How to Deal with Defiant Children

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

Defiance is one of the most difficult student behaviors to deal with in the classroom. In this lesson, we will examine ways that teachers can prevent and de-escalate challenging situations with defiant students in the classroom.

Challenging Student Behavior

How should you respond when student behavior interferes with learning? The role of a teacher goes beyond imparting knowledge, encompassing all aspects of human behavior. Each student arrives at school with a unique background, varying interests, and a distinct set of challenges that color the way he or she views both academics and authority. One of the most difficult behaviors that teachers face in the classroom is defiance. Defiance is an intentional lack of cooperation. Let's learn some proactive ways to prevent defiance, as well as research-based approaches to dealing with defiance when it occurs.


The best method for keeping student behavior from interrupting the learning environment is to proactively avoid confrontations with defiant students. The ultimate goal of classroom management is to create a safe atmosphere that promotes academic success for all students. The following approaches have been proven effective for avoiding disruptions:

  • Avoid power-struggles by keeping instructions positive and polite. Teachers who get in power-struggles will lose in the long run as the other students are watching and will lose respect for teachers who prove their inability to control themselves. One way to avoid struggles over work completion is to provide choice when possible.
  • Pre-determine tiered consequences for dealing with inappropriate student behavior in your classroom. Frequent office-referrals send the message to students that you are unable to handle your class. Teachers should determine what constitutes Level One, Level Two, and Level Three behavior. For each level, the teacher will develop a list of possible responses, such as parent phone calls or restriction from a preferred activity. Teach these to your students, refer to them often, and apply them consistently and fairly.
  • Reward positive behavior in ways that feel rewarding to the student. While some students might enjoy recognition, others may be embarrassed by it. Reward should be specific to individual students.
  • Avoid sarcasm and public reprimands. No one benefits if the student is put in a no-win situation. Nonverbal cues and body language can be used to your advantage to redirect or encourage students, rather than to pass judgment or embarrass them.
  • When working with a student who is frequently non-compliant, arrange parameters and a space for the student to self-select a time-out when he or she first becomes agitated. Students may use an area of the room, or arrangements may be made with a trusted colleague for the student to visit another class or the office to calm down.

Teacher Behaviors During an Incident

Despite your best efforts to avoid a problem, there may be times when you will need to de-escalate a defiant student. The following suggestions may reduce the interruption time, allowing the teacher to spend more time teaching and the student to get back to learning:

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