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Defusing Defiance in the Classroom
Jennifer L. W. Fink
Practical strategies for coping with defiant students.
By the time Antonio walked through the doors of Bronwyn Harris’s third-grade classroom, he’d already secured a reputation as a troublemaker. Harris, a veteran teacher in Oakland, California, had worked with many troubled students, but she wasn’t prepared for Antonio.
“He said ‘no’ sometimes before I even finished asking,” Harris recalls. “Once, I said, ‘Hey, you don’t even know what I was going to ask you.’ He said, ‘It doesn’t matter. No!’ Another time, a kid tapped him on the shoulder, and Antonio turned around and attacked him, fists swinging.”
Harris reached out to the boy’s family and found out he had been diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder. Harris had never heard of ODD before, but when she looked it up, she understood why she felt so stressed and helpless. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, ODD is “a pattern of disobedient, hostile, and defiant behavior directed toward authority figures.”
You may never encounter a student with an official diagnosis of ODD; experts say that somewhere between 1 and 16 percent of students are affected, but many are undiagnosed. Yet you’ll almost certainly encounter opposition and defiance in the course of your career. (After all, defiance can be a part of normal development.) Here are some strategies for keeping the peace and creating a happier, healthier classroom community.
Establish realistic behavior targets.
Let’s say you have a student who refuses to sit on the rug for story time, and instead throws a fit and leaves the room. First, identify the behavior you’d like to see. Be realistic: If the child is habitually leaving the room, simply staying put is a big step.
Then, collect some baseline data. How often is the child behaving in the desired way? Zero percent of the time? Twenty percent? Baseline data helps you set reasonable goals and track growth, says David Anderson, senior director of the ADHD and Disruptive Behavior Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute. Work toward increasing the target behavior over a week, using a combination of positive reinforcement and consistent consequences. Don’t expect magic, cautions Anderson. Behavior change is slow and takes practice.
Praise positive behavior.
Children who exhibit defiant behavior receive lots of negative attention. Shift the focus to the positive by giving specific feedback when you notice the child engaging in the target behavior. But note: Some of these kids are so used to negative feedback that positive feedback can make them feel insecure, says Raychelle Lohmann, a school counselor at Wake Young Men’s Leadership Academy in Raleigh, North Carolina. “Be careful of suddenly putting them in the spotlight,” she advises, as many react defensively. Depending on the student, it might be best to whisper a note of praise, or to talk to the student privately.
Wait before reacting.
Sometimes teachers unwittingly set the stage for defiance by assuming the worst about a child. “We may be so worried that the child will act out that we end up being overly coercive,” Anderson says. “But many times, the child may not be planning on acting out.” So take a deep breath and don’t intervene unless necessary. You may be able to avoid a power struggle altogether—and be pleasantly surprised with positive behavior that you can praise instead.
Talk to your class.
Oppositional behavior affects the entire class, so it’s important to acknowledge what’s going on.
“One day when Antonio wasn’t at school, I talked to the class about how different things are easy for different people, and how some people have an easier time controlling their feelings than others,” Harris says. “The students responded really well and were [better] able to ignore Antonio’s outbursts later.”
Remember that students may not be as sensitive to disruptive behavior as adults are. “Kids are often more tolerant of what others are working on,” Anderson says. He suggests teachers say, “We all have moments where we lose our cool or have difficulty following directions. That’s something we as a class are working on, and our job is to help one another.”
Ask your school counselor for help. They can conduct a non-obtrusive observation of student behavior and teacher interactions, and provide tips to de-escalate behavior problems. They may also be willing to work with students individually. “Oftentimes, these kids just get mad, and they don’t realize there’s a sequence of steps that happens,” Lohmann says. “I teach them how to identify triggers and what to do when they start feeling mad.”
Rebecca Briscoe, a second-grade teacher at Harmony School of Exploration in Houston, also recommends establishing a relationship with your school’s special education team, even if there’s no IEP. “If a student is having an outburst and you can’t deal with it, call them,” she says. They can use their specialized tactics to calm things down, and may even be able to work with the child one-on-one while you teach the rest of the class.
Establish a system of emotional communication.
