19 Tips for Defiant Student Behavior

When we are talking about defiant behavior, it is important to label this challenging behavior as defiant and not the student. When we say defiant students it is labeling the chid as a person who is difficult, where it is really the behavior that is being challenging. These tips can be added to a behavior intervention plan or used with students throughout the day. 

When choosing a strategy, be sure you read through it thoroughly to use the best practices recommended so they work for you and your students!

Strategies for Defiant Behavior

1. Know the Why 

Knowing the why is the first tip because it will drive the answers to all of the other tips. You need to know WHY the student is being defiant. Behavior happens for one of four reasons- attention, escape, access to a tangible, or sensory. Defiant behavior will most likely occur for one of two reasons: attention or escape from a task.

Knowing which one of these it is will change the intervention you will be using. So how do you figure out which one it is? By a simple data collection of some ABCs… antecedent-behavior-consequence of behavior. If you need a way to track those, click here for a free great resource to easily do it.

Once you know the why, you can make a better informed decision on what interventions to use next.  For more on these functions and to dive a bit deeper, read this blog post.

2. Use Choice 

Choice can be a powerful motivator, especially if you have very little ability to choose most things in your life. Most elementary students have their entire day planned out for them and told exactly what they will be doing. Some defiant behavior is just the need to escape a task simply because they did not have any choice in the matter.

So give them micro choices all day long. Things like do you want to sit on the pink or purple spot, do you want to answer four of five problems, do you want to use a pencil or pen. These small opportunities will encourage positive behavior with little effort and time on your part.

However, there are specific things you need to do to be sure you are giving the right choices and not slowly leading down a path that could lead to even more problem behavior. So to learn about those, read this blog post all about choice.

3. Praise the Little Things 

If you determine that your student is defiant because they get attention (even though it is negative), this strategy is for you. However, this can also work for students who may be defiant for other reasons as well. It is so important to praise the little things. Praise all those little classroom rules you have taught from day one. Yes, even simple things like putting their name on their paper when it is the last few weeks of school.

By doing this, you will build your students confidence, work on your relationship, and give them the attention they are seeking. When you are praising them, be sure to specifically say what you are praising, not just good job. Also, be sure to have a positive tone as well.

Giving all of the little praises throughout the day will also help you reach the ratio of four praises to every one correction which is the goal for students with behavior issues.

4. Clear, Concise Directions 

Sometimes students are defiant because they get overwhelmed and then simply go into shut down mode. This can be due to many things, but one that you can easily control is the type of directions you give. Giving clear, concise and direct instructions are going to support all of the learners in your classroom. The less verbiage you use will help students focus on what you really mean and want.

To make this even more successful, you can grab these free visuals to support students with knowing what materials they need. These are visual representations so it takes more off the cognitive load of students and frees up their brain to focus on other tasks. Just this could help limit the overwhelm and in turn their likelihood to shutdown.

5. Teach Coping Skills 

Teaching coping skills is a great intervention for many challenging behaviors, not just defiant behavior (as most of these tips are). Teaching these skills are life long skills that students will need. But how do you teach them and what can you use?

Well students should be taught coping skills outside of a behavior instance. It works best to teach this in a small group or to the entire class. When doing this, you can model different strategies and practice them for yourself too! 

Different coping skills you can teach are

-taking a break

-grounding oneself

-going to a chill-out space

-taking deep breaths

If you are looking for ways to support your teaching of these, you can find some hands on supports inside this self management task box set. Even if you think only a few of your students really need these coping skills, I can promise you teaching these social skills whole group will benefit all of your students.

6. Stay Calm Yourself 

Being calm yourself is a huge strategy. As soon as you start to escalate and get frustrated your students will feel that and remain defiant, possibly even more so. Self-regulation is the best way to make sure the situation does not escalate further. Although this may seem like an easy tip, this takes a lot of practice. As a special education teacher, we have our own triggers and need to be able to recognize them to be able to not only be a role model but to also keep the situation from getting worse.

If you want some tips on how to do just that- which is more than just taking a deep breath, check out this blog post!

7. Make Accommodations

Accommodations just get students to the same starting line as everyone else. Maybe this student who is being defiant needs accommodations made such as a separate location, less problems on a page or assignments broken down into chunks. These small steps can prevent some of the negative behavior you see. 

These accommodations do not necessarily even have to be on their IEP. If you are simply doing work throughout the day, and the choice is either to have refusal or complete the work with a few accommodations…. I don’t know about you but I am going with the accommodations!

Here are some common classroom accommodations for ideas on how you can support your student!

8. Build in Rewards 

Building in rewards can be a powerful strategy for managing defiant behavior. By establishing a clear and consistent system of rewards aligned with classroom expectations, you can motivate students to meet behavioral goals.

You can do this easily with behavior charts or behavioral contracts. It is important that you clearly define the behavior you are looking to improve. Is it complying with directions? Completing work? Using kind words? Then it will make these tools more powerful. If you want to grab some, you can get editable ones you can use immediately here!

Remember rewards can range from don’t have to be tangible items. It can also be additional privileges, positive phone calls home, additional time doing a fun activity etc. Get creative with these and even ask students what they want to be working for! Involving students in the reward system fosters a sense of ownership and engagement.  Ready to try this out? Check out this blog post for a more in-depth how to on how to use individual behavior charts.

