When Children Are Defiant

Photograph by Jeff Woodward.I once taught a second grader who sometimes subtly refused to go along with what we were doing. For instance, if we had to leave the classroom and John didn’t want to go, he’d get in line—but then walk as slowly as possible. The more his classmates and I urged him to walk faster, the slower he would go. At each deliberate step, I could feel my blood pressure rise. But in that moment, I could do little. I couldn’t physically make John walk faster; nor was he ready to rationally discuss his feelings or options. Rarely did a student’s behavior get to me, but John’s resistance always did.

When children are defiant, their goal is not to annoy, disrespect, or frustrate us. Rather, their goal often is to feel significant. Yet their defiance threatens our own similar need. As we both strive to feel significant, we can easily get enmeshed in a power struggle. How do you know you’re in a power struggle? You feel as if you’re being tested (which you are), and you get angry or irritated. You may even want to dominate the child to prove you’re the boss. But teachers never win power struggles. Once you’re in one, you’ve lost. And so has the child: No one wins a power struggle.

The best way to avoid power struggles and help a child who defies authority is to calmly work with him in ways that honor his genuine need to feel significant. Also critical is demonstrating that you still hold him (and everyone in the class) accountable for following the rules. And of course it’s best to help the child avoid defiance mode in the first place.

But how do you do all that while keeping your cool? Here’s a sampling of the practical techniques for addressing defiance presented in my book, Teasing, Tattling, Defiance, and More: Positive Approaches to 10 Common Classroom Behaviors.

Preventing Defiance

The more you proactively give children constructive ways to experience personal power, the more cooperative they’ll be. Here are some proactive steps to try:

Build a Positive Teacher-Student Relationship

Although this advice applies to all students, it’s crucial for students who tend to act defiantly. These children need to feel that despite any difficulties, you’ll still care about them, recognize their successes, and actively include them in the classroom community.

To build strong relationships, remind yourself that all children, including those who frustrate you, have positive attributes. Make a point of learning about your students’ interests, and channel their talents in ways that foster their sense of significance. For example, a child who’s good with her hands could be called on to fix stuck door latches or other small mechanical problems in the classroom.

Reinforce Progress and Effort

All children, but especially those who struggle with defiance, need to hear when they’re doing well and where they’re improving. Make a point of noticing the child’s successes (big and small) in following directions, transitioning smoothly, or doing anything that ordinarily might invite resistance. Reinforce the behavior by letting the child know you noticed, but do it privately to avoid calling attention to the child and inviting comparisons with classmates, and be specific. Whenever possible, also note how the cooperative behavior helps the child and others. For example: “When you get in line quickly, everyone has more time for recess” or “When you helped Kevin this morning, I think he felt valued. You were living out our rule to ‘take care of each other.'”

To avoid suggesting that pleasing you is what’s most important, steer clear of phrases such as “I like,” “I want,” and “I appreciate” when reinforcing positive behavior. A child who’s sensitive to being told what to do may feel manipulated by “I” statements.

Teach How to Disagree Respectfully

It’s empowering for all children—especially those who struggle with authority—to know that they may disagree with adults. Of course, allowing students to disagree doesn’t mean accepting all forms of disagreement. Part of becoming a contributing member of a democratic society is learning how to disagree respectfully.

When teaching children appropriate ways to disagree, make clear that in the moment, they still need to follow directions and rules. Let them know that later they can discuss what they think was unfair and what should be changed.

Teach children safe and respectful ways to show their disagreement, such as using respectful words and phrases like “I feel that” and “I suggest,” or writing a letter to you or dropping a note into a Complaint Box. Be sure to model these methods before expecting children to use them.

Channel Children’s Energy in Positive Directions

Children who challenge authority are often quite adept at taking on bigger causes. Working on issues they consider important can help focus their energy and build their sense of significance. Offer assignments such as writing letters to the school or town paper, community service projects, or researching an environmental issue.

De-escalating Defiance

Photograph by Jeff Woodward.When a child is being defiant, you need above all to keep her (and her classmates) safe while giving her a chance to cool down. These general guidelines will help you and the child navigate episodes of defiance:

  • Avoid doing anything that will heighten the child’s stress and invite more resistance. Simply put: Don’t push her buttons.
  • Don’t try to reason or make an emotional appeal to win the child over. While in the midst of defiance, he will likely be unable to respond to you in a positive way.
  • Slow down. Waiting a few seconds (if safety allows) before you say or do anything lets the child regain her ability to cooperate and also lets you assess the situation calmly and objectively.
  • After an incident, reflect on what preceded it. Eventually, you’ll begin to recognize the situations that set off the child’s defiance (such as unexpected schedule changes) as well as the signs that he’s becoming uncomfortable (such as opening and closing his fists or avoiding eye contact).

