Students who are defiant, or present characteristics of oppositional behavior present a particular challenge in the classroom environment where almost everything is governed by schedules and rules. Both schedules and rules are the triggers for power struggles with these students. For classroom teachers who have had a truly oppositional student in their class, they know firsthand the challenges of keeping the lesson on track, tending to the learning of all students in the classroom, and helping the defiant student be successful. Here are some TIPS you may find helpful:
1) Establish a relationship based on the student’s interests: And make it genuine. This cannot be over emphasized. If the relationship isn’t there, nothing else will fall into place. The defiant child who doesn’t care about rules isn’t going to do something because the norms dictate s/he should, or because everyone else is. S/he is only going to do it because he has made a connection with you or wants something you have to give him – your time, your approval, etc. The genuine-ness has to be based on the student’s interests, whether it be dinosaurs, or drawing, or dirt-biking. Ask questions about it, find out everything you can about it, talk about it a lot with the student. Even better, connect it to the curriculum if you can.
2) Know what doesn’t work: Aggressive or authoritarian language which immediately moves you into power struggles, situations that push the student into a corner or where the student cannot “save face”, pleading or bargaining, threats, and punitive consequences. All of these have been shown to only increase defiant behavior.
3) Adjust the physical environment of your classroom: More than anything, maintain routines and predictability. Minimize time spent on transitions so as to minimize time the student can be off task and become oppositional. Taking the time to teach your class how to handle materials such as passing in papers and getting out supplies is called ‘front-loading’ and worth the investment. Minimize distractions, including who sits near the student. And finally, consider where the student is seated. Many teachers will seat the difficult students near the back of the classroom, but often the oppositional student needs to be removed from the classroom. A seat near the door minimizes interruptions if the student comes or goes.
4) Avoid Power Struggles: Don’t fall into the trap of “because I said so” or “It’s the rule”. Use neutral language as much as possible and state expectations using matter-of-fact wording. For example, “Everyone should have their book open to page 42,” instead of “Why don’t you have your book out?” Offer choices whenever possible and honor the student’s ideas in problem-solving. When the student is having difficulty behaving in the classroom, instead of making him or her leave, offer the option of going to talk to another adult about the situation as a resource. And finally, ask yourself if you can let it go, or if you can address it later. When the student is telling you what he or she wants, find that kernel that you can agree with, state that you want it too, and work forward from there. For example, if the student declares, “I want to be able to make my own decisions!” Respond with, “I want you to be able to do that too. Let’s go talk about times that would be okay for you to do that.”
5) Curricular Strategies: Defiant students will often insist they don’t see how the lesson relates to them, how they will use the material, or why it’s relevant. You may need to go the extra mile to help the student make connections – or make it a class exercise. This is good practice for all students. It may also help to adjust the pacing of the lesson, and vary the tasks. Pay attention to what kind of learner the student is (i.e. kinesthetic, visual, etc.). Make use of peer groups and use peers as supports if needed. Make opportunities for meaningful participation where you can.
6) Provide Skills Training: Oppositional students have spent so much time being defiant, they may not have developed the skills needed to appropriately disagree, say no, debate, participate in classroom discussions, and other ways to interact with their peers. This is best done with the whole class, but then can be reinforced in small groups and with the oppositional student throughout the year.
7) Teach Self-Monitoring: Ideally, you want the student to get to the point where s/he can monitor the behaviors without your help. This is a multi-prong approach. Most importantly, you point out positive behaviors coupled with time span. “You have been working quietly for 10 minutes, that’s excellent on-task behavior.” This pairing is crucial because the student needs to understand that not only do we want to see the positive behavior, but we want to lengthen the duration. On the flip side, you want the student to be able to identify his/her triggers and be able to remove him/herself from those situations before they escalate. To do this, you name the behavior/trigger, and suggest an alternative that allows the student to save face. “There is a lot of noise here and your breathing is getting heavy. Where would you like to go until things are quieter?”
8) Strive for natural consequences: It’s important to distinguish between natural consequences and punitive consequences. One of the most common punitive consequences in the younger grades is taking away recess. And yet these students are most in need of recess. A natural consequence for not following recess rules might be a loss of recess time, but arguing with the teacher during spelling or not staying in your seat during reading should not equate lost recess. If the infraction involves hurting another student emotionally or physically, involve the defiant student in restitution. If the student needs to be removed from class due to behavior, have the student write down what her/his behavior was and what s/he will do differently upon returning. If property was damaged, how will it be repaired or replaced?
9) Collaborate with parents: Parents may be just as challenged as you are and working in partnership can be both reassuring for the student and send a strong message. Or the parents may not see their child’s behavior as out of the ordinary and close communication from you will help put this is perspective so you can start getting support from home.
10) Find your support: Working with a defiant student can be challenging, draining, and even threatening. Make sure administration knows the extent of what you are dealing with. Make sure you have back up and the means to remove the student from the classroom should that be necessary. Know what the protocols are for doing so. Most importantly, remind yourself that this is not about you not being in control of your classroom. In fact, the best way for you to be in control is to refuse to engage. Your defiant student is counting on you wanting to have the last word, and when you refuse to do so, you have upended the game.
For information about staff training on Working with Defiant Students, please feel free to contact me.