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4 Ways to Handle Back to School Behavior Problems with Your ODD Child

by Kim Abraham LMSW and Marney Studaker-Cordner LMSW
4 Ways to Handle Back to School Behavior Problems with Your ODD Child

The start of every school year brings all sorts of images to mind: shopping for clothes and school supplies, getting back into a routine of dinner and bedtimes that may have become relaxed during summer, and relief from arguing siblings who have been stuck together 24/7 for the past three months. Many parents are relieved when school starts up again, but for parents of Oppositional Defiant (ODD) kids, this is often a time of anxiety and even dread.

As long as you’re doing your job, it’s your child’s responsibility (and ultimate choice) on whether or not to take you up on those opportunities—and to deal with the natural consequences and find a new path if he doesn’t.

Related: Are you dreading the school year with your defiant child?

Typical School Day in the Life of an ODD Child’s Parent

As the mother of an ODD child, Kim Abraham remembers a “typical school day” in her family’s life:

We’d start the day fighting to get our son up. Even when he was only seven, he’d make himself a dead weight in the bed. Once we got him up, the next challenge was getting him dressed. He literally struggled, argued and fought against every effort we made to get him ready. Long after the school bus passed, he was still in his pajamas, kicking and yelling. In the end, we had to pretty much drag him into the car and my husband would dress him as I drove. If there hadn’t been two of us, he never would have gotten into the car. We’d squeal into the parking lot as the warning bell was ringing and hand him off to the school staff, peeling out before he could scramble back into the car. Then my husband and I would try to pull ourselves together as we faced work and the calls we’d be getting later in the day about our son’s poor behavior. Mornings with our other child were completely different: there was breakfast, getting the backpack together, brushing teeth. There was a routine.  

Was school particularly more traumatic for my ODD child than any other kid? No. He went to the same school as my other child – a school that was free from gangs or serious violence. He was a bright child — gifted in fact — so the work itself wasn’t a struggle. If anything, he was bored. So why did he refuse to go? He just didn’t want to. That’s it. There were other things he’d rather be doing than sitting in class and because he was ODD, he didn’t have the personality that cared about the expectations of his parents, the school or society. He didn’t care that the law said he must attend. He didn’t care about consequences for us — or himself.

Related: Help! Nobody understands what it's like to parent an ODD child.

Who Would Have Thought?!

If you would have asked Kim when her son was born what she expected his school experience to be like, this was not the picture she would have described. Parents of ODD kids are usually in for a rude awakening when their child begins attending school. Transitions are typically difficult, especially between summer break and the new fall year. There’s usually conflict with peers, teachers, the principal and anyone who tries to enforce rules with an ODD child. ODD children fight against rules and being controlled – it’s just their nature. The school setting is not a place where a child who fights authority will be welcomed. One parent we met remembers getting a phone call from cafeteria staff – her daughter had made a mess and was refusing to throw away her napkins. “What do you want me to do,” thought the mom. “Come up there and force her to throw the napkins away?!” 

Related: How to parent the child you have – not the child you wish you had.

The adults in an ODD child’s life have expectations for that child’s behavior and performance. We expect our children to attend school, be on time, respect the rights of others, follow the rules, do their classwork and homework. The problem is, the expectations of society and parents aren’t usually a priority for ODD kids – their own wants and needs are.  Adults continue to hold onto those expectations long after it’s evident a child is refusing to comply. The result for many parents of ODD kids? Daily power struggles.

Is that YOUR Kid?! The One Who’s Always In the Principal’s Office?

Many parents we’ve known have shared experiences working with their child’s school that have left them feeling ashamed, humiliated, frustrated and at times downright furious. It’s a powerful system to encounter and when your child is the one who insists on doing things his or her way, it can turn into an “us vs. them” situation. If your child’s school is open to working with you as a team, that’s wonderful. Many teachers and administrators understand that parenting an ODD child is extremely difficult and offer support when it comes to that child’s education. But often the stress parents and educators feel when dealing with a challenging child comes together in the perfect storm. Everyone starts looking to each other on how to control that child and whose fault his behavior is. Somehow – even though you’re miles away—your daughter’s refusal to participate in an activity or your son’s refusal to do his classwork becomes a reflection on you. The focus can get way, way off track and instead of holding the child accountable, it turns into a blame game.

Related: Tired of the shame and judgment heaped upon you as a parent?