Empower your students by working out a system of communication that allows them to let you know when they’re nearly at the end of their rope. Try a 1–10 scale, with 10 standing for “everything is wonderful” and 1 representing the worst. To keep it private, try having your student pass you a card, or give an agreed-upon non-verbal signal.
If a child indicates he’s having a bad day, it’s best to keep things low key. Some good alternatives for high-stress days include allowing the student to read quietly, to work off some energy in the gym or other part of the school, or to visit a counselor.
Make a contract.
Behavioral contracts can work well for middle school students, but only if they are involved in problem solving and help identify both target behaviors and rewards and consequences.
First, keep expectations reasonable: “If a student isn’t doing any homework, they’re more likely to start doing part of it rather than all of it,” says Anderson, who advises a future—oriented rather than a punitive approach. “You might point out that they have a free period where they could ask for some homework support, or you could ask them if there are ways they can structure their environment at home to be free of distraction.”
Take specific and measured action.
General guidelines—such as keeping a GPA above 2.0 to play sports—aren’t helpful for many kids. Create specific action plans that detail the steps students need to take, supports, and scheduled check-ins.
Involving a student’s family may or may not be helpful. Often, families are overwhelmed and exhausted. When defiance is a problem in the classroom, it’s best to let the school or district psychologist take the lead in setting up parent-teacher meetings.
Understand students’ challenges.
“These kids can push every button a teacher has,” Lohmann says. And the all-too-human reaction to constant defiance are feelings of dislike and frustration. Yet, it’s important to step back. “You’ve got to understand they’re still children,” Lohmann says. “Step into their shoes and think about what it would be like to feel that level of anger and frustration constantly, to not have a lot of friends. Then, you can start to develop a relationship with the child,” she continues. “And we know that if these kids start to trust their teachers and really believe their teachers are there for them, these children will start to work with them.”
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Photo: Adam Chinitz
Stress Busters & Sanity Savers Dealing with defiance from students is emotionally exhausting.
“There was a constant feeling of stress and helplessness,” says Bronwyn Harris, recalling her experiences teaching students with ODD. Left unchecked, those feelings may derail your efforts to help them—while decreasing your overall quality of life. These steps can help you manage the strong emotions triggered by defiance.
Find a Buddy Teacher. When Harris needed a break, she’d send her student with ODD to a colleague’s classroom. The break would give both her and the student (and the class) time to regroup. Look for a buddy teacher who can calmly handle difficult situations, and be sure to share any insider tips and tricks (triggers, behavior plans) with her.
Acknowledge Your Reactions. “You can ignore a behavior, but you can’t always ignore how it impacts you,” says Sherianna Boyle, a former school psychologist and author of The Four Gifts of Anxiety: Embrace the Power of Your Anxiety and Transform Your Life. You’ll likely feel angry and frustrated at times. Instead of suppressing those emotions, or feeling ashamed of them, talk about them with a trusted colleague or friend, or try keeping a journal.
Ask For Support. Don’t try to go it alone. In addition to your buddy teacher, make sure you reach out to your school’s special education team and administration, even if your student doesn’t have an official diagnosis or IEP plan. They can provide concrete suggestions and support. Identify sources of emotional support, too, and take advantage of your district’s employee assistance program if you feel you’re beginning to burn out.
Student defiance could be categorized as the worst immediate behavior that can happen (safety issues aside). I’m talking about the teacher asking the class to undertake some task (including giving their silent attention) and having a child simply refuse to do it.
This is can be an extremely difficult and emotional issue for a teacher because it sets up a cascade of reactive responses that is familiar to any parent dealing with an argumentative toddler or teenager:
- My authority is being undermined and I look weak
- If I lose this battle now, I’ll lose bigger battles in the future
- If I lose this battle now, other kids will question my authority
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Recognizing emotional reactions
This can lead to a head-to-head confrontation in which both parties steadily entrench into their positions, hardening their will to “win.” If you allow this to happen, the only things I can guarantee is that your classroom discipline plan will suffer and your stress level will escalate. (Teacher burnout, anyone?)
It doesn’t have to be this way, for one simple reason:
The student is a child and you are an adult.
That sentence sums up a few big differences between your students and you:
- They are impulsive. You have learned to master your impulses.
- They are reactive. You have learned that reaction can cause escalation.
