Saturday, January 19, 2008

How To Deal with an Oppositional and Defiant Student

We all know the type of kid; he or she may be your biggest headache. They are hostile to you and their peers, they don't seem to listen, and don't do what they are told. Its almost like they want to upset you. It seems like the more you try to manage them the more they resist....

Sound Familiar?

Students with oppositional and defiant behavior tend to have a pattern of negative and abrasive interactions with others (including you) in the classroom.

These guys are special and must be carefully approached...but don't give up! That willfulness can be channeled in good ways. But the trick is to take the focus off of them and carefully monitor your responses to them. You must become a Jedi must master yourself!

So you find yourself in a power struggle. Take a minute and reflect on the last one you were in. How did you try to control the situation? What happened? What was the outcome?

The Trap of the Power Struggle

Things you may do to make it worse:

  • Lose your temper (yelling or using sarcasm tend to escalate oppositional kids)
  • Engage in the interaction in front other students
  • Try to persuade the student or worse...bribe the student
  • Threaten the student
  • Adding more and more consequences
  • Trying to embarrass the student or put them down
  • Not following through with consequences or being inconsistent
  • Letting the struggle go on way too long
  • Crowd the student
  • Get annoyed at every little thing they do wrong...always focus on the big battle.
Things you can do to make it better:
  • Use a calm neutral voice no matter what
  • Give clear directions to the student
  • Discuss things briefly and in private to remove the audience
  • Making sure to listen to the student and consider what they are saying
  • Have clear boundaries and predetermined consequences for problem behavior
  • Remove yourself from the interaction if you cannot keep it together
  • If you have a teacher's aid, have a plan for who will take over the class when a defiant student must be spoken with.
  • Analyze the power struggles you have been hooked into...what hooked you?
  • Creating Change

Monitoring your tone

With negative and defiant students you may become triggered to be negative too. This is a mistake. Use your Jedi powers to keep your tone neutral when the child is negative, and be positive when the child is neutral or positive.


Oppositional and defiant behavior is often driven by the student's resistance to being under someone else's control or authority. Therefore, reward systems may not always work, especially if the child smells your desire to tame them or manipulate them.

Reinforcement that may prove more successful includes:

  • Giving praise briefly and discreetly as you walk around; or a quick whisper in the student's ear when they are on task (do not draw attention).
  • Write some good comments on a note and leave it on their desk.
  • Reward them with a leadership role.

What else can I do???

Make your oppositional student a helper and a leader. Because oppositional children have a strong need for control, helping them find pro-social ways to channel that need can be a great strategy to help them gain a sense of self-worth and community. Of course, make sure that your student is appropriately prepared, trained, and supervised in the activity. If the student's academic skills are below grade level, you may consider creating opportunities for leadership or mentorship with younger children.

Great roles for oppositional students are:

  • Leader of a small group, or co-leader of a small group with an adult.
  • Caretaker of the class pet.
  • Tutor or read-aloud buddy for peers or younger children.
  • Buddy, lunch pal, assistant, or mentor to a younger or new student.
  • Conflict mediator to help others solve a problem.
  • Have them help create and/or lead a community service project.
  • Have them construct something for the whole class to use.

Most important, take care of yourself outside the classroom, this is not an easy job! Set realistic expectations. Set the bar low enough so that your student can definitely clear the jump. Build slowly from there! Good Luck!

Read related "How To" teaching articles on

Classroom Discipline Tips: Dealing With Difficult Students and Parents

Or Check out TheApple's Lesson Plans for all Age Groups.

Katherine Richert Ph.D.



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