If you’re dreading “back to school” time, here are a few tips to keep in mind about your child’s education: 

  1. Communication is KeyCommunicating with school staff can often feel like an intimidating task. But remember that your child’s teacher and school administrators are often just as frustrated and unsure how to handle his behavior as you are. Try to remember that you’re all working toward the same goal: for your child to become an educated, productive member of society. Keep a notecard handy that reminds you of this goal and pull it out anytime you have phone or in–person contact with the school.
  2. Keep Your Child Responsible. As adults, we can do everything in our power to offer educational opportunities to our children. Transportation, supplies like books and pencils, support in understanding the classwork, clearly communicating rules and expectations are all things we can control as adults. However, in the end, it’s up to your child to take advantage of those opportunities.  Short of putting the textbook on his head and hoping the information just seeps into his brain, there’s no way to force a child to learn material when he is refusing. If he does refuse to complete the work he’ll still learn – he’ll just be learning that there are natural consequences to his choices.
  3. Make Your Child an Educational Partner. Remember: this is your child’s education, not yours. You’ve already gone through school. Perhaps you graduated, perhaps you didn’t. Perhaps yours was a good experience, perhaps it wasn’t. Particularly as she gets older, your child should be an active partner in her educational experience. What does she want? Are there alternative education opportunities that might better meet her needs and still meets society’s legal expectations? Be open to your child’s ideas on what needs to happen for a successful education.
  4. Try Not to Predict the Future. Most of us get frightened – even terrified – when our kids begin to struggle in school. If my child is struggling in the 2nd or 4th or 6th grade, what will happen down the road? The worst case scenario: he may not graduate. That thought strikes fear and disappointment into the hearts of many parents. But what’s the worst case scenario here? Many people succeed in life even though they decide to take an alternate route.  Jobs in the trade and service industries are no less valuable than those that require college or even high school diplomas. Many, many successful people chose not to take their parents and the school system up on the opportunity for a formal education: Ansel Adams (famous photographer), Bryan Adams (singer/songwriter), Nora Roberts (bestselling author), Carl Lindner (self-made American businessman and billionaire), Kevin Bacon and Johnny Depp (actors), Sonny Bono (singer and politician) are some names that come to mind. And remember: just because a child doesn’t take advantage of formal education now doesn’t mean she won’t return to it later in the form of a GED, night school or a college placement test. Having said this, there’s no way to predict that your child won’t successfully graduate, despite struggles in school. But fear can lead us to react, as parents, in a way that contributes to our child’s negative school experience.

Related: How to give "fail-proof" consequences to ODD kids.

Opportunity and Responsibility

In today’s world, parents and educators sometimes put more effort into a child’s education than into the child himself. Education is about more than “book learning.” It should be the time when our children begin to learn about the real world and how they will navigate through that world successfully.

It’s our job as parents, educators and as members of society to offer every child the opportunity to have a formal education. It’s our job to provide a safe environment and ensure that our children have the tools to support them in their learning. If a child is struggling, we need to look at what may be going on. (Is there a learning disability, is he being bullied, is there something interfering with his ability to do well in school?) As long as you’re doing your job, it’s your child’s responsibility (and ultimate choice) on whether or not to take you up on those opportunities—and to deal with the natural consequences and find a new path if he doesn’t.


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Kimberly Abraham, LMSW, has worked with children and families for more than 25 years. She specializes in working with teens with behavioral disorders, and has also raised a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Marney Studaker-Cordner, LMSW, is the mother of four and has been a therapist for 15 years. She works with children and families and has in-depth training in the area of substance abuse. Kim and Marney are the co-creators of The ODD Lifeline for parents of Oppositional, Defiant kids, and Life Over the Influence, a program that helps families struggling with substance abuse issues. Their first children's book, Daisy: The True Story of an Amazing 3-Legged Chinchilla, teaches the value of embracing differences and was the winner of the 2014 National Indie Excellence Children's Storybook Cover Design Award.

READER'S COMMENTS

What's one to do when the school does not discipline the child, but immediately calls home? "Your child did not turn in homework again."- teacher "Did you ask her why? Did you take a way privileges? Did you tell her you were going to call home?" - me "No, no, no. It's your responsibility as the mother..." blah blah blah That is not team work. When school says we offer counseling but upon further research no one has ever been and they don't know how to register child for it. School say they have tried everything and child doesn't know they noticed. When the school takes you to court and I have more documentation than them of both positives and negatives. And the teacher could not even be reach for parent-teacher conferences. What then?

