Oppositional Defiant Disorder

Advice from the School Psychologist
Cheri King-Guler received her Master's in Educational Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She has worked with students of all ages and specializes in parent interventions. Cheri was published in the Communique, the monthly newspaper for the National Association of School Psychologists. Cheri has a unique perspective on special needs children, as she has experienced the special education system as a parent as well as a psychologist. She is presently pursuing her second Master's degree in counseling psychology. In addition, Cheri writes both fiction and non-fiction for children.

Dear Cheri,

I am writing because I am concerned about my five year-old daughter. She has been diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder and does not handle change well. My husband and I have decided to get a divorce, and I am not sure how to break the news to her. Could you give us some suggestions?


Julie, San Diego

Dear Julie,

You are correct in being concerned about your daughter's response to your impending divorce. Children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) do not handle change well. ODD is a psychiatric disorder diagnosed in childhood characterized by defiant and antagonistic problem behaviors, and hostile and angry attitudes. These disturbances in behavior cause clinical impairment in academic, social, and, eventually, occupational functioning.

Raising a child with ODD disorder can be very difficult and trying on the best of days. The most effective method of managing problem behaviors is by adhering to a fairly rigid behavioral routine. When unexpected issues arise, the result is often uncontrollable temper tantrums and emotional distress. Divorce is an issue that is upsetting to all children, but when those with existing emotional issues are asked to cope with a parent leaving home, some extra effort is necessary to help them manage their feelings.

Your most important task is to prepare your daughter for what is to come. Expect emotional and behavioral outbursts. If possible, both parents should be present when your child is informed about the divorce, and it should be done in a quiet, familiar place. The setting should allow both you and your husband to be close to your daughter and to hold her when she becomes upset. If there have been obvious signs of your unhappy marriage, discuss them with her gently so she has a clear picture that the family is not happy in its' present state and that change can be positive. Then, when you tell her about the divorce, make sure she is close to, or being held by either you or your husband. She will very likely become very angry and cry, and, if she cannot control her feelings, you may need to hold her to keep her safe until she calms down.

Explain to her exactly what the living situation will be and any changes she will experience, such as school, friends, neighborhoods, etc. In addition, I strongly encourage you to involve her as much as possible in each of these changes, whenever it is realistic. Let her help with decorating her new home, especially her room. Involve her in choosing living arrangements. Allow her to accompany your husband or yourself when you search for a new apartment or home. Frequently sit down with her and see how she is feeling about the divorce. Make a point of thoughts about the situation so you can intervene if she is blaming herself. In addition, you and your husband should always be available for lots of extra hugs and kisses to assure her that her place in the world hasn't changed and she is loved.

Finally, it is important to let your child's teacher know what is going on at home. If she should begin to act out in the academic setting, school personnel should be prepared to understand and be ready to intervene with any behavioral or emotional problems that arise at school.

School Age Childrens Books

Advice for Parenting Teens

by Jennifer Cummings, M.Ed.

Dear Cheri,

My son is in first grade. During parent-teacher conferences last month his teacher suggested that he might have special needs because of poor grades and problems with the other students in his class. My wife and I are very upset about this and we feel very anxious about the special education process. Could you please prepare us for what we are facing?


Dale, Wisconsin

Dear Dale,

The road you and your wife are facing can feel very intimidating--but with a little advanced preparation and guidance, it needn't be overwhelming. I will try to outline the process for you in order to better prepare you for the experience.

Your son's teacher has already taken the first step--telling you she believes your son might have special needs. The next step is usually an initial meeting with your son's teachers, the school psychologist, social worker, and usually the vice-principal or principal of the school. This first meeting is not designed to determine special education needs, but is used to provide information to you and school personnel that might be helpful for aiding your child without special education.

The name of this meeting varies by school district-- they are often called Child Support Teams, or Pupil Support Teams, for example. Another purpose of this gathering is to brainstorm interventions to help your child, and to determine which member of the team will implement which part of the plan.

One of the prerequisites for special education placement is that interventions have been attempted and have failed. During this meeting, please remember that while you may feel "outnumbered by school personnel, you are the expert on your child and there is no need to be intimidated. Unless there are extreme circumstances, school personnel cannot use any interventions with your child that you do not support. Examples of interventions include tutoring, counseling, parent involvement in tracking homework, shortening student assignments, and social skills groups.

If, despite the efforts of all involved, there is no change in your child's academic and social functioning, a referral may be made for a special education evaluation. This involves testing, observation, and interpretation of your son‘s academic, adaptive, social, and behavioral functioning. You will probably be asked to interview, and will receive a number of questionnaires to fill out regarding your son‘s behavior at home and developmental history. The school has 90 days from the day of initial referral until placement of your child in special education programs, including academic; speech and language; psychological; physical and occupational therapies; or any visual or hearing testing that needs to be done. After completing interviews with school personnel and questionnaires, you simply have to wait until the school is done with their end of the process.

When your son has been assessed and evaluated, a multidisciplinary team meeting will be held to determine your child's special education needs and eligibility. You will again meet with your child's teachers, a special education teacher, the school psychologist, vice principal, social worker, and any other therapists that assessed him. There will be a thorough discussion of the assessment findings and his eligibility for special education services will be decided. Programs are available for learning disabilities; emotional disabilities; cognitive impairment; speech and language services; hearing, vision, or physical impairment; or autistic disorders. Once eligibility has been established, the location and provision of services will be decided.

As your son's parent, you have the right to be involved in every step of your child's special education determination, and no services can be provided until you sign your permission for them. It is also your right to bring a friend or advocate with you if you feel that you need support for yourself and your child. However, in a best case scenario, the school psychologist should be that advocate for you.

If your child is eligible for special education, a re-evaluation will be done every three years to determine his continued eligibility. The process in this case is basically the same as in the initial evaluation, although school personnel may not need to repeat developmental interviews. The hope for these re-evaluations, of course, is that the special education and any ancillary interventions that have been provided for the last three years have been effective, and your son will no longer need special services.

In this column, I hope to provide parents with information and suggestions to assist in raising happy and healthy children. I plan to offer ideas for intervening when your child experiences difficulties, whether they are academic, social, or emotional. However, I wish to clarify that I am merely offering suggestions, based upon my own professional training and experience. It is always advisable to consult with professionals at your children's schools for additional assistance.

It is my sincere hope that I may provide information in this column that will improve the quality of life for your family. Please feel free to contact me at Cheri with any questions or concerns you might have about your child that I may assist you with. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Best wishes always,

Cheri King-Guler, M.S.