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All images and posts written by and copyright to Amanda Clements (nee Gray) 2009-2012 unless otherwise indicated.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Ask Amanda: Oppositional Defiance Disorder

In August we talked about aggression. I shared The Dreaded Power Struggle on, a social networking site of which I am a member. A fellow member responded, saying that she had experienced a “Can you do this?”-“I’m not doing it!!” power struggle in her classroom.

Her student has oppositional defiant disorder, and she has a great system in place to help deal with the child’s difficulty following instructions. Here is her story… and her question:

“In math, the class was on the carpet for the lesson and she [the student] was lying across the floor. They [the other students] all went back to their seats for independent work, but my student sprawled across the carpet face down and refused to get up.

“So I left her a few minutes, came back over asked if she knew what she should be doing. She replies, yelling, ‘Yes and I'm not doing it!’

“I gave two options, to get up and do it at the table now, or do it during her free choice centre time. Eventually she came ... over … to my reading table at the end of the group I was working with.

“…. I started a contract this week focusing on two little goals: 1) keeping her shoes and socks on during morning meeting (she gets a sticker) and during math lesson (she gets another sticker). Goal 2) is a little more difficult but is to sit in her square on the carpet for morning meeting (sticker) and for math lesson (sticker).

“So she's working just on those two goals right now. I view it as baby steps and hopefully progress in the long run. Her parents are very supportive and have no idea what to do either. She was adopted at age 1 and of course most of what she does is learned behaviour. Thoughts?”

Firstly, I just want to encourage and commend this teacher to say that she is doing a great job. Baby steps, calmness, patience and lots of rewards (rather than focusing too much on the negative behaviour) are the essential tools in helping this child want to change their behaviour. And behaviour is likely to only change long term if the child’s wants it to change.

The behaviour contract is also important – it clearly outlines exactly what is expected, no room for misunderstandings or negotiation. This again reduces the opportunity for power struggles.

The use of tangible, immediate rewards means that she can see the connection between a specific behaviour (eg. sitting on her carpet square for morning group time) and the reward. This is very important for all children with different abilities because it gives them specific guidance about what is desirable behaviour without a “lesson” or “discussion” being involved.

The identifying of very specific behaviour attached to the reward also means that you can reward her for that behaviour even if she is displaying some other undesirable behaviours. This is an important starting point as it helps the child “get off on the right foot” so to speak. That is, it helps build their self-esteem and self-worth which can lead to more positive behaviour.

One of the most disheartening things for a child struggling with the social and behavioural demands of school is the withdrawal of a reward. For example, if you have a points system where you get 10pts for appropriate behaviour, 10pts off for inappropriate, many children with behavioural difficulties will constantly end up in the red.

For that child, it really isn’t worth trying if they expect to fail.

This also applies to the possibility that the child is struggling with Math. For example, they may feel that every time they do Math they are likely to get it wrong, or they are simply struggling to understand your directions. This may mean that they use defiant or inappropriate behaviours to avoid this possibility of failure. It may be that you need to reasses what tasks you give your child in Maths, and how you ask them to complete it (eg. cutting up a pizza to learn fractions rather than drawing lines and answering questions on paper).

The other thing I just wanted to mention is the idea of learnt vs instinctive behaviour. Learnt behaviour = behaviour children observe and mimic. Instinctive to me means that they are acting based on their own feelings.

Children who are adopted or who are in Foster care may experience a range of emotional challenges that may not be faced by children living in their birth families. Issues of loss, grief and difficulties with attachment may arise. The emotional effect of these issues may result in children (whether adopted or not) acting out, being defiant, rejecting friendships, not responding in the same way as their peers to adult attention, impulsiveness and low resilience and/or self-esteem.

However, I must stress that all children respond differently to adoption and separation, and that behavioural and emotional effects can be mitigated by the actions of parents, teachers and others supporting the family and child. But there are others who can speak with greater authority on this topic than me.

The following sites have some interesting information about how adoption or separation/divorce may affect children and what you might be able to do to prevent this.

This site has a list of other websites where you can find information and counselling relevant to adoption:

So if a child has these extra challenges, then it is even more important that we focus on expecting small improvements, rather than sweeping behaviour change. That we use calmness, patience and lots of rewards and positive interaction.

Our children are precious. All of them.


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Copyright Amanda Gray 2009-11

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