Following are some specific steps you can take to guide a child past active defiance.

Intervene Early—With a Respectful Reminder or Redirection

When you first see signs that a child may become defiant, respond as soon as you can with respectful reminders or redirections. If you wait until a child has dug in his heels, he will likely be less able to respond rationally to your directions.

Students who have difficulty cooperating can be especially sensitive to being ordered around. Remember to:

  • Be brief. Avoid lectures and sarcasm.
  • Speak calmly and matter-of-factly.
  • Use short, direct statements.
  • Avoid questions (unless you will accept any answer).
  • Keep your body language neutral.

For example, to a child who’s challenging directions by standing up and yell­ing, you might quietly say, “Andre, take a seat. You can read or draw for now.”

When Using Consequences, Offer Limited Choices

Once a child has become defiant, you may decide to use consequences. Remember, though, that children who struggle with defiance are often seeking power. Offering a choice between a couple of consequences (instead of giving a “do this” order) lets the child hold on to her sense of significance and dignity and teaches her (and the class) that she’s still being held accountable for her behavior. For example, when Anna refuses to move during a transition, you might say, “Anna, either you can come with us now, or I can have [name colleague] come sit with you. Which do you choose?”

Avoid Negotiating in the Moment

Once a child has defied you, decide on a redirection or consequence and remain firm in your decision. Negotiating during the incident will invite further testing. It also sends the message that children can avoid a redirection or consequence by resisting.

If you do find yourself in a power struggle, take a deep breath and disengage. Let the child (and the whole class, if watching) know that you’re finished talking for now and will address the issue after the child calms down. For instance: “Max, we’re done talking about that for now. Everyone, get your writing journals out and start on your stories from yesterday.”

Give the Child Time and Space

Once you’ve given a reminder, redirection, or consequence, be sure the child follows it. But physically step back to give him more space—literally and emotionally. Doing so lessens the sense that you’re trying to control him. But don’t expect immediate compliance. A child who struggles to follow directions often needs a minute or two to decide what to do. If you insist on immediacy, he may automatically resist.

Beyond Defiance

It’s easy to feel angry, irritated, or frustrated when children defy us. But when we find ways to rise above our own feelings, we can continue to appreciate our students and guide them beyond defiance. The result: We grow as teachers, while offering the children a path to success and a model of how to get along in the world.

Related Articles

  • Coaching Children in Handling Everyday Conflicts – ‘Teacher, he won’t play with me.’ ‘Teacher, she cut in line.’ ‘Teacher, he took my book.’ Such classroom conflicts are familiar in elementary school life. For years, resolving such conflicts for children filled my days. Read More –>
  • Public Discipline Systems – Public discipline systems—like Class Dojo, stoplights, moving clothespins along a colored card, writing names on the board—can certainly be appealing. Some days can feel as if they’re spent just disciplining, and public discipline systems promise to turn that around by decreasing misbehavior and increasing motivation … and these systems do work, but only in the short-term. Read More –>
  • Teaching Without Rewards – Children build on their strengths, and to do that building—to grow academically and socially—they need us to recognize and encourage their positive efforts. But what’s the best way to offer that recognition and encouragement? Read More –>

This article is adapted from Teasing, Tattling, Defiance and More, by Margaret Berry Wilson.

Margaret Berry Wilson is the author of several books, including: The Language of Learning, Doing Science in Morning Meeting (co-authored with Lara Webb), Interactive Modeling, and Teasing, Tattling, Defiance & More.

Teasing Tattling Defiance and More
Learn more about positive approaches to defiance in Teasing, Tattling, Defiance and More by Margaret Berry Wilson!


Tags: Challenging Behaviors, Classroom Rules, Misbehavior, Redirecting Language

17 Replies to “When Children Are Defiant”

  • I am a opportunity room aide. I deal with discipline. My room is basically the detention room. I often find myself being called to a classroom to get a child who refuses to go to me or have some sort of time out or reset. I am interested in more info on the defiant ones like how to get them out of the classroom with out a power struggle or making a scene.

    • I love tough kids! All students are looking for someone to notice them and you get to be the person who is with them at their lowest points of humiliation…being removed from class. There are quite a few layers to this issue and bottom line is that if they feel like they need to save face with their peers many times they will try and do this and act like it doesn’t matter. They are also trying to have both control and power in the “power struggle” that has already happened with the other adult that is asking them to leave. I do have some resources that explain how I would go about the task of removing a child from an environment they are no longer welcome to be in. Connect on LinkedIN! Al Scharrer

    • Stand your ground without using your voice. Sometimes walk away; let them win a small battle and after find out how you can get that student removed the next time it happens in class. So you can make sure to win the next 10 battles. Also, over compliment the good ones….even offer candy to those who are good as a thank you. Do that over and over again…kids do easily feel left out. If you get a small compliance by the trouble child, reward him for a small accomplishment…and a heart felt thank you.

