Perhaps the most difficult child to deal with in the classroom (and the home) is the oppositional child. A child who may have problems sitting still may be motivated by positive reinforcement. A child who has anxiety may have certain motivating factors that will help decrease their anxiety. An oppositional child, however, has inconsistent responses to authority, and a more creative parenting approach needs to be implemented.

In one such scenario, I had been asked to work with a child who recently began to attend a special school for children with behavioral challenges. Shmuel (name has been changed to protect privacy) had spent the majority of his previous year of schooling outside of his classroom door, being continually punished. It is no wonder that his self-esteem was low, and that he barely trusted adults. If supposedly knowledgeable adults were unable to help re-train this nine-year-olds difficult behavior, and instead continually punished him (to no avail), a child's reaction of mistrust is understandable. Though he was diagnosed with ADHD, his present primary symptoms were those of a more severe anxiety, reflected in his angry erratic outbursts. He was continually being oppositional towards adults, and did not respond well when he was given consequences to his negative actions, nor when he received positive reinforcement for his positive actions. The extremely caring and talented school principal was at a loss in relation to this student.

Though much has been written on the topic of the "oppositional child," techniques often deal with working with the child's limitations, rather than focusing on his/her future potential. A therapist/counselor might advise an oppositional child to deal with an irritating teacher's personality by trying not to get "caught," rather than seeing the child's future potential working together with a teacher, and classmates. This initial approach is quite understandable, as an oppositional child is often quite guarded and used to being offensive in response to authority.

However, one needs to follow a more "humanistic" philosophy, stressing the human being's endless potential, and how our positive thoughts can sometimes aid this process. An adult needs to possess a belief in the child's eventual ability to acclimate appropriately to the world around them.

Since an oppositional child doesn't often receive a "straight" message comfortably – be it a compliment or a direct request – a parent needs to speak in a more paradoxical round-about manner to achieve desirable results. A parent can use humor in getting a point across, saying: "I think that Sara is hiding… the Sara I know wouldn't say such a thing to her brother," and then proceed to search for their daughter in the living room. In a similar vein, a parent can say: "Do you think that I am so silly to think that you're not a good girl? I know better than that!" Since these are not direct statements, they can be received much easier by oppositional children.

Most essentially, an adult needs to be very specific in verbal praise when such an indirect statement is made. If an adult says: "Do you think that you can fool me into thinking that you're not a good girl? I know that you did 'x and y' this morning." one must be specific in praise. This praise needs to reflect the adult's value system and not be a perfunctory praise, such as: "You were a good boy today." Such praise can be: "Do you think that I'm so silly to think that you are a selfish boy? I know that you shared your new truck with your brother. That took a lot of kindness on your part." If the praise is specific and heartfelt, there is less chance of it being disregarded, even if it initially has to be given in an indirect manner.

Such methods were used with Shmuel and his teachers. We spoke openly to him about his inability to hear praise, and ways that he could hear compliments. We also spoke of "passwords" that we would all use to remind him that we were also truly "on his side." We spoke to Shmuel, his parents and siblings in a family session, stressing the support that the family could give him in assisting with his very low frustration tolerance. Shmuel's teachers and para-professional worked with him directly using these methods, avoiding direct criticisms at all costs. Consequences of his negative actions prevailed, but he was warned gently and his acting-out behavior greatly decreased.

One can sometimes problem-solve quite successfully with such children if the parameters of solutions and suggestions involved are extremely clear and these ideas allow for optional alternative plans (if the initial endeavors fail). Such children will be less disappointed in adults if they see that some issues are beyond anyone's control.

Optional plans allow for the unexpected, and adults' limitations, so that the oppositional child will have less reason to be angered as their expectations will be more realistic. Some children's responses are more tempered, and they are more responsive to adults when certain difficult issues are explained to them. Some oppositional behavior is due to lack of understanding when certain children are expected to "obey" without sufficient understanding of a difficult circumstance that confronts them.

A parent needs to put a great amount of energy into not responding in a defensive manner to an oppositional child (though this is a natural initial response). Once a power struggle begins, there are no victors in this battle. Since such a child's behavior is built on a multitude of factors, a parent's response needs to be varied as well. One response might be due to a child's low frustration tolerance, and another might be due to a child's intense issue with sibling rivalry. A parent needs to attempt to differentiate their responses depending on the given situation.

A parent also needs to attempt to use preventive measures to avoid power struggles. If a parent is aware of possible issues emerging in a given situation, it needs to be spoken about to avoid unnecessary stress with their oppositional child. The stance that a parent needs to reflect is that of compassion and sensitivity towards ones child, and not a fear of the child's possible volatile response. A child can sense if their behavior becomes a manipulative tactic or a cry to be understood. To avoid this pattern from becoming a negative one, a parent needs to be patient and compassionate and not fearful and defensive. Avoiding power struggles is clearly the continual challenge when working with such children.

Shmuel became much less distrustful and impulsive in his behavior, but it took much time and continual work on the staff and family's part. He was also given a special task to coordinate in school, which greatly enhanced his self-esteem. He no longer needed to exhibit acting-out behavior in order to receive attention from others. This activity was given as his responsibility (rather than a reward) so it followed him whether he behaved appropriately or not.

In order to work with an oppositional child successfully, one needs to be creative, and believe in the child's eventual potential to deal with authority in a positive and constructive manner. With the above mentioned methods, it is shown that such children can greatly develop their potential in a meaningful way throughout their lives.