Student defiance could be categorized as the worst immediate behavior that can happen (safety issues aside). I'm talking about the teacher asking the class to undertake some task (including giving their silent attention) and having a child simply refuse to do it.
This is can be an extremely difficult and emotional issue for a teacher because it sets up a cascade of reactive responses that is familiar to any parent dealing with an argumentative toddler or teenager:
- My authority is being undermined and I look weak
- If I lose this battle now, I'll lose bigger battles in the future
- If I lose this battle now, other kids will question my authority
Recognizing emotional reactions
This can lead to a head-to-head confrontation in which both parties steadily entrench into their positions, hardening their will to “win.” If you allow this to happen, the only things I can guarantee is that your classroom discipline plan will suffer and your stress level will escalate. (Teacher burnout, anyone?)
It doesn't have to be this way, for one simple reason:
The student is a child and you are an adult.
That sentence sums up a few big differences between your students and you:
- They are impulsive. You have learned to master your impulses.
- They are reactive. You have learned that reaction can cause escalation.
- They are emotional. You have learned that emotions cloud judgment.
And perhaps most important:
- They react simplistically. You react intentionally, having had time to think the situation through and mentally prepare for classroom interventions in advance (by reading my website!)
That last one is very important. You don't “win” by brute force, you succeed by changing the landscape of the argument faster than the child can react. You play the classroom discipline game on your terms, using your rules, rather than theirs.
Student defiance doesn't stand a chance!
Remember, you have a few decades of life experience and a college degree that helps you remain in control and use your brain; your student has been walking and talking for less than ten years. You really can do better than her… I promise!
Video tips: handling outright defiance
Mastering emotional reactions
When challenged, first remember that although your authority seems to be non-existent at the moment, you still retain a solid foundation of authority that allows your words to carry more weight than you think:
1. You have physical authority
You are an adult who is often quite a bit taller than the student and you are often standing vs. sitting… a height advantage in a discussion.
This does not mean that you should physically threaten – and in fact I recommend getting down to the student's level when you really want to communicate with impact – it simply means that even the most recalcitrant child knows instinctively that they are not dealing with a peer who can easily be bullied.
2. You carry the title of “teacher” and represent an institution (the school) that has been an authority in the child's life for a few years.
This is true even if the school system has been an often-disobeyed authority. You are, so to speak, the living embodiment of authority within his small world. Student-teacher relationships are not equal ones.
3. If you are managing your classroom community correctly, you have all or nearly all of the other students “on your side.”
The obstinate student quickly finds that rather than starting a mutiny, as he may be able to do at home when surrounded by his siblings and friends, he is being watched wide-eyed by other students who are dismayed at his disruption of the comfortable, supportive classroom environment they have come to value.
He is alone against the majority, a place that a social animal like a human does not like to be.
Removal from the classroom
The foundational aspects of classroom authority, as outlined above, allow you to make the following steps very effective.
Let's take an example from one of the case studies on this page: “Jake.” His pattern was to proclaim that my instructions were stupid and mutter to those around him that they didn't need to follow them.
First, don't set up a battle you can't win.
You cannot physically make the child stop talking or shredding his paper or making faces, so don't even insist on it. Other classroom interventions are much more effective.
Next, it's time for clear communication:
Explain your expectation to the child.
You do this just as you would for any other classroom behavior or class activity:
“Jake, my expectation is that everyone is working quietly on their math worksheet. If you have some questions for me about the problems I'll be glad to help you.”
Assuming the behavior does not stop…
Let the rest of the class know what is going on.
“Jake is struggling to meet expectations and needs some time to work on that. We are going to ignore him and continue with our math worksheet.
This isolates Jake's behavior even more from the norms of the rest of the class, increasing his sense that it's his behavior that is out of place.
If the disruption continues at a level you can't ignore…
Give the child a choice.
“Jake, if you don't think you can start meeting expectations, you can choose to think about it in the office or in Mr. Dillard's room.”
Calling for backup
If the child refuses to move and the disruption to classroom discipline continues, it is time to call for backup from the office. The principal can then offer more choices to the child. The principal's words might sound like this:
“Jake, you need some time to figure out the impact you are having on the other kids in the class. You can come with me to the office and we can talk to your mom or the counselor about the best thing to do.”
Absolute refusal to budge in the face of even the principal's involvement is rare, especially if the student is given some face-saving “outs” in the form of making choices. If it does occur, then you and your principal need to be ready to call the parent to come to the school immediately, or to call in other school resources.
Alternately, in an extreme situation, you may be in a position to remove the class from the child by going out for a short recess or, if the timing is right, heading out for lunch, music, library, etc. Of course, this can only be done if the principal or another adult is already involved and can stay with the defiant student.
Preparing for the next time
You have now been warned that this behavior is going to be a problem and can proactively increase your chances of success in the next round. You do this by reducing the student's position of power by rearranging his seating.
As explained on that page, it must be done thoughtfully, with kindness, and fully explained to the student.
You should also take the opportunity to keep your classroom community informed about what is happening.
- Always restate expectations
- Try simple things first
- Don't overreact
- Don't overdo it
- Offer choices
- Call for backup
Once you figure out how to handle the worst that can happen, you can handle any disruption to your classroom with confidence. Even oppositional-defiance or swearing.