  • Best way for me has been (4-6 graders) is NOT to raise your voice (unless in almost emergency). I use my body position to move them….i get REALLLLLLY close to them and wait. I have waited up to 10 min. Of course i get the class refocused onto a assignment. They will watch, which is fine. Once i get the student to reluctantly do what i need i give a heart felt THANK YOU…which can be very hard to mustard. I never hold it against them for more then 5 minutes. Their is NO 1 solution. Just be consistent….no bargaining when the bad behavior has started. I tell them we can try again tomorrow.

  • I have a group of defiant kids in the 5th grade. They come in in the morning and run around the room, wrestle and yell at each other. When told they will sometimes do what is asked but 5min later they are in the back of the room doing the same things again. I want to know how to head off these behaviors because they are disrupting instruction constantly.

  • I am a substitute teacher, sometimes aide. If I have to be brutally honest, I would say the problem has many sides. First of all, I am so bored in these classrooms. Everything is two-dimensional. There is very little time for kids to learn through play. The kids I work with that are labeled as special-ed, are almost always more intelligent than the others. They learn differently. Sometimes they love maps, history stories, astronomy, but those things are not even taught in elementary school. Quite frankly the science and history in higher grades are flat and boring.
    The second part of the problem is that these smart kids have learned to play the teachers like a fiddle. Most teachers are afraid to give the child a bad consequence to bad behavior. Kids can do whatever they want, and in the end they get a hug! The strange thing is, when I follow up bad behavior with a consequence, the kids feel safe, and they respond very well to me. They even request to be with me!

  • Hi I just found your article while finding ways to help one of my students who is extremely defiant. He is only six years old but he can be fine one moment and then we get ready to go to the bathroom or such and he becomes defiant and refuses to line up or come out of the classroom. I confess I get into that power struggle but mostly because I do not want to loose control of the rest of the class so I start to count, he gets worst then I give him warnings and tell him that I will take 5 min from his recess and gets worst and worst. I need help, I know that he is going through a tough time at home so I don’t want school to be a bad place for him as well but I don’t know what else to do. Can you give me some suggestions to help this child as a teacher.

    • Just a thought…. Can you have this child be line leader, or ender captain? My ender captains job is to make sure the students are following line expectations. The leaders leads the class where they are supposed to go. The captain makes sure the class line is straight and expected behaviors are being followed. Would this child be up for the task of modeling good behavior in line? Maybe he needs a job? Maybe you’ve already tried this.

      Also, when no struggle is present, talk to this student about a classroom behavior that matters to him, unrelated to the the line. Ask him what consequences should a class have if someone is breaking the classroom rule that matters to him. Then, see if you can slip in the line problem asking him what should a consequence be for (mention some random child) that child. Subtly connect the dots to his behavior.

  • When I meet a student several years ago this student didn’t know very much until I made cards. I made the cards from the index and started out with your basic words: he, she, it the and etc. This was very hard to do in the first grade, but we handled it very well. This student had Autism. With working in the special education department you never know what is going to happen next. Every student was different. It also, different help when some of the teachers were being mean to the aid. I always tried to keep him/her calm down, so we could keep on learning what we needed to do.

  • “When Using Consequences, Offer Limited Choices
    Once a child has become defiant, you may decide to use consequences. Remember, though, that children who struggle with defiance are often seeking power. Offering a choice between a couple of consequences (instead of giving a “do this” order) lets the child hold on to her sense of significance and dignity and teaches her (and the class) that she’s still being held accountable for her behavior. For example, when Anna refuses to move during a transition, you might say, “Anna, either you can come with us now, or I can have [name colleague] come sit with you. Which do you choose?””

    What do you do when a child WANTS to have someone sit next to them, and will misbehave in order to get it? I can’t have someone help me out with this one child all the time, but the child will continually get up out of her seat, go play when it’s circle time, etc., and the punishment is exactly what she wants…it’s not even a situation where they want any attention even if it’s negative; this “punishment” is a positive for her. She will also whine and roll around and complain at nap time in order to get this one adult to come sit and pat her to sleep. What’s worse is that she is the oldest in this class of 2’s/almost 3’s, and now the other children are following her example.

Comments are closed.