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.


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.


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?!”


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.


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  Key. Communicating 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.


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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