9. Use Thinking Sheets 

As much as we want to prevent behavior, you and I both know that it is going to still happen even with all of these tips in place. So what do you do when it does happen? Well there are a few things. The number one thing you need to do after a behavior occurs is to repair the relationship & then teach.

So how do you do that?

Use Thinking Sheets! These are a must have in your behavior toolbox. They allow you to set time aside to talk to the student, hear their side of the story and then allow the to connect the feelings with behaviors. This seemingly simple tip can be so powerful in changing future behaviors. It is a way to teach a replacement behavior, develop strong relationships, and eventually stop problematic behavior.

If you want to  get some for your classroom that are already made, click here to check them out.

10. Use Active Listening 

Active listening is easier said than done. BUT it can be so helpful when dealing with defiant students. Sometimes all it takes is to hear a student out and validating their feelings to get them on board with complying with a directive. Active listening is something that needs to be practiced because, as teachers, we like to talk and problem solve… a lot.

When we are active listening, we should

  • use encouraging phrases like “go on,” “tell me more,” or “uh huh.”
  • use an open body positioning
  • nod our head
  • acknowledge how the student is feeling (even if you do not agree)
  • use a calm voice

Active listening is one of the most challenging skills to learn. But it can help not only in your classroom with student’s behavior, but also with you personal relationships!

11. Use the High P Sequence 

High P Sequence is an effective technique that is based on behavioral momentum. It is one of the intervention strategies that has to be done before problem behavior occurs. It is also something all staff members can do and requires no material supports!

At it’s most basic breakdown, you ask the student to engage in some simple tasks you know they will complete. Each time they do you reinforce the behavior. Then after doing that, you ask them to do something more challenging (like getting started on their work). This sounds simple enough, but it requires some specific steps.

If you want to try out this easy intervention, I encourage you to read this blog post that clearly outlines it all for you!

12. Use a Mini Schedule 

I love me a good mini schedule. These are separate from the main visual schedule, and for good reason! They break down the parts of the day even more. Take reading for example. It can be an hour long- and there are lots of tasks to complete in that hour. A mini schedule is like a to-do list for kids. It breaks down all of the individual pieces for the block into more manageable parts.

Mini schedules also show the students what they can look forward to. Maybe at the end of reading, they get free time. Put that on the schedule so students know that once they get through all of their tasks, they have something they can look forward to!

13. Avoid a Power Struggle

So much of students being defiant results in a power struggle. So what can you do to avoid one?

Drop the expectation: Now I am not saying to always, but sometimes is it worth fighting the battle and escalating the behavior? I am going to say no.

Offer choices: Give them options of things TO do instead of fighting for one specific thing.

Play to their interests: Do they love football? Why not let them write about football instead of the topic of the day. Have them work on the same skills but incorporate their interests!

Power struggles are usually more difficult for the adult than the student, but it is on the adults to stop these from happening.

14. Say What TO do 

Instead of saying “Don’t rip up your paper,” “don’t run in the hallway,” tell them what you want them to do. Don’t ask, just tell. You do not have to ask if they are ready to come to the carpet. It is okay to give a directive that tells them exactly what you want them to do. 

Now this can be layered with choices and other interventions to not create more behavior concerns, but it is important to name what you want students to do. So often then are asked or told what not to do. It is much easier to hear what TO do.

15. Increase Predictability 

Do you like to live each day sporadically? Maybe do something today but not tomorrow? Even though you may like this, this will have a significant impact on your student compliance. The uncertainty and unpredictability can make students more defiant. They may want to complete tasks a way you did yesterday instead of the new way you are showing today.

Not having a predictable schedule also ads to students anxiety. When anxiety is heightened, so are behaviors and the likelihood that students are going to engage in oppositional defiant behavior. Don’t let that happen to you and create a predictable environment in your classroom!

17. Body Language 

Did you know your body language conveys more than your words when you are working with students? Your facial expressions, level of eye contact, and tone of voice can convey messages that are very different that the words you say. This is why it is important to be aware of your own body language.

It is important to have a neutral body language when students are becoming defiant. You do not want a student to feel you getting defensive and dig their heels in even more. When students feel your defensiveness, they are likely to become more defiant themselves.

18. Calm Down Space 

A calm down space is a great tool to have in your classroom. However, it needs to be wary of becoming a time-out space. Many times students are sent to the calm down space by their teacher when they are engaging in a problematic behavior.

These spaces need to be where students can go when they are upset, allowed to regulate themselves, and return to the classroom. This means there needs to be clear expectations around how to use the space, they need to know how to use the tools in the space when they are there and when to return back to the learning area. 

19. Use Your Relationship

Positive relationships with your students are always the goal, but with students who are defiant it can be challenging sometimes to maintain this relationship. However, it is even more important to prioritize the relationship with them, because then you can use it as a tool when they are defiant. You can lean into that relationship by helping students understand why you need them to do what you are asking. They are going to be more likely to comply if they care and have a relationship with you.

All 19 of these tips can be added to a behavior plan for defiant students. However, it is also important to take specific data to see if the interventions are working. These strategies can be shared with classroom teachers, paraprofessionals, and even parents to support managing challenging behaviors!

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