Defusing Refusing: Reaching and Teaching Students Who Display Resistant, Defiant, and Confrontational Behavior (Part 2 of 3)

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

Reaching and Teaching Students Who Display Resistant, Defiant, and Confrontational Behavior (Part 2 of 3)Part one of this post addressed the steps for developing a professional mindset. Achieving that mindset greatly increases the opportunities for success in working with students who display defiant behavior. In that post, I passed along one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received: “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.”

Getting personal
In concert with that professional mindset is developing positive personal relationships with our students. Doing so is crucial to successfully working with students whose behavior is persistently argumentative and oppositional. Quite simply, “They gotta like the messenger if they’re gonna listen to the message.” It’s human nature to cooperate more and put forth one’s best effort for people we like, respect, and admire—those with whom we have rapport and feel affinity.

These emotional connections are much more meaningful and motivating than contingent consequences. Expect learners to test those interpersonal bonds in order to determine if you truly can be trusted as a mentor—someone who won’t give up on them. In order to pass this test, we must stay true to our professional mindset. While we may administer deserved consequences, we also must express our faith in students’ ability to make better behavior decisions in the future—and we must teach those better behaviors.

Putting the kibosh on conflict
Refusal of directions can inspire from us a cascade of reactive responses that exacerbate and escalate disagreement. Our authority is being publicly challenged and undermined. We don’t want to look weak in this situation, because if we lose the battle, we’ll face this student in future conflicts, other kids will test our authority, and we’ll find ourselves questioning our abilities at a very deep level. A common response is to immediately begin thinking of punishment. However . . .

Punishment is not an effective agent of change
With defiant learners, we cannot mandate compliance; we can only invite it. Punishment often fails to bring the results we seek. First of all, while it can sometimes work as a deterrent to misbehavior with students who typically comply, it builds resentment among those students. Second, it touches a match to the fuse of oppositional pupils. Third, it doesn’t teach which behavior should be displayed instead. Fourth, it destroys positive pupil-teacher bonds, creating a “me-versus-them” mentality. Finally, it ingrains a failure identity in students, increasing the likelihood of eliminating educational progress as an important part of one’s self-development.

In order to avoid (or escape) the conflict cycle, we must discard the retaliatory responses that bring forth prolonged power struggles. Remember: It takes two to tango tangle.

Skillfully handling a student-teacher conflict situation is a dual challenge: we must manage our own emotions while trying to calm those of the student. Conflict can be turned into a learning opportunity when we make the decision to avoid the fight rather than engage in “tit-for-tat” vengeful reactions.

If our reactions presently are confrontational, we can change our ways with practice and persistence. We can prove ourselves worthy of trust through repeated and consistent positive interactions.

Don’t create the behavior we complain about
When we bump shoulders with someone and they apologetically say, “Oops! Excuse me,” we respond by saying, “That’s all right. No problem.” However, if we bump shoulders and the other person says, “Hey, watch where you’re going, knucklehead,” we are likely to respond in a similarly rude manner or acquiesce and mentally fume as we walk away.

When someone greets us in a friendly and upbeat manner, we respond in kind. When someone is grumpy toward us, we tend to be cranky in return. This phenomenon tends to surface in the classroom when students respond either enthusiastically to our lessons and directions or contrarily resist engagement.

According to Nicholas Long, a senior statesman in the field of working with defiant and aggressive kids, “In a crisis, we begin to take on the same characteristics that we abhor in a child.” He explains the phenomenon, as it presents itself in school, in this video interview.

Essentially, when students and teachers see things differently, we too often accept the invitation to an escalating battle. Unless we recognize how a situation is mushrooming and keep a cool head, we can become embroiled in situations that break our fragile trust-bonds with kids.

When dealing with students who are likely to utter impolite refusals when under stress, it is important for us to avoid retaliation while working on remediation. It is essential to become proficient in using “verbal aikido,” a way of phrasing our utterances in an assertive but nonaggressive manner.

“Nothing works with that obstinate kid!”
If you’ve ever thought or voiced this point of view, the first step toward more effective management practices is to change that wording to “I haven’t yet found anything that works well with my student.” Now that we possess a professional mindset, we can implement intervention strategies that can change defiant behavior for the better. And we can do so in a consistently supportive manner.

Essentially, defiance can be reduced to this sequence of events:

  1. A person with authority presents a direction.
  2. An attentive student understands the direction.
  3. The student is capable of performing the action.
  4. The student fails to comply with the direction:
    • within a reasonable period of time (a function of individual teacher tolerance) or
    • to a reasonable standard (also a function of individual teacher tolerance)

We can implement strategies that improve each of the steps in the above sequence: giving directions, gaining student attention, addressing performance rather than skill deficits, and decreasing the latency between the direction and students’ compliance.

Whatever the reason for a defiant action, that action is best viewed as an error in responding to a situation rather than as being exhibited on purpose. Our goal, then, is to teach our students inner management of behavior and more adaptive, prosocial responses to stressful events, all while promoting and maintaining positive child-adult bonds.

In part three of this post, I’ll look at some ways in which we can arrive at this endpoint. I’ll examine specific strategies that promote cooperation and compliance in persistently oppositional children and teens.

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 www.BehaviorAdvisor.com.

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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