What Is ODD in Kids? What Teachers Need To Know

Third grade teacher Ms. Kim is really struggling with her student Aiden. Every day, he argues over simple things, seemingly just for the sake of causing trouble. He refuses to take responsibility for his behavior, even when caught in the act. And today, Aiden tore up a fellow student’s art project after that student wouldn’t let him use their red marker. His parents say he’s the same at home. A school counselor finally suggests that many of these behaviors line up with the symptoms of ODD in kids—oppositional defiant disorder.

What is ODD?

Oppositional defiant disorder, commonly known as ODD, is a behavioral disorder in which children are—as the name suggests—defiant to the degree that it interferes with their daily lives. The DSM-5, published by the American Psychiatric Association, defines it as a pattern of angry, vindictive, argumentative, and defiant behavior that lasts at least six months.

In an article on Headteacher Update, Dr. Nicola Davies sums it up this way: “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.”

Between 2% and 16% of the population may have ODD, and we’re not entirely sure of the causes. Scientists believe it could be genetic, environmental, biological, or a mix of all three. It’s diagnosed more often in young boys than girls, though by their teen years, both seem to be equally affected. It co-occurs in many kids with ADHD, with some studies indicating up to 50% of students with ADHD also have ODD.

What does ODD in kids look like?

We Are Teachers

We all know that kids of a certain age, especially toddlers and teenagers, are pretty much always arguing and defying. In fact, those can be appropriate behaviors at those ages, as kids test the world around them and learn how it works.

However, ODD is a whole lot more than that, to the point where students with ODD disrupt their own lives and often the lives of everyone around them. Kids with ODD 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.

Defiance and Arguing

Most kids go through a phase where “no” is their favorite word, but for students with ODD, that phase never ends. They question everything, all the time, and consistently refuse to comply with rules and requests. Their need for argument may lead them to deliberately annoy others in an attempt to create conflict. However, they usually refuse to take responsibility for their mistakes or behaviors, blaming others for everything.

Anger and Irritability

These are the kids who seem angry all the time and fly off the handle at the slightest provocation. Their overreactions may devolve into temper tantrums, not just occasionally but frequently. Therefore, every conversation you have with them seems to be a struggle.


The ongoing anger of kids with ODD can lead to vindictiveness and a need for revenge. They are spiteful and retaliatory, holding grudges and demanding punishment for others.

Not surprisingly, these behaviors cause students with ODD to struggle both at home and in school. It’s hard for them to make friends, and their schoolwork often suffers too. They may become depressed or anxious, or develop conduct or substance abuse disorders as they grow older. Early identification and treatment are vital to helping these kids.

How can teachers help kids with ODD?

It’s vital that teachers and parents work together to help students with ODD. The experienced teachers in the We Are Teachers Helpline group on Facebook suggest trying these methods at school and at home. Find more ideas at Conscious Discipline.

Take a Look at Your Discipline System

Conscious Discipline technique poster
Conscious Discipline

Many teachers use traditional discipline systems in our classrooms. This pattern of “first warning, second warning, loss of privilege, call to parents” focuses on punishment, which is often ineffective or even counter-productive when dealing with students with ODD. Conscious Discipline, a company that provides professional development for teachers that focuses on positive brain-based discipline techniques, offers an alternative approach that centers on building connection and structuring the environment to better teach the desired behavior.

Conscious Discipline recommends a progression of providing additional verbal and visual reminders of appropriate behaviors, assisting the child in applying the skill, and/or helping the child get to a composure learning center called “The Safe Place.” If the negative behavior persists, Conscious Discipline recommends creating a behavior plan that focuses on safety, connection, and problem-solving. These three components tie into the Conscious Discipline Brain State Model, which relates behaviors to brain state and unmet needs. Behavior plans for students with ODD will often require interventions aimed at building positive connections as well as safety measures that help soothe the brain. The final step includes employing a logical consequence that is reasonable, respectful, and related to the desired behavior or skill we want the child to display.

