Defusing Refusing: Reaching and Teaching Students Who Display Resistant, Defiant, and Confrontational Behavior (Part 1 of 3)

By Tom McIntyre, Ph.D., author of The Survival Guide for Kids with Behavior Challenges

Defusing Refusing: Reaching and Teaching Students Who Display Resistant, Defiant, and Confrontational BehaviorFew educators have received advanced training for working productively with contentious kids—those pupils whose behavior patterns include frequent and intense oppositional and argumentative outbursts. These episodes, if not handled well, can be highly stressful and demoralizing, negatively affecting the stages of our personal professional development and causing us to question our professional abilities or bring forth less-than-admirable thoughts and practices.

In this post, I’ll talk about those pupils who regularly challenge adults and invite confrontation, the learners who refuse to cooperate, and the kids who seem immune to our schools’ behavior policies and traditional classroom behavior management systems. The noncooperative behavior patterns of some students may even have resulted in them being diagnosed as having oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) or conduct disorder.

Developing a positive and productive approach to helping these challenging students change their defiant behavior for the better involves a two-pronged approach. First, we must consistently implement evidence-based preventive and responsive strategies that reduce the likelihood and/or intensity of argumentative actions. Second, it is incumbent upon us to fully adopt the positive professional mindset that allows us to function constructively when attempting to prevent or defuse episodes of insolence.

This second component may well be the most important focus. After all, we are 50 percent of any interaction with another person.

It’s a conundrum, a difficult and intricate problem. With persistently defiant children and teens, unchecked adult frustration typically leads to escalation of the conflict, while hesitation or unwillingness to assertively address the contentious young person promotes more of these combative actions. So how does one intervene effectively in contrary episodes?

In order to help students change their behavior for the better, we must first modify our own ineffectual (re)action patterns.

Getting rid of “stinkin’ thinkin’”
Traditional psychological thought states that the emotions we experience are valid and acceptable, and we are entitled to them. However, we must regulate how we act upon those feelings. The indicated interventions for individuals who act outside of societal expectations focus on methods for managing strong emotions and developing more socially acceptable replacement behaviors.

More recently, the evidence-based cognitive behavioral model has gained popularity. It addresses why we experience our emotions. This psychological viewpoint recognizes that the way in which we size up a situation determines which emotions emerge and their intensity.

Here’s an example from my early days of teaching students who were labeled as being “conduct disordered.” As a newly minted teacher facing tough, streetwise middle and high schoolers who had not experienced a great deal of academic and behavioral success during their school years, I frequently found myself pleading, negotiating, and/or angrily arguing with my oppositional adolescents. While I received kudos for maintaining respectful and trusting relationships with my students most of the time, my mentor expressed concern at my angry responses to student displays of opposition. I countered with, “How can anyone not get riled up when a kid says go ‘F yourself’?” I justified my caustic response as being essential to “letting them know who’s in charge here.”

She gave me a knowing smile and told me that if we jettison our “stinkin’ thinkin’,” we can reduce—or avoid altogether—the negative emotions that might emerge. This allows us to engage more clearly in our analysis of—and reaction to—a situation. She encouraged me to develop a professional mindset, one in which the deviant behavior is separated from the young person exhibiting it.

I took the advice to heart and worked to master her recommendation, what I came to call “symptom separation.” From that point forward, when one of my students refused to comply with my routines or directions, I replaced the former thoughts, which were akin to “This irritating little so-and-so is purposefully trying to ruin my lesson. It’s come down to me against him, and this dang kid is going to do what I say now,” with, “This young person is in crisis right now and needs the stress level ebbed by a competent, caring teacher who provides support.”

Wow! What a change in feelings! Instead of feeling smoldering frustration that then ignited into anger, I felt empathy and concern. These changed feelings brought forth reasoned and respectful actions. My outward response de-escalated the conflict cycle, allowing my students and I to maintain and build our trust-bond relationships.

Developing a positive professional mindset
When we view a student’s actions as being deliberately disruptive, we experience negative emotions. Those sentiments place us at risk for engaging in fiery responses that lead both parties into an escalating incident. We may find ourselves implementing bigger and badder punishments, thus repeating what already isn’t working.

