"When children are defiant, their goal is not to annoy, disrespect, or frustrate us," said Margaret Berry Wilson. "Rather, their goal often is to feel significant."
Teachers sometimes get into power struggles with defiant children, she says. "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."
What's the alternative? Orchestrating things to prevent defiance in the first place, says Wilson, and if it occurs, calmly working with students in ways that address their need to feel significant–while holding them accountable for following the rules. Here are some ideas on how to do just that:
- Build positive relationships. Potentially defiant students need to know that you'll still care about them whatever happens. Focus on positive attributes, learn about their interests, and channel those strengths into playing an important role in the classroom–for example, a student might be the expert at fixing jammed door locks.
- Reinforce progress and effort. Notice and give specific praise for positive, cooperative behaviors, however small. Wilson believes teachers should avoid saying "I like", "I appreciate", and "I want", which convey the idea that it's about pleasing or complying with the teacher rather than doing the right thing. Such language may also make a student feel manipulated. Better to talk about positive results–for example, "When you helped Kevin this morning, I think he felt valued."
- 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," said Wilson–as long as it's done appropriately. Students should be taught to use phrases like "I feel that" and "I suggest" when they believe something is unfair or should be changed.
- Channel children's energy in positive directions. If students are fired up about an issue, they should be encouraged to write letters to the school or community paper, get involved in service projects, or do their own research on it.
- De-escalate defiance. The goal is to keep the child safe and cool things down. Wilson suggests:
- Avoid pushing the student's buttons; don't do anything that will heighten stress or invite more resistance.
- Don't try to reason or make an emotional appeal when the child is too angry to process it.
- Slow down. Taking a few minutes before saying anything raises the probability that the child will listen.
- After the incident, reflect on what the trigger might have been–an unexpected schedule change, perhaps?
- Intervene early. At the first sign of defiance, set clear limits. The earlier the teacher intervenes, the less likely the child will be to dig in and escalate. Use brief, direct statements, speak in a calm, matter-of-fact voice, avoid questions, and keep body language neutral. For example, "Andrew, take a seat. You can read or draw for now."
- When using consequences, offer limited choices. Because students who have escalated to defiance are often seeking power, it's smart to give them a selection of consequences. For example, "Anna, either you can come with us now, or I can have Mrs. Bell come sit with you. Which do you choose?"
- Avoid negotiating in the moment. Once a teacher has decided on a consequence or redirection for a defiant child, it's wise to stick with it. "Negotiating during the incident will invite further testing," said Wilson. "It also sends the message that children can avoid a redirection or consequence by resisting." And don't get into a power struggle. "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 a consequence has been given, it's best to step back and give the child space to comply in a reasonable amount of time. Asking for immediate compliance invites further defiance.
Source: "When Children Are Defiant" by Margaret Berry Wilson in Responsive Classroom Newsletter, Summer 2013