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Teaching Students with Conduct Disorder

Kids and teens with conduct disorder are highly visible, demonstrating a complicated group of behavioral and emotional problems. Serious, repetitive, and persistent misbehavior is the essential feature of this disorder.

These behaviors fall into 4 main groups: aggressive behavior toward people or animals, destruction of property, deceitfulness or theft, and serious violations of rules.

To receive a diagnosis of conduct disorder, a youngster or adolescent must have displayed 3 or more characteristic behaviors in the past 12 months. At least 1 of these behaviors must have been evident during the past 6 months.

Diagnosing conduct disorder can be a dilemma because kids are constantly changing. This makes it difficult to discern whether the problem is persistent enough to warrant a diagnosis. In some cases, what appears to be conduct disorder may be a problem adjusting to acute or chronic stress. Many kids with conduct disorder also have learning disabilities and about 1/3 are depressed. Many kids stop exhibiting behavior problems when they are treated for depression.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that between 6 and 16 percent of males and 2 to 9 percent of females under age 18 have conduct disorder that ranges in severity from mild to severe.

Other serious disorders of childhood and adolescence commonly associated with conduct disorder are attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD) or oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). The majority of kids and teens with conduct disorder may have lifelong patterns of antisocial behavior and be at higher risk for a mood or anxiety disorder. But for many, the disorder may subside in later adulthood.

The social context in which a student lives (poverty or a high crime area, for example) may influence what we view as antisocial behavior. In these cases, a diagnosis of conduct disorder can be misapplied to individuals whose behaviors may be protective or exist within the cultural context.

A youngster with suspected conduct disorder needs to be referred for a mental health assessment. If the symptoms are mild, the student may be able to receive services and remain in the regular school environment. More seriously troubled kids, however, may need more specialized educational environments.

Symptoms or Behaviors—

• Bullying or threatening classmates and other children
• Destruction of property
• Frequent physical fights; use of a weapon
• History of frequent suspension
• Little empathy for others and a lack of appropriate feelings of guilt and remorse
• Low self-esteem masked by bravado
• Lying to peers or teachers
• Poor attendance record or chronic truancy
• Stealing from peers or the school

Educational Implications—

Children with conduct disorder like to engage in power struggles. They often react badly to direct demands or statements such as: “You need to...” or “You must...” They may consistently challenge class rules, refuse to do assignments, and argue or fight with other children. This behavior can cause significant impairment in both social and academic functioning. They also work best in environments with high staff/student ratios, 1-to-1 situations, or self-contained programs when there is plenty of structure and clearly defined guidelines. Their frequent absences and their refusal to do assignments often leads to academic failure.

Instructional Strategies and Classroom Accommodations—

• Avoid “infantile” materials to teach basic skills. Materials should be age-appropriate, positive, and relevant to children’ lives.
• Avoid escalating prompts such as shouting, touching, nagging, or cornering the student.
• Be aware that adults can unconsciously form and behaviorally express negative impressions of low-performing, uncooperative children. Try to monitor your impressions, keep them as neutral as possible, communicate a positive regard for the children, and give them the benefit of the doubt whenever possible.
• Consider the use of technology. Children with conduct disorder tend to work well on computers with active programs.
• Establish clear classroom rules. Rules should be few, fair, clear, displayed, taught, and consistently enforced. Be clear about what is nonnegotiable.
• Give the student options. Stay away from direct demands or statements such as: “You need to...” or “you must....”
• Have your children participate in the establishment of rules, routines, schedules, and expectations.
• Make sure curriculum is at an appropriate level. When work is too hard, children become frustrated. When it is too easy, they become bored. Both reactions lead to problems in the classroom.
• Maximize the performance of low-performing children through the use of individualized instruction, cues, prompting, the breaking down of academic tasks, debriefing, coaching, and providing positive incentives.
• Remember that kids with conduct disorder like to argue. Maintain calm, respect, and detachment. Avoid power struggles and don’t argue.
• Remember that praise is important but needs to be sincere.
• Structure activities so the student with conduct disorder is not always left out or the last one picked.
• Children with conduct disorder often do well in programs that allow them to work outside the school setting.
• Systematically teach social skills including anger management, conflict resolution strategies, and how to be assertive in an appropriate manner. For example, discuss strategies that the children may use to calm themselves when they feel their anger escalating. Do this when the children are calm.