- They are emotional. You have learned that emotions cloud judgment.
And perhaps most important:
- They react simplistically. You react intentionally, having had time to think the situation through and mentally prepare for classroom interventions in advance (by reading my website!)
That last one is very important. You don’t “win” by brute force, you succeed by changing the landscape of the argument faster than the child can react. You play the classroom discipline game on your terms, using your rules, rather than theirs.
Student defiance doesn’t stand a chance!
Remember, you have a few decades of life experience and a college degree that helps you remain in control and use your brain; your student has been walking and talking for less than ten years. You really can do better than her… I promise!
Video tips: handling outright defiance
Mastering emotional reactions
When challenged, first remember that although your authority seems to be non-existent at the moment, you still retain a solid foundation of authority that allows your words to carry more weight than you think:
1. You have physical authority
You are an adult who is often quite a bit taller than the student and you are often standing vs. sitting… a height advantage in a discussion.
This does not mean that you should physically threaten – and in fact I recommend getting down to the student’s level when you really want to communicate with impact – it simply means that even the most recalcitrant child knows instinctively that they are not dealing with a peer who can easily be bullied.
2. You carry the title of “teacher” and represent an institution (the school) that has been an authority in the child’s life for a few years.
This is true even if the school system has been an often-disobeyed authority. You are, so to speak, the living embodiment of authority within his small world. Student-teacher relationships are not equal ones.
3. If you are managing your classroom community correctly, you have all or nearly all of the other students “on your side.”
The obstinate student quickly finds that rather than starting a mutiny, as he may be able to do at home when surrounded by his siblings and friends, he is being watched wide-eyed by other students who are dismayed at his disruption of the comfortable, supportive classroom environment they have come to value.
He is alone against the majority, a place that a social animal like a human does not like to be.
Removal from the classroom
The foundational aspects of classroom authority, as outlined above, allow you to make the following steps very effective.
Let’s take an example from one of the case studies on this page: “Jake.” His pattern was to proclaim that my instructions were stupid and mutter to those around him that they didn’t need to follow them.
First, don’t set up a battle you can’t win.
You cannot physically make the child stop talking or shredding his paper or making faces, so don’t even insist on it. Other classroom interventions are much more effective.
Next, it’s time for clear communication:
Explain your expectation to the child.
You do this just as you would for any other classroom behavior or class activity:
“Jake, my expectation is that everyone is working quietly on their math worksheet. If you have some questions for me about the problems I’ll be glad to help you.”
Assuming the behavior does not stop…
Let the rest of the class know what is going on.
“Jake is struggling to meet expectations and needs some time to work on that. We are going to ignore him and continue with our math worksheet.
This isolates Jake’s behavior even more from the norms of the rest of the class, increasing his sense that it’s his behavior that is out of place.
If the disruption continues at a level you can’t ignore…
Give the child a choice.
“Jake, if you don’t think you can start meeting expectations, you can choose to think about it in the office or in Mr. Dillard’s room.”
Calling for backup
If the child refuses to move and the disruption to classroom discipline continues, it is time to call for backup from the office. The principal can then offer more choices to the child. The principal’s words might sound like this:
“Jake, you need some time to figure out the impact you are having on the other kids in the class. You can come with me to the office and we can talk to your mom or the counselor about the best thing to do.”
Absolute refusal to budge in the face of even the principal’s involvement is rare, especially if the student is given some face-saving “outs” in the form of making choices. If it does occur, then you and your principal need to be ready to call the parent to come to the school immediately, or to call in other school resources.
Alternately, in an extreme situation, you may be in a position to remove the class from the child by going out for a short recess or, if the timing is right, heading out for lunch, music, library, etc. Of course, this can only be done if the principal or another adult is already involved and can stay with the defiant student.
Preparing for the next time
You have now been warned that this behavior is going to be a problem and can proactively increase your chances of success in the next round. You do this by reducing the student’s position of power by rearranging his seating.
As explained on that page, it must be done thoughtfully, with kindness, and fully explained to the student.
You should also take the opportunity to keep your classroom community informed about what is happening.