Comment By : frustrated

Well my son is the same way besides I do not have a car and his father has to work so does not have the time to take him to school and so he will run around to keep himself to miss the bus I am recently looking for a good place for him to start counseling.So his Name is Messiah and he does not care about anything but what he wants to do does not listen or anything he does not like school he missed most the year do to some of what I have listed above and he does not like his teacher for missing a lot in school he dose not know what they are working on and he thinks that she makes fun of him cause he does not know I got him evaluated from the doctors but its not (ADHD)and school wont do it do to all the days he has missed I believe that it may also be a learning disability along with something else maybe the (odd) I am asking for help not sure how to put this in a short story but I am concern on how this year will be I am willing to try anything to change the way this has been going and now my 5 year old will be attending the same school and I have to come up with a game plan that can work please help thank you for your time.

Comment By : concern mom

My daughter is 15 and will be a sophomore. She does go to school happily each day as she enjoys the socialization. She does not do homework or study and gets D's in most classes. Our family highly values learning, so this has been so difficult for me. this article reminded me of what my responsibilites are as a parent and what my daughter's responsibilities are. It has also reminded me that if it does not all get done (ie gradutaion) by age 18 that she still as options as an adult. The guilt is the difficult thing. What have I done wrong--well, nothing really. There is also shame when the school or the law calls us. That can trigger me to become angry with my daughter. I am trying to focus on supporting and enjoying the good bits, and letting the other bits go. Thank you for these articles. They truly help.

Comment By : abelwoman

My issue is not quite the same as my daughter does well at school and is very agreeable for her teachers, but at home she refuses to do anything she is asked and doesn't care about the consequences. Getting her to school is hard but once there she applies herself, she resists homework and refuses to do anything she's asked from cleaning teeth to showering or helping around the house.She has been diagnosed with ODD so why does it appear selective?

Comment By : Frustrated

There really could be a consequence that would work. My first grader girl has been refusing to read. She knows her letter sounds, but to read requires effort so she doesnt want to...says she doesnt care and she's too young to really see that reading is a necessity. So since to her TV and/or movies is a necessity, I very calmly have told her that if she works on reading she can watch some TV. I have now also made TV not allowed during the week, because it had totally become the only thing that my kids wanted to do....they have toys, bikes, friends outside, dogs, all the stuff and that was the only thing they could think of....so now, they make things, color, draw, play outside , and the little one is reading so she can watch TV. Try it...no anger, just matter of fact ...unplug the TV.

Comment By : LGorman

You just described my son to a T. This is exactly how our experience has been. I pulled him out of public school in the middle of sixth grade. He asked to be put back in when he started high school (8th grade here), and he lasted about three months. I told him three strikes and you are out. And on the third suspension, I pulled him back out. I home school him, and he does as little as he possibly can and that is with me hounding him. He is 17 and will be 18 at the end of February. I am going to home school until that point and then direct him toward getting his GED. I am that parent that wants him to succeed more than he wants to himself. He has magical thinking and keeps trying to get me to enroll him in different schools. He thinks it will be different, but I know better. One of my favorite Lehman sayings is "Parent the child you do have, not the one you wish you had." That honestly freed me and helped give me the resolve to do what I have done with my son. Reading this article is bittersweet, because it is exactly what I needed to hear. So many people have no idea of what it is like to parent and ODD child. Thank you.

Comment By : Alice

I don't know if I have an ODD son but it seems like it. How can I tell if he is ODD, is there some sort of test? He started having problems in school in 7th grade and have gotten worse. His behavior also has gotten worse since 8th grade to the point that now in High School he has no respect for me or my daughter. He swears so much and bullies my daughter and me. I am a single parent and he says he's the king of the house and that I am weak. Last year in his freshmen year I pulled him out in the middle of the school year because he was doing nothing and getting straight Fs. I thought home schooling would work but it didn't he just would not do the work. Now for his softmore year he is begging me not to put him back in public school that he will do the home schooling work but I had given him 4 chances and he still wouldn't do his work. I feel that he has become antisocial and is anxious about being with other students. He also doesn't like to go to restaurants or to the store, he rather sit in the car. How can I deal with him? I tried counseling, psychologists, but they were no help at all. Please help. Thank you.

