NONCOMPLIANCE: The “Good Kid” Disorder
(This article appeared in the Jan/Feb, 1997 issues of Learning. That issue also designated Dr. Sutton’s book as “Editor’s Choice.”)
by James D. Sutton, EdD
Nathan frustrates the dickens out of his teacher. Though he’s clearly bright and capable, he’s never prepared for class, and he rarely does his homework. He’s always saying something like “Oh, I though this assignment was due next Friday.” He earnestly promises to do better but never follows through. He’s charming and pleasant—and on the brink of serious trouble in school. His parents say his behavior is similar at home.
There’s one more thing: Though Nathan spends plenty of time joking around, at the core he seems to be miserable.
What’s going on here?
Teachers nationwide are seeing more and more students like Nathan. The psychological name for his problem is oppositional defiant disorder (a classification which includes an older term—passive aggressive), though many students exhibit the behavior without ever being diagnosed. In contrast to children who can’t sit still and are always in trouble for what they’re doing, oppositional and defiant youngsters are in trouble for what they don’t do. Schoolwork and chores at home top the list. Oftentimes, these students are well mannered and seem to have good intentions, but they quietly defy your directions. In short, they’re just plain difficult. As Nathan’s teacher told me, “Maybe Nathan doesn’t act out, but he surely doesn’t act right.”
In the late 1960s, no classification existed for children like these. Today, this disorder takes up several pages in the American Psychological Association’s diagnostic manual.
The way we typically confront an oppositional and defiant youngster are ineffective: Ignoring, pleading, bargaining and helping don’t work. “Get tough” approaches such as threatening and showing anger aren’t successful, either. They give the child the message “Do this or else,” and the child opts for the “or else.”
The suggestions that follow have proved effective with children and teachers nationwide. Be sure to share them with parents, too—these interventions will work best if they’re used at school and at home.
1. Eliminate excessive expectations. If the child perceives you as reasonable and fair, you’ll be able to work more effectively with him or her. Every day, set aside 20 to 30 seconds for interacting with this youngster. Discuss something of particular interest to the child, such as sports, a hobby, or a family vacation. Make sure this interaction contains no expectations—this might be the only unconditional interaction that the youngster has with an adult. Parents can set up these same types of interactions.
2. Encourage assertiveness. Since this child prefers silent noncompliance to verbal assertiveness, it’s important to encourage the child to be assertive. For instance, when other students in the class explain that they don’t have enough time to complete a long assignment, you can comment on the appropriate manner in which they expressed their concern. At home, parents should recognize and praise the child’s siblings when they show appropriate assertiveness.
3. Offer options and choices. Letting children select three assignments (or chores at home) from a list of five empowers them to make other decisions. Also, they’re more likely to complete tasks that they’ve chosen.
4. Give the youngster specific responsibilities. Asking this student to explain and demonstrate an important assignment or job, for example, accomplishes two things: It provides the child with status within the class, and it eliminates any subsequent excuse for not understanding the assignment. Parents can do the same by putting the youngster in charge of the family’s chore board.
5. Take control of homework. Homework can become a weapon that these kids use against you and against their parents. To combat this, have your class develop daily homework checklists. Be forewarned, though—the next thing the child forgets or loses might be the list. Also, work with parents to set up a structured time and place during the school day for the student to complete homework; before or after school, during detention or tutorials, or during a pullout class such as special education.
6. Spit in the Soup. Predicting a child’s oppositional and defiant behavior can help eliminate it. For example, sometimes Simone “accidently” drops a box of crayons just as the other students are lining up for lunch (obstructionism). The next day, as the children are lining up, pull the crayon dropper aside and say gently, “You know, I was wondering whether you were going to drop your crayons again, like you did yesterday.” She won’t. Though this is a temporary measure, it can help a teacher or a parent to get past a tough spot.
7. Reward compliance—strategically. This works especially well with the youngster who has difficulty getting on task, and it can help you get more out of your instructional time. For example, Christopher regularly camps out at the pencil sharpener. He spends so much time “getting ready” that he never gets anything done! The next time that Christopher is grinding the life out of another perfectly good pencil, announce that students who are in their seats and working have just earned a five-minute bubble-gum break.
Of course, Christopher will know he’s been set up—so announce that another break like this will occur tomorrow. Guess who will stay in his seat? On the off chance that he doesn’t, wait until he goes to his seat and then announce the break. He’ll know you cut him some slack—and he’ll be more likely to cut you some slack, too. A refinement of this strategy is to set one or two timers to go off during an activity and to reward students who are in their seats and working when the timers sound.
8. Appeal to reason. Appealing to a child’s sense of fairness and reason can lead to compliance, as long as this tactic isn’t overused. For example, let your students know that you’d appreciate their working quietly at their desks on a day when you’re not feeling well or while you set up Friday’s field trip. Parents can ask for this kind of cooperation as well.
9. Use humor. Overstatement can be useful in redirecting an upset youngster. For example, when Alexandra comes slamming into the classroom after an argument with her mother, you could say, “Hey, looks like you ate your Wheaties this morning!” This may be just enough to break the tension and put her in a better frame of mind.
10. Note improvement—and say so. Whenever there’s any measurable improvement, you and the child’s parents should make it clear that you’ve noticed. Keep theses comments casual to avoid causing the youngster to feel patronized or manipulated. Whenever children realize that their efforts have been recognized, they’re motivated to continue improving.
Most children aren’t born with oppositional and defiant behavior. Okay, there may be a few who are—the doctor pops them on the fanny, and they say, “I ain’t crying!” In most cases, though, opposition and defiance are reactive behaviors, a duel for the reins of control. These scenarios seem to spark oppositional and defiant behaviors:
Acute emotional distress. This includes crises and losses such as divorce, death, or natural disasters such as fires, floods or hurricanes. The children are forced into abrupt and unacceptable changes. Part of the natural recovery process is for the children to regain control over their lives—a process that is manifested in oppositional and defiant behavior. This behavior is usually temporary.
Chronic emotional distress. This condition is more subtle and has more damaging long-term consequences. These children typically live in highly dysfunctional families: They’ve suffered abuse or abandonment, or their parents abuse alcohol or other substances. In short, these children’s lives are one ongoing crisis. And in many cases, these crises are well-kept family secrets.
Overdependency. Children who haven’t experienced major emotional distress can also show oppositional and defiant behavior. This is especially true of children who feel they can’t freely express themselves, children who believe they must act a certain way to get approval from key adults in their lives, or children who have had excessive expectations placed on them. Perception is reality here. A parent’s expectations may not seem excessive to you, but may to the child. These children fear that in being honest about their resentment, they might be rejected. Their anger and bitterness leak out, one drop at a time. They’re in a silent rebellion.
The Book: In his book If My Kid’s So Nice … Why’s He Driving ME Crazy? Straight talk about the “Good Kid” Disorder nationally recognized educator, psychologist, and author Dr. James Sutton addresses what he calls the “Good Kid” Disorder. He shows parents and teachers the behaviors to watch for, and how to better understand and respond to the youngster displaying them. Dr. Sutton cautions against the “No-lutions,” seven typical reactions to the oppositional and defiant child that not only don’t work, they add to the distress. Practical and proven strategies and interventions for improving task completion at home and at school, while encouraging more harmony in relationships, round out this excellent and timely resource. This book is published by Friendly Oaks Publications ($18.95). Call 1-800-659-6628 to order, or order directly online at friendlyoakspublications.com.