Bring Order to Behavior Disorders Insider Secrets for Controlling Uncontrollable Students


school counselor blog

Bring Order to
Behavior Disorders:
Insider Secrets for
Controlling Uncontrollable Students


Some students' behavior goes beyond just being extremely misbehaved. Some students actually have mental health problems that are called behavior disorders.

Counselor training includes extensive preparation to manage each type of behavior disorder. That is why counselors can sometimes more successfully manage youngsters that educators struggle to control. Most counselors learn specialized behavior management tools tailored for each type of acting-out disorder. Most of these targeted tools work really well for educators too– except that educators are not normally routinely offered this essential training on behavior disorders.

While we are all aware of the hazards of labeling students, we have to have some shorthand to know exactly who we're talking about. If we didn't call a rose a rose, some of us might think Shakespeare was talking about dandelions. If we describe the flower each time, we can end up pretty confused, and long-winded too: "that red, no, I mean pink, no, it's white, no, it's a yellow flower that smells really sweet and may bloom all summer." So, as you read this article, of course you want to be sensitive about students being labeled, but hopefully you can agree that the use of common mental health terms will assure that we all know exactly which students– and which behavior disorders– we're talking about.

workshop trainer Ruth Herman WellsI'm Ruth Herman Wells, M.S., the Director and Trainer for Youth Change Workshops. At Youth Change, we firmly believe that educators and other non-mental health workers are smart enough to make those distinctions. This article will help you understand the categories and corresponding tools to use– or not use– with each type of student. In this issue, we will focus particularly on a single type of behavior disorder.

Unless you're a mental health professional, you can't diagnose the
disorders featured in this article. But you've never been able to diagnose other disorders– like ADHD, for example– but you most certainly have learned how to fine tune how you work with youngsters you believe could have that difficulty. Using that type of adjustment process of carefully tailoring your interventions without diagnosing will work for any mental health disorder that you think you might be encountering. While a diagnosis from a mental health worker would be incredibly useful, you can still work successfully with severely unmanageable youngsters either way.

There are two major mental health disorders that characterize the most extremely misbehaved students. Some youngsters have Oppositional-Defiant Disorder. That is a mental health diagnosis that describes kids that have consciences but sometimes act like they don't. This diagnosis can only be applied by a mental health professional but will be very important for any youth worker to know about and understand. This diagnosis is far more hopeful than the second disorder, "Conduct Disorder," which means the child lacks a conscience and a real capacity for relationships. While the oppositional-defiant child (ODD) may also appear to have little
conscience or relationship capacity, you may be able to improve that
difficulty with the right approach and methods. With conduct disorder (CD), such improvement isn't possible.

Understanding Oppositional Defiant Disorder & Conduct Disorder


Oppositional-defiant kids are often some of your most misbehaved students. They may disrupt your class, hurt others, defy authority and engage in illegal or problematic conduct. Though students with ODD may look similar to conduct disorders, their bad behavior is usually less severe, less frequent, and of shorter duration. The ODD label is often inaccurately applied as this dynamic can be a difficult concept to grasp and apply correctly. Because many mental health professionals understandably hesitate to assign the heavy-duty conduct disorder label, they sometimes use the diagnosis of ODD as kind of a parking spot. This convention results in people using methods for ODD with conduct disordered youngsters who would have potentially benefitted from methods for CDs instead. CDs will be adversely affected and poorly managed by the use of strategies designed for students with ODD. In this issue, we are focusing on strategies for children and teens who appear to have ODD.


To help the child with ODD, you must focus on:

  1. Skill building
  2. "Pulling up" that conscience– example strategies are below
  3. Improving their relationship skills.

For skill building, teaching them how to regulate their anger, actions, peer skills, verbal output, etc. will be critical. (Note that CDs benefit from this training as well.) But equally important, the child with ODD must be aided to care about others, and to be guided more by conscience. (Note that CDs almost never benefit from this type of aid, and usually become more out-of-control as they assume the adult has "no clue" if they are using methods that involve utterly foreign and irrelevant concepts like conscience, remorse, guilt, and trust.)

In our workshops, we give dozens of effective interventions for stimulating the conscience of children and teens who evidence ODD. We will supply a
few of the best here. These interventions will only focus on stimulating that conscience or "compensating" for it. If you want more than the handful of ideas given here, or you want to see how to build skills and relationship capacity– those other two key intervention areas for students who evidence ODD– consider signing up for our live or online distance learning workshop, or purchasing some of our books that will deliver hundreds of the solutions you need.


for Students Who Appear to Have ODD

You can use these methods with or without the diagnosis. Remember that these interventions must be combined with the other key focus areas for students with ODD: skill training and relationship training. Also, remember these methods are not appropriate for use with that other type of very misbehaved youngster, children with conduct disorder.



Before a child undertakes a problem behavior, ask the youth to imagine that s/he will read about that act on the cover of the local newspaper
in the morning. Ask the child their reaction. If they say that they wouldn't want to read about it in the newspaper the next morning, then you can say "Then don't do it!" This image makes a fast and easy guide for kids to follow to evaluate whether or not to do questionable behaviors. This intervention is a good choice to use with children whose conscience provides little guidance.



This intervention can be used before or after the child has engaged in
misbehavior. For example, let's say the child has stolen the teacher's pen, you can say "I want you to imagine that we're making a video about your life. Are you impressed?" That uncomfortable sensation that the child may have in reaction to this intervention may be the conscience stirring.



After the child has engaged in a problem behavior, such as stealing a pen, as in the example above, ask the child, "So what's your integrity worth to you?"



To adapt the intervention shown above for young children, simply rephrase the question to "So what's people believing in you, worth to you?" Or, rephrase it to "So what's people trusting you, worth to you?"



Have students list problem behaviors, and write their responses in a column on a board. Next, in a second column, have them list the most likely consequences of each behavior. Inform students that they can no longer say "I didn't know what was going to happen next," or make similar disclaimers because they have just shown they can make good guesses to predict the future. This strategy is another substitute for the conscience  as students can "guess ahead" before choosing to engage in problem behaviors.


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About Ruth Herman Wells

Author/Trainer Ruth Herman Wells, M.S. is the director of Youth Change Professional Development Workshops. In 2011, Ruth was rated as a Top 10 U.S. K-12 educational and motivational speaker by Speakerwiki and Speakermix. She is the author of several book series, a columnist, adjunct professor for two universities, and a popular keynote speaker and workshop presenter. Ruth's dozens of books includes Temper and Tantrum Tamers and Turn On the Turned-Off Student.