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Discipline by Design Series – Part 8 of 12 – ADHD, ODD, Bullying, and the Elementary Child

Last week we addressed how fear and a need for attention and love often drive an elementary-aged child to act out. To help this child, we need to treat them with respect, respond rather than react, and defuse the situation by remembering not to take it personally but instead be empathetic in our interactions with them. Following these simple guidelines will lead that child to peace and balance.

But what do you do with more extreme situations, such as ADHD, ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder), and bullying? That’s what we will discuss today.


One of the issues adults face when dealing with an ADD/ADHD child is that these children tend to act without thinking. Behaviorally, their actions indicate a lack of understanding of cause and effect. Children with ADD/ADHD do things without thinking about the consequences of their actions. So how would you approach them to compensate for their tendencies in this area?

One way is to prearrange cues with them so that they hear you say something when they are reacting impulsively. Perhaps you ask them to go back and do the behavior again, correctly this time. Or perhaps you create a contract that clearly spells out cause and effect.

Still, you will encounter impulsive behavior — even more than usual for kids because children with ADD/ADHD have difficulty delaying gratification and other kinds of impulse control.  To help them, sometimes it is useful to use verbalizations, such as, “I need you to write this down, ” or “Let’s push the rewind button here. How can this be different?”

It is also helpful to teach your ADD student/child to stop and think before responding. Have them count to ten silently before talking back or responding to a question from you. Reinforce and encourage their new self-control every time until it becomes second nature to them.

A sand hourglass (which is silent!) can be used to indicate periods of intense independent work and reinforce appropriate behavior during this period. Start with three-minute bunches and gradually increase the time.

For teachers it can be helpful to frequently move about the room. When you observe your ADD/ADHD student working on task, reward him or her with a simple wink or smile. Or simply say, “I like the way you are on task just now.”

A final suggestion is to consider keeping a minute timer on the child’s desk or in their bedroom. Ask the ADD/ADHD child how long he thinks a particular task will take to complete, and then let him set his own time and race against the timer.

If you encounter an ADD/ADHD child who is able to verbalize the rules correctly but cannot internalize or translate them into appropriate conduct, it is important to help them move this abstract knowledge into concrete action. Develop practice exercises for “stop and think” behavior. Ask them to model the appropriate rule that they verbalized and have them repeat the behavior, as reinforcement helps cement the head knowledge into body knowledge.

ODD – Oppositional Defiant Disorder

Brain research has shown that ODD has a physical reality within the brain. ODD can be observed at that moment when the cingulate (a part of the brain that runs longitudinally down the center of the frontal lobe) gets stuck. The child becomes fixated on arguing any and all points. When the child gets overly stimulated, the cingulate appears on a CAT scan to turn white hot.

The late Dr. Paul Warren, whom I have written a book about ADD/ADHD with and is a renowned behavioral pediatrician, uses the analogy of the brain as a train: First comes the vapor lock, then the meltdown, and then the train wreck.

Dr. Warren suggests that for children with ODD it is important to emphasize positive rather than negative communication early in the oppositional cycle.  An new parent or inexperienced teacher might say, “I want you to stop,” only to discover that this request triggers confrontation and denial. Instead, the teacher should simply state what the student is supposed to do, not what he shouldn’t do. Avoid saying “no” or “don’t” if possible. Save “no” for important situations so the child takes “no” seriously.

Let’s look at some examples of negative statements and how we can turn them into positives that do not trigger a confrontational response:

  • “Don’t spill” becomes “Pour carefully”
  • “Don’t yell” becomes “Use your quiet voice inside”
  • “Don’t talk with your mouth full” becomes “Chew and swallow, then talk”
  • “Don’t ride your bike on the grass” becomes “Ride on the sidewalk”
  • “Don’t throw the ball in the classroom/house” becomes “Throw the ball on the playground/outside” or “Roll the ball on the floor”

Here are some additional difficult behaviors and some suggestions or specific verbalizations that can help handle the behavior.

  1. Yelling or screaming: “I want to hear what you’re saying. When you speak too loudly, I can’t listen because it hurts my ears. Now please whisper to help my ears feel better.” “Loud voices are for outdoors, soft ones for indoors.” “You seem to be angry or upset. I can listen better when you speak more softly.” (Remember to be patient and wait for the appropriate behavior to begin).
  2. Interrupting or speaking when an adult is speaking: “I’m glad you have something to tell me. But it is your turn to listen now and my turn to speak. Then we’ll trade.” (Remember to follow through and ask the child what he or she wanted to say).
  3. Refusing to help with clean up: “I’ll help you put the toys/books/tools/clothes away. It’s a big job, but it can be fun when people work together. It gives us time to talk to each other.”
  4. Name-calling: “She likes to be called by her right name, which is ________.”
  5. Refusing to obey a direct order from the teacher: With children who may initially refuse negative consequences, such as going to time-out, set a kitchen timer for a brief period (one to two minutes) after refusal has occurred. Explain that they can use the two minutes to decide if they will go to time-out on their own or if more serious consequences must be imposed. Experienced teachers and parents insist that this method has successfully reduced the necessity to enforce negative consequences and seems to de-escalate the situation.


I have written a recent article about this for 380 Guide as well as in my book with June Hunt, Bonding with Your Teens through Boundaries. The topic will also appear in our follow-up, Bonding with Your Children through Boundaries. The point is, the topic is important and pops up all the time. Bullying can be defined as a clear power imbalance that is used to cause physical, emotional, or psychological harm or injury during repeated and chronic instances of aggression and intimidation targeted toward a specific individual. How can we stop bullying at home or at school? Here are 22 suggestions.

  1. Understand that it is often modeled after behavior observed elsewhere.
  2. Understand that fear is at the core of the bully and his/her behavior.
  3. Discuss bullying openly at home or in class and ask if anyone has seen it happen.
  4. Involve children, especially at school, in establishing rules against bullying.
  5. Provide activities and discussions regarding the negative effects of bullying.
  6. Teach all children to respond to a bully by walking away rather than by confronting the bully.
  7. Teach all children that they must report it if they see a bully at work. If they do not intervene or report the incident, they are now involved.
  8. Develop a plan to ensure that students know what to do if they observe bullying.
  9. Set firm limits for unacceptable behavior.
  10. Take immediate action when bullying is observed or reported.
  11. Confront bullies in private, not in public.
  12. Consistently apply non-hostile, non-physical consequences for violations.
  13. Notify parents of both the bully and the victim.
  14. Be aware that bullying occurs in the bathroom and on the playground and monitor those areas.
  15. Refer both bully and victim to counseling if appropriate.
  16. Teach about respecting other people’s rights. Don’t assume the child knows this.
  17. Constantly stress how other students feel.
  18. Teach everyone the Golden Rule.
  19. Use role-playing to teach how to negotiate rather than force one’s will on others.
  20. Keep a record of bullying incidents. This will help to identify whether anything in particular is causing the child stress and setting him/her off.
  21. In the fifth grade, encourage students to read Wounded Spirit by Frank Perretti.
  22. Discuss a plan that you can implement in your school or home to deal with the bullying issue now before it becomes a problem. If it continues into high school, it can become much more serious, so it needs to be dealt with and planned for early on.

Next week we will discuss junior high and high school students and how to use our discipline principles on older students. See you then!