Kind words create kind actions. This can be a particularly helpful piece of knowledge when working with an oppositional-defiant student… even one who is aggressively defiant and possibly swearing in class.
I'm not one to sugarcoat things. This is teaching reality, and I do know a little about this.
I once had a child in my 4th grade class who swore loudly and repeatedly for months. And I don't mean an occasional “damn.” I mean words that start with “mother.” Shocking for adults to hear and quite traumatizing to the other kids in the classroom.
Open defiance in the classroom
So let's talk about an oppositional-defiant child who often won't do what you ask, usually won't follow expectations and talks back disrespectfully… but is not physically violent.
This is not a situation where a teacher can apply one little tip and get results. Rather, it's a situation where you'd better buckle up for the long haul because it will take consistent effort over a long period of time to moderate this behavior.
Where do we begin?
We begin with words
I return to my opening statement: “Kind words create kind actions,” except I'll modify that for our troubled and defiant child:
“Kind words are how we begin to change behavior.”
I don't mean your words – of course you are kind! As an education professional, you understand that children are born into all kinds of situations and are under the influence of things beyond their control that shape their reality… including pre-natal influences such as parental drug addiction.
That was the situation with my swearing student, and the fact that he lived in a meth house and his parents were using him to deliver drugs (in 4th grade!) didn't help, either.
Our classic defiant child is likely not from a drug home, but something has been occurring to shape his or her reality and approach to adult interactions. That is not the fault of the child.
So, not your words… the student's word choices. We can't resolve this problem all at once and we must start somewhere with a small change.
Imagine having an argument with another adult where you:
- Are not allowed to raise your voice
- Are required to use kind word choices
- Must sprinkle “please” and “thank you” into every sentence
Not much of an argument, is it? More like an intense discussion at best – which would be a huge improvement over a shouted exchange with an oppositional child.
Video tips: Handling student swearing
Kind words in action
One of the keys that makes this approach work is that the defiant child is given workable options and she feels she is being heard.
She is not being required to simply bottle up what she desperately wants to say. If the price she must pay is simply using nice words, she'll pay that price in order to make her point.
Meanwhile, she doesn't know that we have taken the first step toward moderating the entire problem. So, when Jeremy refuses to move:
Teacher: “Jeremy, it's time to move to the carpet for the lesson.”
Jeremy: “I don't want to! I can see here. I don't like sitting on the floor and you can't make me.”
Teacher: “Whoa!” (I often put up a hand here to emphasize ‘stop.') “Try saying that again using kind word choices and a nice tone of voice.”
Notice that the teacher didn't move immediately to confrontation, as in “move to the carpet now.” With a defiant child, that will immediately harden his position. Instead, the wily teacher understands that the battle here is not about winning the carpet argument, but about modifying behavior for the long-term.
Teacher (modeling): “Try this: ‘Mrs. Weigle, I can see well here. May I please stay in my desk?'”
Jeremy is able to make his point, so he'll usually concede. If he needs more encouragement…
Teacher: “We'll all wait for you to use kind word choices.”
With twenty+ sets of eyes on him and total silence, he'll grudgingly say his “pleases” and “may I's.”
Teacher (lavish praise): “Thank you so much for using those nice words! I really appreciate it when you talk that way.”
After this point, you have options for continuing to provide Jeremy a choice that gets you most of what you want:
- A desk close to the carpet
- A spot up front or by you
Words, words, words… so important in human interactions. And so valuable in our quest for good classroom behavior management.
Your next steps
Read about handling a range of defiant behaviors without confrontation or (much) stress.
Read my discipline case studies for insights into the year-long process.