The antidote to distancing negative feelings and developing positive perceptions is to engage in symptom separation—severing the students’ external oppositional manifestations from their internal selves. In other words, hate the behavior, but psychologically embrace the child who displays it.

Strive to eliminate the deviant behavior, but support and mentor the student through the process. Abhor and detest the errant actions, but be willing to help a student who didn’t ask to be this way.

Behind the curtain
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was, “If you’re going to work well with persistently noncooperative kids, you have to find something to like in each and every one of them.” No easy task when their oppositional actions interfere with instruction and classroom climate.

It’s important to recognize and remember that no child would willingly choose to develop a behavior pattern that brings punishment upon him or her. Defiant students were molded and influenced by forces beyond the control of their young minds. They are using the most successful defensive behaviors they have developed thus far to handle the stressful situations in which they find themselves.

It’s important to recognize that the pupil’s insolent action, while superficially appearing to be an insult directed at us, is an errant best attempt to handle stress that is beyond the student’s capacity to handle.

That said, it’s hard to avoid asking ourselves “Why is this student doing this—to me!?” We tend to personalize and internalize these noncooperative actions, allowing the actions to penetrate deep into our gray matter and make us feel inadequate.

It’s essential in these situations to chant our professional mindset mantra: “Student in need of mentorship. Go assist.” Given the barbed-wire personalities that these students have erected to protect their vulnerable inner cores, our efforts to reach out might be rejected initially, but we must remain dedicated to the cause.

When we view defiant students’ behaviors as being externalizations of disorders that they did not willfully select, we are inclined to experience heartfelt empathy and compassion. Those feelings are more likely to emerge when we place ourselves in the student’s position: imagine going to a place where you know you’ll have a bad day, struggle with learning material that comes easily to others, disagree with authority, and be treated poorly when you are overwhelmed by anxiety, embarrassment, fear, or other emotions. No child would choose to be alienating and alienated in this way.

It is up to an enlightened you and me to help the errant student discover and adopt prosocial responses that better address stress and bring forth increased personal benefits.

That’s it?!
No, of course not. If we are to keep our professional mindset at peak efficiency, we must carry an intervention toolbox that contains apparatuses more specialized than the PBIS tier one strategies. In part two of this post, we’ll look at evidence-based interventions that prevent or defuse the conflict cycle and help our defiant and oppositional students make better behavior choices.

Thomas McIntyre, Ph.D., is a professor of special education at Hunter College of the City University of New York. A popular workshop presenter and keynote speaker, he hosts the award-winning website

Survival Guide for Kids with Behavior ChallengesDr. Mac is the author of The Survival Guide for Kids with Behavior Challenges: How to Make Good Choices and Stay Out of Trouble.

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3 Responses to Defusing Refusing: Reaching and Teaching Students Who Display Resistant, Defiant, and Confrontational Behavior (Part 1 of 3)

  1. Jill says:

    After reading this article, so far, it’s what I’ve heard before. I am looking forward to the next two articles where you give evidence-based interventions. As educators, we all know that evidence-based strategies are the best; and the more we can learn from each other, the better we are for ourself and our students.

  2. Awesome book, I use it in my classroom. Working with behavior disorders is an ongoing educational opportunity and requires constant researching on how to best serve our students needs. The other component to teaching this population is the need to teach the adults as well. Too often adults mean well, but can actually do more harm than good, because they, too, lack the proper skills to help these individuals. If we do not take a serious look at how we are going to reduce aggressive behavior and increase our mental health, then chances are, the judicial system may end up dealing with these issues and costing our society more than we will ever know. It is about people not politics.

    • Sage thoughts, Pamela. Thanks too for the nice review of the book. Helping kids self-regulate and display prosocial actions is our goal. I get quite a few letters from kids who find that they have benefitted from reading the book and engaging in the activities/exercises, alone or as part of a small social skills group. I trust that you are aware of the 100 free lesson plans that accompany the book. If not, here’s the link:

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