How to Cope with Defiant Students


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The discipline problem many teachers dread most is student defiance. While defiance can take many forms, it is still easy to recognize: students who do not comply with reasonable requests and who challenge authority without regard to their teacher’s opinions or feelings. Not only do defiant students cause trouble for themselves, but their corrosive behavior can perplex even the most caring teacher. The worst damage they do, however, is to the other students who watch the out-of-control behavior of their defiant classmates and wait to see what steps their teacher will take to deal with it.

There are many things you can do to prepare yourself to successfully manage these students before they lose control, and then to help them once an outburst has occurred. Adapt the following strategies to prevent defiant students from taking control of your class.

Strategy 1: Anticipate and Prevent as Many Problems as You Can

Although it’s easy to overlook the signs of escalating frustration and anger when you need to focus on covering the mandated curriculum, many problems with confrontational students can be prevented or minimized with early action. A proactive step in preventing defiance is to observe the emotional weather of your classroom as you greet students when they enter the room and continue to monitor this throughout class. By paying attention to the early signs of trouble, you can separate students who are not getting along, encourage students who are struggling, or attend to many of the other issues that can lead to misbehavior.

It’s also helpful to have a plan in place before an outburst occurs so that you can minimize any disruptions. While you may already have a classroom framework of rules, policies and procedures in place, your students also need to be aware of the consequences that are associated with disruptive behavior if they are to make positive choices for themselves.

Strategy 2: Be Sure It’s Defiance and Not Frustration

It’s very easy to misread the signs of frustration as defiance. When students are frustrated, their behavior can seem like defiance: mumbling under their breath, slamming books and papers, work done poorly or not at all, refusing to work, or even imminent tears.

One way to avoid this is to make sure your instructions are precisely stated so that students know what is expected of them. For example, giving directions that ask students to complete observable actions will reduce frustration. Consider how much easier it is for students to follow directions such as “Open your book to page 17 and then raise your hand” than it is for them to try to figure out vague statements such as “Get ready” or “Look sharp.”

Students can also be frustrated if their work is too difficult or if it does not provide an interesting challenge. Consider establishing a signal with a potentially defiant student to let you know that frustration is building. Once a student has given the signal, you will then be able to provide assistance and reduce frustration.

Strategy 3: Stay Calm When a Student Is Defiant

Although you should take an angry outburst or other sign of defiance seriously, you should steady yourself before you begin. Be composed and in charge of yourself and the situation. Keep your voice low. Do not give into the temptation to threaten the student. Project a calm and matter-of-fact tone. Wait a moment or two to gather your thoughts. Often this brief delay will allow the student to calm down.

Strategy 4: Take a Problem-Solving Approach, Not a Punitive One

When you begin to work with defiant students, acknowledge their feelings of anger and frustration as quickly as you can. Although this is not an excuse for bad behavior, the student needs for you to pay attention to the reasons why the outburst happened. After this important first step, deal with the outburst and its causes by talking with the student. When you confer with defiant students, keep these strategies in mind:

  • You cannot help a defiant student in front of an audience. Speak with the defiant student privately.
  • It’s OK to say, “I need to think about this. We can discuss this later.” If time and circumstances permit, a good rule of thumb is to wait 20 minutes before talking with a student.
  • Be specific. Define the problem.
  • Say what you have to say in a few concrete words. Discuss only the issue at hand.
  • Don’t blame or be snarky.
  • Don’t threaten or bribe.
  • Work on the problem with the student, but remember you are the one in control of this situation.
  • Criticize and talk about the behavior and not the student.

Strategy 5: Work on Your Relationship with Defiant Students

It is up to you as the adult in the classroom to make sure you have a positive relationship with all the students in your class, even those who are confrontational or defiant. Because all students need to be treated fairly, the same standards should apply to every student in your class—regardless of whether a student is defiant. Make sure the student knows that the incident is now in the past. Without this step, the student will have no reason to behave appropriately in the future.