- Always restate expectations
- Try simple things first
- Don’t overreact
- Don’t overdo it
- Offer choices
- Call for backup
Once you figure out how to handle the worst that can happen, you can handle any disruption to your classroom with confidence. Even oppositional-defiance or swearing.
I am a retired teacher that worked with defiant students for most of my thirty years. I took several classes on working with the Defiant child. Defiant students were sent to my class so the teachers could calm down. I agree with your advice.
My problem is that I have a 5-year-old grandchild who is somewhat defiant in his kindergarten class. His teacher has taught 30 years and is probably looking to teach for another 5 years. What I see is burnout. Her way of dealing with defiant students to tell the parents to keep them home another year. In this, the child wins. In the extra year, the child discovers that by being defiant, they can control their situation. One child in his class has started two times before.
My question: How do I get across to the kindergarten teacher that putting my grandson in the thinking chair at school isn’t going to work and having him pull out of school isn’t going to work either. I don’t want to be a know-it-all grandfather. On the other hand, I can’t just sit back and watch it go down. I live in another state or I would homeschool him. Help!Reply
James, I commend your concern about your grandson and your desire to help. This is going to be a tough one. What is the likelihood that a 30-year teacher is going to welcome input from parents who refuse to play by his rules? As always when dealing with teachers: Be calm no matter what, be resolute, and expect them to do their jobs.
As for how to get it across, it comes down to simply not agreeing to pull the child out. Really. Visit the teacher and be firm that the child stays because he needs the experience and is ready for it, but you want to talk over the teacher’s plan (not yours!) for helping the boy learn to behave in class. This is the teacher’s job, and he may just need to be reminded of the fact that he’s a trained professional who’s supposed to be able to handle this.
Parents can reinforce at home, but the teacher must individualize a plan for his time at school.
“What is your plan for helping him learn to behave?”
“What can I do at home to reinforce the plan you put in place at school?”
“When should I follow up again to check on progress? How about two weeks?”
Give the teacher some leeway to implement his plan, even if it’s not the way you would do it. At all times, act like you are on the same team and only have the best interests of the child in mind.
Then stop by the principal’s office to introduce yourself and share why you are there and when you’ll be following up. You are the customer!
If the plan isn’t sound or he refuses to make one, you go to the principal. If the principal is afraid of this teacher and won’t make him do his job, then you go to the district administration and ask why a principal and teacher won’t work with you.
At all times: calm, resolute, not taking no for an answer. And I doubt it will be helpful to say anything like, “When I was a teacher…”
Thank you for your suggestions. I am a grandma who sees this defiance in our home. He has been to anger management and brain mapping and detention and nothing seems to work.
He comes from single-parent home. We have him on weekends. He is 8 and refuses to do what is not his wish and either breaks things or kicks or just plain won’t do. He is a 3rd grader.
Second grade was awful and 3 days into school and he is already sitting out. If given a paper, he just refuses or tears it up. He is with his grandpa a lot who is strict and he respects him. His uncle has no problems. He seems to have no respect for women.
Hi Lynda. This sounds like a heartbreaking scenario for you.
As you’ve seen, all of my advice is for teachers and how to control this sort of behavior in their classrooms. Behavior in the home is outside of my area of experience.
I do know that this child needs all the adults in his life that he can get, so I hope you are able to hang in there. Kids change a lot over short periods of time, so you never know what may happen in his life to make him approach relationships differently.Reply
Thank you for sharing these tips. I am new in this field, but most of my struggles come from students who are straight out defiant. Defiance such as, “I’m about to punch you teacher or student” or ” What are you going to do about it?”. I am going to try all the technqiues you’ve share. I am learning as I go :-). Thanks again for your quick response on Youtube and having these awesome resources!Reply
You are so welcome! I’m glad that I could help you with these ideas. I love it when teachers keep learning and growing. Good luck!Reply
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More on: Tough Discipline Cases
Foundations of Great Classroom Behavior
Effective Student Behavior Consequences
Desk Separation for Behavior Management
Elementary Classroom Discipline Case Studies
How to Handle Student Defiance
Building Discipline Plan: Involving Your Principal
Elementary Behavior Plans and Contracts
School Resources to Help with Discipline
The Oppositional-Defiant Child and Swearing
Handling Discipline Issues from Outside Your Classroom
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