Classroom Discipline 101

Classroom Management Strategies for Difficult Students

Surveys of graduates of education schools and colleges indicate that the #1 area of concern of new educators is their feelings of inadequacy in managing classrooms.

Despite clinical experiences, student teaching, and other observations in classroom settings, this problem has persisted for decades. There is no magic elixir that will confer skill in this area of professional responsibility. We only wish there were.

Classroom management and management of child conduct are skills that educators acquire and hone over time. These skills almost never "jell" until after a minimum of few years of teaching experience. To be sure, effective teaching requires considerable skill in managing the myriad of tasks and situations that occur in the classroom each day. Skills such as effective classroom management are central to teaching and require "common sense," consistency, a sense of fairness, and courage.

These skills also require that educators understand in more than one way the psychological and developmental levels of their difficult students. The skills associated with effective classroom management are only acquired with practice, feedback, and a willingness to learn from mistakes. Sadly, this is often easier said than done. Certainly, a part of this problem is that there is no practical way for education students to "practice" their nascent skills outside of actually going into a classroom setting. The learning curve is steep, indeed.

As previously mentioned, personal experience and research indicate that many beginning educators have difficulty effectively managing their classrooms. While there is no one best solution for every problem or classroom setting, the following principles, drawn from a number of sources, might help. Classroom educators with many years of experience have contributed to an understanding of what works and what doesn't work in managing classrooms and the behavior of difficult students. The following information represents some of the things that good classroom educators do to maintain an atmosphere that enhances learning. It is written in straightforward, non-preachy language, and will not drive you to distraction with its length. I think most students appreciate that. With that in mind, I truly hope this information is useful to you.

4 Fundamental Factors—

1. Know what you want and what you don't want.
2. Show and tell your difficult students what you want.
3. When you get something else, act quickly and appropriately.
4. When you get what you want, acknowledge (not praise) it.


While good room arrangement is not a guarantee of good behavior, poor planning in this area can create conditions that lead to problems.

• The teacher must be able to observe all children at all times and to monitor work and behavior. The teacher should also be able to see the door from his or her desk.

• Frequently used areas of the room and traffic lanes should be unobstructed and easily accessible.

• Difficult students should be able to see the teacher and presentation area without undue turning or movement.

• Commonly used classroom materials, e.g., books, attendance pads, absence permits, and student reference materials should be readily available.

• Some degree of decoration will help add to the attractiveness of the room.


• Do not develop classroom rules you are unwilling to enforce.

• Rules and procedures are the most common explicit expectations. A small number of general rules that emphasize appropriate behavior may be helpful. Rules should be posted in the classroom. Compliance with the rules should be monitored constantly

• School-Wide Regulations...particularly safety procedures...should be explained carefully.

• Educators should identify expectations for child behavior and communicate those expectations to difficult students periodically.

• Because desirable child behavior may vary depending on the activity, explicit expectations for the following procedures are helpful in creating a smoothly functioning classroom:

1. Beginning and ending the period, including attendance procedures and what difficult students may or may not do during these times.
2. How children are to answer questions - for example, no student answer will be recognized unless he raises his hand and is called upon to answer by the teacher.
3. Independent group work such as laboratory activities or smaller group projects.
4. Seatwork
5. Teacher-Led Instruction
6. Use of materials and equipment such as the pencil sharpener, storage areas, supplies, and special equipment.

Remember, good discipline is much more likely to occur if the classroom setting and activities are structured or arranged to enhance cooperative behavior.


