emotional neutrality.

24. Send the student on an errand if you anticipate a resistant behavior.

25. Take a time-out to cool down when things get heated (e.g., “I need some time to think about the points you are making”). A short walk down the hallway and back can be very helpful in gaining your composure. If the ODD student perceives that he/she has pushed one of your buttons, he/she will continue to push, push, and push.

26. Take care of your mental health during off-school hours (e.g., plenty of rest, exercise, healthy food, etc.).

27. Time Projection: Have the student try to imagine 1 or 2 months into the future when he/she is having a difficult time.

28. Trust the student enough to use him/her as a peer-helper.

29. Use behaviors that diminish power struggles (e.g., privacy, listening, simple directives and choices, brevity, walking away, saying “I want you to have the last word”).

30. Use the No-Confidence Approach: You may say, “Hmm, I don’t think you’re ready for this yet.” The ODD student will probably try to prove you wrong.

In summary, remember the following:
  • There are things that work – it may just take some time to find out what they are.
  • Small successes are something to be very proud of.
  • Never take the child’s behavior personally.
  • Keep calm and never get emotional around your ODD student.
  • An ODD child has needs just like every other student. 

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