Interacting with Defiant Students


Got defiance?

Handling defiant students (or personal children) can be one of the most difficult aspects of teaching, particularly when we don’t feel supported by others on the support team.

Having a large toolbox of strategies and ideas can help. I’m sharing the ideas I’ve gathered over time from lots of sources, and I’m listing them out here.

Why am I sharing these?

Gifted kids are not naturally more defiant than typical learners. However, when they are, it’s a sight to see (preferably from the duck-and-cover position).

Many of the readers of this site are gifted adults, and friends, we’re not always awesome at handling defiant kids. We can turn into crotchedy old men (“Young whippersnappers. My mama woulda tanned my hide if I talked to a grown-up like that. Someone needs to [fill in blank with politically incorrect intervention].”).

I am not naturally a patient person. Defiance on the part of students (or my own personal children) can do me in like a boxer knocked out cold in the first round.

I have made egregious mistakes as both a teacher and a parent, and I’ve also (more commonly) made choices that look good on paper but didn’t work out at all as planned.

I’d love your ideas, too, so please share in the comments!

Lisa’s List of 25 Ideas for Interacting with Defiant Students

  1. Avoid commands; embrace options (“Would you rather this or this” as opposed to “You need to” or “You should”).
  2. Use appropriate materials (avoid “infantile” materials), and keep the work at the zone of proximal development (not too hard and not too easy). Frustration and boredom feed defiance.
  3. Avoid escalating by shouting, physical touch, or cornering a student, staring, pointing your finger, or placing your hands on your hips. Check what you look like in a mirror. It may be different from what you think.
  4. Stay neutral (avoid letting your negative impressions show on your face). Keep yourself relaxed. Breathe out for a second longer than you breathe in a few times.
  5. Have very few, very clear rules. Have them prominently displayed and fairly enforced. Include students in their development.
  6. Breakdown tasks into very small pieces to allow for feelings of accomplishment. I mean micro tasks, people.
  7. Provide lots of authentic positive feedback privately. Publicly praising a child for going through an hour without being sent to the office is backhanded praise at best.
  8. Greet with genuine welcome. Kids (and adults) can easily tell when you were secretly hoping that they wouldn’t show up that day.
  9. Check in often (“How are you doing?” “Everything going okay?”). Don’t wait for the tsunami to turn from a swell to a wave. Test the waters frequently.
  10. You will not win a power struggle. Do not engage (stay calm and detached).
  11. Teach social skills when the child is not agitated.
  12. Use punishment sparingly – it simply doesn’t work.
  13. Have a crisis plan and share it ahead of time. (“If we have a situation that is emotionally or physically dangerous for you or me or the class, I will ….”)
  14. Proactively monitor to redirect before escalation. Don’t wait for disaster.
  15. Listen in a way that shows you’re listening – nod, reflect, paraphrase.
  16. Avoid sarcasm (even though it can be soooo fun).
  17. When redirecting/addressing issues, remind student of his/her value and make it clear that it’s simply the behavior that is unwanted by you, not him/her.
  18. Allow cool-down breaks (in the corner of the room or outside with supervision) for all students, not just those who struggle with defiance all of the time. We all need cool-downs. Well, at least I do.
  19. Ask students what’s going on. Don’t assume you know, even if it seems obvious. (“What do you think happened here…”).
  20. Avoid asking “why” – no one knows, really, why he/she does anything. At best, we’re guessing. At worst, we’re lying. Our 20/20 hindsight isn’t really effective with motivation for actions.
  21. Be positive (“I’ll come help you when you get back to your seat” instead of “If you don’t sit down, I can’t help you”).
  22. Increase your array of options – don’t respond to every issue as if it’s Defcon 1.
  23. Keep discussion brief. Avoid going on and on with even the most amazing of lectures on behavior.
  24. Balance the energy level of the response with the level of the outburst. A child who is physically tantruming isn’t going to want to color instead of throwing a chair.
  25. Gently acknowledge the emotion to help students name it (“Are you feeling…?” “It looks like you may be feeling…”). Naming emotions helps calm them. It’s neuroscience.

And one more idea…

Be patient with yourself, too. It’s natural to be frustrated. It’s natural to feel exhausted.

If you handle a situation in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily choose as your exemplar work, it’s okay.

Tomorrow will be here [too] soon. Try again. You’ll get another chance to be awesome.

Remember that the child who is hardest to love may be the one who needs it most, may be the loneliest child, the most desperate for affection, and the one who cannot express any other emotion besides frustration. I was often that child.

Disclaimer: I’m not a mental health professional, and I don’t even play one on TV. My best friend is, though, and she maintains the Emotional Health page on this site.

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