Posted on 02/22/2017

“This defiant student is undermining my authority. I feel like he has hijacked my classroom.” The defiant student-- defiant of the rules and of authority-- often dominates the teacher’s and the entire classroom’s time and energy, making the teacher feel as if he/she is “losing control” of the class. It feels like a personal affront to one’s authority as an educator, as if the student is purposely disrespectful. However, the reality is that the defiant student’s goal is not to annoy, frustrate, or disrespect you. Rather, he or she is often seeking to feel significant, to feel “heard” or in control of an often chaotic life.

Students who have experienced trauma or come from adverse circumstances (i.e. who have experienced abuse/neglect, parental substance abuse or mental illness, household violence, or even parental separation or divorce), often experience a loss of control. At times their living situations are completely controlled by adults, while at other times even the adults in their lives seem to be “out of control” (i.e. substance abuse, uncontrolled tempers). These students experience a sense of insignificance, as if their feelings or thoughts regarding their own lives do not matter. Other circumstances that affect a sense of control and significance include role reversals when students, even the youngest ones, have to grow up quickly and be the “adult” in the family, caring for their younger siblings or even their parents. These students feel as if they must control their environment, as they have not experienced a safe childhood in which there is a safe and reliable authority in charge (i.e. parent or caregiver).

When challenging situations occur in the classroom, it is important to honor the defiant student’s need to feel significant and to feel as if he/she has some control over his/her own life. Often gaining compliance from these students means giving up some “control” in favor of choice. Allowing them to feel as if they have choices in activities, projects, and class work, even if simple ones such as completing the front or back of the worksheet, using pencil or pen, or completing a reading or math assignment first, allows them to feel as if they have some choice or control in their seemingly “uncontrollable” lives. Allowing them some choice, some control, and to feel as if they are truly heard helps them to feel significant.

Teacher student relationship is incredibly important. Research shows that one of the most important resiliency factors for children and adolescents is a relationship with one supportive adult. Supporting these “defiant” students means giving them a voice (i.e. helping them feel heard and understood in the classroom) and a choice. As Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson suggest in The Whole-Brain Child Workbook, “Instead of command and demand, try connect and redirect.”

Here are fifteen strategies for dealing with defiance in the classroom:

  1. Create a sense of community within the classroom, for example using community-building circles regularly. It is important for students to feel valued, as if they belong, and that their voice matters (to the teacher and to their peers) in their classroom community. This also allows students to feel safe to explore new ways of “being” and acting.
  2. Have regular check-in times or temperature checks with the entire class so that student voice is heard and you have a gauge of each student’s understanding of concepts or their mood.
  3. Make clear expectation and explicitly teach expectations.
  4. Focus on the positive and acknowledge when students meet expectations (or reward approximations in some cases).
  5. Build consistency, predictability, and routine into every day. Use visual schedules and warn students of any schedule changes ahead of time.
  6. Give choices, and as many as possible, when appropriate.
  7. Encourage and acknowledge creativity, new ideas, and alternative ideas.
  8. Look at function of behavior (i.e. what was the antecedent and the consequence).
  9. Slow down, avoid reacting or hovering, and give yourself a few seconds to process and assess the situation before responding. This gives the student time and space to regain control of themselves and their ability to cooperate and make better choices.
  10. Talk to the student privately, without drawing more attention to the behavior.
  11. Avoid power struggles. Calmly give redirection or a choice, walk away and wait for compliance. If necessary, provide a consequence that is not isolating or exclusionary.
  12. Use planned ignoring when necessary.
  13. Avoid asking a student “why.” They often do not know why they behave the way they do and reasoning, emotional appeals, and negotiating will not work.
  14. Teach the entire class breathing techniques to help self-regulate. Create a calming place in the classroom or on campus where students can go, at any time, when frustrated.
  15. Teach kids how to disagree appropriately, with one another and with adults. Students who have experienced adverse circumstances may not have learned or seen adults model how to disagree appropriately and safely.

Always remember that defiant students are simply attempting to “control” what they can in their own chaotic worlds-- attempting to feel significant in a world in which they feel small and unheard. Allow them to have a choice, a voice, and help them to feel heard as a significant member of the classroom community.