It’s essential to remember, especially for students with ODD, that consequences are only effective when the child feels connected, understands the behavior or skill they are expected to perform, and has previously shown success with that behavior or skill. If the child lacks any one of these components, applying a consequence is likely to worsen the behavior rather than improve it.

Give Them Space To Reset

Kids with ODD can learn to recognize when they’re feeling overwhelmed and getting ready to challenge or defy. Giving them a safe space to calm down and rethink their choices can be beneficial. Calm-down corners or Safe Places have become popular in classrooms for this very reason. “Put out books, coloring, LEGO bricks, etc., in a place where they can go on their own when they feel like they need a break,” says Tobey G. in the We Are Teachers Helpline. “Often immediately after activities with a lot of stimulation, these kids need a safe space to calm down. Let them decide if and when they need to excuse themselves.” Conscious Discipline reminds teachers of the importance of making these spaces locations where students can practice self-regulation techniques rather than simply spots where they passively wait for the tough feelings to subside.

Give Them Choices

Kids with ODD are looking for control. Rather than letting them drive the situation, you can give them a feeling of control while maintaining control yourself. “Always give choices,” advises educator Holli A. “State your choices—then walk away. 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.”

As in other situations, it pays to stay consistent in your classroom rules and discipline. “After I give choices, I always reinforce the classroom rules and procedures and follow up with an appropriate consequence,” says Kristel R. “You cannot falter; stick to your rules and follow through.”

Make Sure Your Reward System Reinforces the Right Things

While many of us have used reward systems in our classrooms, several new studies indicate that traditional reward systems can do more harm than good if not used properly. They can shift students’ focus from the task we want them to complete to the desire for the reward and even promote a “what’s in it for me?” attitude. With this in mind, it’s important to ensure any reward system is used only when we have a positive plan in place that doesn’t simply rely on rewarding a student for not acting out.

Kids with ODD often respond to positive behavior reinforcement. It’s helpful to offer them a chance to earn certain privileges, rather than taking those privileges away as punishment. For instance, give them the ability to earn screen time when they promptly do as they’re asked, instead of threatening to take away screens when they defy.

When using a reward system, make sure that it is appropriate and isn’t perceived as manipulation. Educator Leslie L. uses a behavior tracking system and a reward system where students can turn in points for an incentive (iPad time, lunch with a teacher, etc.). “I also build breaks right into their schedule,” adds Leslie. “And I try to be as patient and understanding as I possibly can.”

Teacher Erica M. also uses a point system checklist with options A and B. If they do each one, they earn “points” for an incentive, which often is iPad time during the last 15 minutes of class. “Find an interest and use that to your advantage!” Erica says.

A list of 8 strategies teachers can use when helping students with Oppositional Defiant Disorder to de-escalate
We Are Teachers

Avoid Power Struggles

Most teachers agree: Stay out of those winless power struggles. As Kris W. said, “Pick your battles. A student of mine corrects me all the time, whether I am wrong or not. I answer back, ‘OK, let’s double-check that.’ If I made a mistake, I correct it, and we move on; if he’s wrong, I silently let him figure it out.”

Make Personal 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. Building a connection with them will help get to the root of the behavior.

“Almost all of my students have ODD, and I have a great relationship with most of them,” says Kendra J. “Find out what they are interested in and have conversations on their level during breaks.” Allow them to set goals and decide together what the consequences will be if they don’t meet the goal.

Carol H. says, “Find something at the student’s interest level. I once had a middle school girl who hated all of her teachers and was out of control. She would curse at adults and peers, scratch, bite, and refuse to complete work. I found out she played soccer for a travel team. So did my son. A few weeks into the school year, she had a game adjacent to my son’s, and I was able to watch her play. It changed everything. She is a freshman in college now, and we still keep in touch.”

Find ODD Resources

This is just an overview of what students with ODD are facing. Educate yourself about the condition to find more ways to understand and help these kids in your classroom.



Have more questions about kids with ODD? Come share your thoughts and ask for advice in the We Are Teachers Helpline group on Facebook.

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What is ODD in kids, and how can teachers help their students with ODD? Learn what oppositional defiant disorder looks like in the classroom.

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