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One of the most vexing challenges we face emerges when students respond to our requests, directions, or instructions with defiance. However, such resistance is rarely about us. In fact, in most situations, defiance is a response to what students are experiencing, feeling, and needing. Yet, how we choose to respond will likely determine whether we face a momentary distraction—or an escalating crisis. Fortunately, there are several steps and strategies we can employ to make defiance less frequent and disruptive.

Of course, our best course of action is to prevent defiance from occurring rather than responding to it after it does. Instead of waiting for students to resist us or push back, we can create conditions that make defiance less likely to occur. Here are four strategies we can tap.

An obvious first step is to build positive, powerful relationships with students. The stronger our relationships, the less likely it is for most students to push back or refuse our request or direction. Obviously, we want to have positive relationships with all students, but it is worth the investment to give extra attention and effort to building relationships with students who have a history or tendencies toward resistance, noncompliance, or outright defiance. When students know that we care about them, defiance will be a less frequent behavior choice.

Giving students choice is great, but involving students in planning, deciding, and goal setting related to learning is even more powerful. Students are less likely to resist when they play a meaningful role in creating their learning path. Defiance is often about power. When students experience power in deciding what they will do and learn, defiance becomes less useful or necessary.

We can pay attention to student needs and moods. When students are tired, stressed, hungry, depressed, or experiencing other challenges, defiance can be a “knee-jerk” reaction. Checking in with students as they enter the classroom, remaining aware of student attitudes and behaviors as the class unfolds, and observing how students are responding to requests and direction can often give us clues and help us to anticipate and avoid pushback and outbursts.

We might also make it a priority to notice and reinforce positive behavior, including small improvements and noticeable progress, especially from students who may struggle with their behavior. The focus of our attention matters. If a student can gain attention for positive behavior, unacceptable behavior becomes less necessary. If attention is what is driving the student’s defiant behavior, our attentiveness to acceptable behavior can satisfy that need.

The combined impact of these four strategies can dramatically reduce instances of defiant behavior. However, we will still occasionally encounter circumstances where defiant behavior will surface. When we find ourselves challenged with defiant behavior, there are steps we can take—and steps we can avoid.

Do:

  • Stay calm.
  • Listen without judgment, validate the student’s feelings, and empathize.
  • Use “I” statements and avoid observations or commands that begin with “you.”
  • Consider what may be the root cause of the behavior and respond accordingly.
  • Meet with the student privately to avoid having them grandstand or attempt to engage the rest of the class.
  • Present the student with acceptable options that sidestep the defiance.
  • Give the student an opportunity to cool down by engaging in another activity, such as getting a drink of water.

Don’t:

  • Take it personally or allow your ego to become involved.
  • Become angry, raise your voice, or engage in threatening nonverbal behaviors.
  • Enter the student’s personal space.
  • Make threats that may escalate the situation, especially if you cannot follow through with what you say.
  • Respond with judgments, generalizations, or accusations based on past behavior.
  • Bring the rest of the class into the conflict.
  • Put your relationship with the student at risk.
  • Hold a grudge against, ignore, or disengage from the student following the incident.

Defiance can feel challenging and unsettling. However, we can tap strategies to prevent most defiant behavior from occurring. We also have access to responses that can lower the “emotional temperature” and help everyone to move forward.

Note: Some students who are intensively and frequently defiant may be exhibiting what is known as Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). Certainly, these students will also benefit from the steps and strategies discussed in this blog, but they may also require more structured and intensive assistance. Our support might require a referral to and consultation with mental health professionals to ensure that these students receive the appropriate help.

Thought for the Week

When we understand another person’s perspective, what they are thinking and feeling, we are better able to relate to them and understand their needs.

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