- The focus is on academic tasks and learning as the central purpose of child effort, rather than on good behavior for its own sake.
- Difficult students must be held accountable for their work.
- Effective teacher-led instruction is free of: Ambiguous and vague terms; Unclear sequencing; Interruptions


- Address instruction and assignments to challenge academic achievement while continuing to assure individual student success.

- Effective classroom managers practice skills that minimize misbehavior.

- Monitor difficult students carefully and frequently so that misbehavior is detected early before it involves many children or becomes a serious disruption.

- Most inappropriate behavior in classrooms that is not seriously disruptive and can be managed by relatively simple procedures that prevent escalation.

- Act to stop inappropriate behavior so as not to interrupt the instructional activity or to call excessive attention to the child by practicing the following un-obstructive strategies:

1. Redirecting the child to appropriate behavior by stating what the child should be doing; citing the applicable procedure or rule. Example: "Please, look at the overhead projector and read the first line with me, I need to see everyone's eyes looking here."
2. Moving close to the offending child, making eye contact and giving a nonverbal signal to stop the offensive behavior.
3. More serious, disruptive behaviors such as fighting, continuous interruption of lessons, possession of drugs and stealing require direct action according to school board rule.
4. Calling a child's name or giving a short verbal instruction to stop behavior.

Assertive Discipline has been used by many schools, and is an effective way to manage behavior.


- Consistency in the application of consequences is the key factor in classroom management.
- Frequent use of punishment is associated with poor classroom management and generally should be avoided.
- In classrooms, the most prevalent positive consequences are intrinsic student satisfaction resulting from success, accomplishment, good grades, social approval and recognition.
- Milder punishments are often as effective as more intense forms and do not arouse as much negative emotion.
- Misbehavior is less likely to recur if a child makes a commitment to avoid the action and to engage in more desirable alternative behaviors.
- Children must be aware of the connection between tasks and grades.
- When used, negative consequences or punishment should be related logically to the misbehavior.


- Correct repeated patterns or mistakes.
- Don't assume they understand something just because it seems simple to you. Simplify, boil down.
- Even when they have lost their accent, they often misunderstand common words and phrases.
- Good E.S.O.L. strategies are good teaching strategies.
- It is easy to misunderstand body language and certain behaviors. For example, eye contact, spitting, chalk eating, etc.
- They are not stupid and they can hear what is being said.. They just don't necessarily understand the language or culture, yet.
- They come from a variety of backgrounds, even in the same country. For example schooled, unschooled, Americanized, etc.


Effective Praise:

1. Attributes student success to effort and ability, implying that similar successes can be expected in the future.
2. Encourages difficult students to appreciate their accomplishments for the effort they expend and their personal gratification.
3. Helps difficult students to better appreciate their thinking, problem-solving and performance.
4. Is delivered contingently upon student performance of desirable behaviors or genuine accomplishment.
5. Is expressed sincerely, showing spontaneity, variety and other non-verbal signs of credibility.
6. Is given for genuine effort, progress, or accomplishment, which is judged according to standards appropriate to individuals.
7. Provides information to difficult students about their competence or the value of their accomplishments.
8. Specifies the praiseworthy aspects of the child's accomplishments.

Ineffective Praise:

1. Attributes student success to ability alone or to external factors such as luck or easy task.
2. Encourages difficult students to succeed for external reasons -- to please the teacher, win a competition or reward, etc.
3. Is delivered randomly and indiscriminately without specific attention to genuine accomplishment.
4. Is expressed blandly without feeling or animation, and relying on stock, perfunctory phrases.
5. Is general or global, not specifying the success.
6. Is given based on comparisons with others and without regard to the effort expended or significance of the accomplishment of an individual.
7. Orients difficult students toward comparing themselves with others.
8. Provides no meaningful information to the children about their accomplishments.

 Classroom Discipline 101

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