Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD) and Special Education Services

Oppositional defiance disorder (ODD) is a condition that causes people to develop a pattern of excessively challenging behavior towards superiors. While it shows up differently in boys than in girls, the disorder can create a chaotic environment both at home and in the classroom. This guide is perfect for parents and teachers who are dealing with children dealing with ODD. It covers what ODD is, ODD symptoms, ODD treatment, and more. 

Everything You Need to Know About ODD

Children with ODD can be extremely difficult for parents and teachers to work with. Continue reading to gain a better understanding of this disorder and how you can better work with a child with ODD. 

  • What is ODD?
  • ODD Symptoms
  • Types of ODD
  • What Causes ODD?
  • ODD in the Classroom
  • ODD Treatment
  • ODD and Conduct Disorder
  • Adults with ODD

What is ODD?

ODD is when a child displays a pattern of certain negative behavior towards a person of authority. These can include irritable moods, defiant behavior, and vindictiveness. The disorder can result in negative outcomes with teachers, family, and classmates. While these behaviors are normal in children younger than two years old, it can develop into ODD when it lasts over six months or longer than usual for the child’s age. 

ODD Symptoms

Children with ODD aren’t just argumentative, they are deliberately antagonistic, rageful, and vindictive. They often engage in disruptive, angry, and violent behavior with authority figures like teachers and parents. Boys with ODD engage in more aggressive behaviors, while girls with ODD typically demonstrate more indirect behaviors like lying and refusing to cooperate. 

People with ODD can demonstrate the following behaviors. 

  • Angry or irritable moods
  • Frequent loss of temper
  • Easily annoyed
  • Disrespectful
  • Refusal to comply with rules
  • Attempt to annoy others
  • Blame others for mistakes
  • Excessively argumentative
  • Vindictiveness
  • Says hateful things

Types of ODD

ODD is typically categorized into two categories. 

Childhood-onset ODD appears in children from a very early age. These children can be difficult to raise, and parents should seek immediate treatment strategies to prevent the disorder from becoming more serious. 

Adolescent-onset ODD occurs in children seemingly out of nowhere. These children were well-behaved until their middle school or high school years before experiencing a drastic regression of behavior. 

What Causes ODD?

There are two main theories believed to cause ODD in children. 

The learning theory suggests that ODD symptoms are learned behaviors. Children may have developed these habits by mirroring the negative reinforcement tactics that people in power have used with them. For example, if parents have rewarded the child with attention after screaming, the child is more likely to develop a habit of screaming. 

The developmental theory suggests that ODD symptoms start showing up when children are toddlers and continue into adolescence. People who support this theory believe that ODD behaviors are normal developmental issues that last longer than usual. 

Many researchers believe that environmental factors, genetic factors, biological factors, and related disorders also play a role. 

Environmental factors that cause ODD can stem from an unstable family life, inconsistent discipline practices, and a family history of substance abuse. 

ODD can also be caused by genetic factors from family members with personality disorders, anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and mental disorders. 

Biological factors like defects or injuries to the brain can hamper the way the brain communicates with the body. When neurotransmitters are disrupted and messages aren’t getting through, this can lead to ODD-related symptoms. 

Related disorders like attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can increase the risk of an ODD diagnosis. In fact, some studies indicate that nearly 50 percent of children with ADHD have ODD. 

ODD in the Classroom

Students with ODD can disrupt the classroom and negatively impact both teachers and peers. These students can be unreasonably defiant and demonstrate misbehavior that is far more frequent and extreme than their peers. Fortunately, there are some useful steps that teachers can take to manage and improve these behaviors. 

Try to identify what triggers ODD-related behaviors in a student. Notice when and where the problem behavior is observed, and what may be contributing to it. You can also spot warning signs like clenching teeth, balling fists, learning disengagement, or facial agitation in a student. Knowing these triggers and warning signs can help you prevent him or her from acting out. 

When a student does misbehave, it’s important to never respond with anger. Acting angry or upset can often encourage or amuse the student and cause the behavior to escalate. The best approach is to show a neutral body language and keep a positive tone of voice. Never invade the child’s personal space and be consistent with your responses. 

Always remember to reinforce positive behavior. Instead of scolding the student for acting negatively, try to focus more on encouraging positive actions. Rather than removing privileges for student misbehavior, focus on rewarding positive behavior with greater privileges. Even if they are small improvements, show the student that you appreciate their new behaviors. 

Another way to improve ODD student behavior is to build an informal connection with him or her. A teacher-student relationship must have boundaries, but by taking the time to connect with the student on a non-school related topic you can improve their behavior. Ask the child about his or her life and actively listen. Most students will appreciate your effort and display more favorable behaviors going forward. 

One strategy used by a Nashville elementary school added a “peace corner” to the classroom. Students struggling are sent to this safe space to calm down and reflect. The corner includes a timer, comfortable seat, and distractions like squeeze toys, stuffed animals, and journals that allow students to write down how they’re feeling. 