Comment By : Liz

* To “Frustrated”: You ask an excellent question. Though often times children with an ODD diagnosis will exhibit defiant type behaviors across all settings, it’s not unusual for there to be more defiant behavior at home than in other settings. There are some great articles that are also written by Kim Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner which specifically address ODD. Here are some that may be helpful for you and your situation: Defiant Child Behavior: Is Your Child's Bad Behavior Escalating?, Parenting ODD Children and Teens: How to Make Consequences Work and ODD Kids and Behavior: 5 Things You Need to Know as a Parent. I hope this has been helpful. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

* To “concern mom”: Thank you for sharing your story with us. It sounds like you have been dealing with a lot of behaviors over the past couple of years. It can be worrisome when your child continues to make choices you know are not in his best interest. Let’s focus on what you can control in this situation, namely, how you respond to your son and how you hold him accountable for the choices he is making. It may be helpful to come up with expectations around morning routine, such as what time he will get up, what tasks he will need to complete and by what time he will need to be ready to leave the house. You can then link daily electronics privileges to whether or not he meets those expectations. For example, he can earn his electronics privileges if he completes his morning routine and goes to school. If he doesn’t meet those expectations, then he doesn’t have access to his electronics for that day but he can have another opportunity to earn them the next day. At this point, we would suggest focusing on one thing at a time. Since he is having a hard time getting to school, that may be a logical first step to focus on. Then, once he is attending fairly regularly, you can start to focus on another behavior. Here is another article that you may find helpful as you address this behavior with your son: Beat the Back to School Power Struggle in 30 Days (The Secret? Start Now!). From what you have written, it seems like you feel unsupported by the school system. You might consider contacting the Special Services or Special Education department of your school district. If you are interested in having your son evaluated for possible learning disabilities, someone there would be able to explain to you what the process for that is within your district. Something to keep in mind is that there are federal mandates that all school districts must follow when it comes to determining if a child is eligible for Special Servies. If for any reason you do not feel your concerns are being taken seriously, you can also contact your state Department of Education. Most states have mediation or advocacy programs that can help you develop a plan of action for helping you work with your school. We wish you and your family luck as you continue to work throught this challenge with your son. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

* To “Liz”: It can be difficult to determine whether a teen’s behavior is normal developmental behavior or defiance caused by ODD. If you believe your son’s behavior is being affected by an underlying issue we would suggest talking with your family doctor about your concerns. When talking with the doctor, it will be helpful to also include any other behaviors you may be seeing, such as his anxiety around school and his preference to stay in the car instead of going into a restaurant or store. Your doctor would be able to determine if a referral should be made to have your son evaluated. Keep in mind, even if he is diagnosed with ODD or another disorder, that doesn’t give him an excuse to behave inappropriately. As James Lehman states in his article, When Kids Get Violent: “There’s No Excuse for Abuse”, regardless of what may be going on for your son, there is no excuse for abuse. The behavior you mention can be difficult to deal with on a daily basis. Many of the parents we speak with on the Parental Support Line describe how frustrated and exhausted they can become parenting a child who is defiant. It’s important to take care of yourself as well as your children. Sometimes it can be helpful to have someone you can talk to when you are having a hard time dealing with the situation. It may be helpful to find out if there is any sort of support group or counselor who works with parents in situations similar to yours. The 211 National Helpline is a great resource available across the country to put you in contact with services in your area. You can reach the Helpline by calling 1-800-273-6222 or by logging onto 211.org. We would also encourage you to continue reading the articles and blogs on Empowering Parents. Here are a couple of other articles you mind find helpful as you continue to work through this situation: My ODD Child is Physically Abusive to Siblings and Parents—Help!, Is Your Defiant Child Damaging or Destroying Property? & Calm Parenting: Anger Management in Children and Teens. We wish you and your family the best as you continue to work through this challenge. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

* To “frustrated”: Thank you for sharing your story with us. It can be extremely frustrating when you are doing everything you can think of to try to work with the school but the school seems not to want to work with you to help your child be successful. I am sorry this has been your experience. What is probably going to be most effective is to focus on what you can control, namely, how you choose to respond to your daughter’s behavior and how you hold her accountable for not meeting expectations. You mention homework as one of the issues you have been dealing with. Here are a couple of articles that address how to motivate your daughter to do her homework: Homework Hell? Part I: How to Turn It Around & Homework Hell? Part II: 7 Real Techniques That Work. Keep in mind if you believe the school is not meeting your child’s needs, you might also consider calling your state Department of Education and finding out if they can help you. Some states have programs that provide mediators or advocates for parents who are struggling with establishing a working relationship with their child’s school. They may also be able to direct you to other services that may be available in your area. Another great resource is the 211 National Helpline. You can reach the Helpline by calling 1-800-273-6222 or by logging onto 211.org. They can connect you with local services and supports that may be able to help you with your situation. We wish you and your family the best as you continue to work through this challenge. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

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ODD Child Behavior, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Back To School

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