It also has a strategy for letting upset teachers calm down during tense situations. This “tap-in/tap-out” strategy gives teachers the opportunity to text a colleague to briefly cover the class and let them take a break. The teacher can then calm down outside the classroom and re-enter when they’re ready to resume teaching. 

Finally, teachers can offer choices to students instead of creating ultimatums. An ultimatum like, “Quiet down or I’ll send you to the office”, should be avoided if possible. Instead, give the child a choice. 

For example, you could say, “I understand you are excited, but it’s not okay to yell in class. You can either go sit in the reading chair for 10 minutes or grab a drink of water and come back to class.” Offering choices reduces the chance of a nonproductive argument from happening.

ODD Treatment

Parents play an enormous role in treating their children with ODD. There are several programs that parents can try to improve their child’s behavior. 

Parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT) involves a parent and a child interacting during a coaching session. During the session, the parent and child are in the playroom, while a therapist is observing the interaction through a one-way mirror or video feed. Parents receive an earpiece through which the therapist guides them through the interaction. 

The goal of PCIT is to teach the parent how to handle misbehavior and teach the child to behave more appropriately. With consistent effort, a PCIT program can typically be completed within 12 to 20 sessions.

Defiant Teens is an 18-step program used to teach parents how to improve family relationships and manage child misbehavior. The first nine steps are focused on the developmental concerns of adolescence. The remaining steps focus on a family therapy model for parents and teenagers to use together. 

Parent management training (PMT) is used to treat children with ODD, intermittent explosive disorder (IED), disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD), ADHD, anxiety, and conduct disorder (CD). The program is meant for children aged 2 to 17, and it has a 92% success rate in decreasing oppositional behavior, defiance, and aggression in children. 

The Incredible Years is a comprehensive treatment program for young children with conduct problems, ADHD, and autism. It involves children, parents, and teachers, and its goal is to get rid of behavior issues and promote academic, emotional, and social competence in children. 

Positive Parenting Program (Triple P) is another evidence-based program for improving child behavior. The program helps parents prevent undesirable child actions, confidently manage child behavior, and help children form healthy and strong relationships. The program has been used in over 30 countries and is backed by over three decades of research. 

Children with ODD can also be treated with social skills training, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). Medications used to treat ODD include antidepressant medication, stimulant medication, and antipsychotic medication. 

ODD and Conduct Disorder

Children with ODD who are untreated have a higher risk of developing conduct disorder. Conduct disorder is more severe than ODD, and it’s when children and teenagers show patterns of hurting people and have a lack of empathy. A full list of conduct disorder symptoms are listed below. 

  • Disregard for good behavior and social norms
  • Enjoyment of lying, manipulating, and hurting people
  • Harming animals
  • Acts of physical or sexual violence
  • Ignoring the rights and feelings of others
  • Extreme bullying
  • Lying, cheating, or stealing for no reason
  • Destroying property

If these symptoms persist for several months, it’s a sign the child may have developed conduct disorder. To treat conduct disorder, parents can use behavioral therapy and psychotherapy to improve behavior. 

Adults with ODD

ODD is not exclusive to children. The disorder can persist into adulthood, and that’s why it’s so important to treat people with ODD as soon as possible. While this disorder can last a lifetime, it can also become less disruptive as a child grows up. If ODD worsens in adulthood, the person is at risk of developing antisocial personality disorder. ODD in adults can lead to issues in work, relationships, marriage, and substance abuse. 


Understanding how ODD works will equip you to better handle your child or student who’s showing common symptoms. ODD is a disorder that causes people to develop a pattern of negative behaviors related to aggression, vindictiveness, and disrespect. It can take the form of childhood-onset ODD in young children or adolescent-onset ODD in older children. 

Probable causes of ODD include learned misbehaviors, postponed development, and environmental, genetic, and biological factors. There are ways for teachers to improve the behaviors of students with ODD in the classroom, and parents can play a big role in treatment options. If left untreated, ODD can develop into conduct disorder or last into the child’s adulthood. 

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About the author

Emily Cummings

I am a mom of two crazy, amazing, independent, little feminists. They bring so much light to my life and a lot less sleep. Since becoming a mother and increasingly in the last year, I have witnessed parents struggling to connect with their child's special education team with no success. I have become more aware of the gaps in our public school system and how parents may benefit from empowerment and advocacy tools.

My work experiences range from a juvenile detention center to an autism specialist in the Issaquah School District and a special education teacher in a self-contained program in the Lake Washington School District. My master's in teaching focused on special education and behavioral disorders from Seattle Pacific University. I completed my BCBA coursework from Montana State University.

Want to get in touch?

I'm happy to help however I can. Email me at hello at behaviorist .com.

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