Defusing Refusing: Reaching and Teaching Students Who Display Resistant, Defiant, and Confrontational Behavior (Part 3 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 Behavior (Part 3 of 3)Thank you for joining me for the third and final segment of our blog post series. In part one, I talked about developing a professional mindset that allows us to operate with a clear and focused mind when confronted with defiance. Part two was about the nature of defiance and the importance of positive student-teacher relationships. In part three, I’ll provide a number of interventions that increase our effectiveness with argumentative, passively oppositional, and outwardly defiant pupils.

When we deal with intervention-resistant students, there’s no magical incantation or disciplinary pixie dust. However, following is a selection of ideas that enhance the chances of cooperation and compliance from our young scholars. There are two types of strategies: those that prevent misbehavior and those that respond to it. In either case, our goal is to make it personally rewarding for our students to engage in appropriate actions.

Preventing Misbehavior

  • Stop your students outside the classroom door in order to prepare them for appropriate entry. Provide them with directions for proper ingress and procedures to follow upon reaching their desks. Ask frequently defiant students to repeat the directions to you as they pass by.
  • Get student leaders engaged in an activity first. Then their followers are more likely to join in. Have defiant students help you begin the lesson (for example, handing out materials, providing a rehearsed answer to an introductory question, and so on).
  • Set the stage for compliance by first giving a direction that the student will enjoy following, then give the direction that might not have been received well were it presented without a warmup.
  • Use good-natured humor to defuse tension. Both sides should find the joking humorous. Sarcasm is never appropriate. Our goal is to help the students see the ridiculous nature of the situation and show us a knowing smile or chuckle.
  • Project a professional demeanor.
  • Use verbal strategies that increase the chances of compliance and cooperation.
  • Offer effective (as opposed to ineffective or counterproductive) praise and utilize the strategies for positively recognizing praise-resistant kids.
  • Criticize inappropriate actions in ways that are constructive rather than destructive.
  • Determine the reasons for previous noncompliance in order to prevent future occurrences.
  • Assess and improve the student’s present stage of willingness to change his or her behavior for the better.

Responding to Misbehavior

  • The #1 rule when dealing with noncooperation is to exude outward calm. Doing so ensures that our professional heads remain on our shoulders. Despite being the recipient of voiced insults and oppositional body language, we avoid taking it personally. We recognize that we have become the unfortunate target of actions stemming from frustration, embarrassment, self-doubt, or other stressful emotions that overwhelm the student.
  • Refrain from arguing. An argument cannot ensue if one party refuses to join it. Great advice, but what do we do instead? How do we respond professionally and productively when kids refuse? One key strategy is to depersonalize the interaction. Instead of saying, “I told you to put your phone away,” say, “The school rule is to keep phones put away during class.” Check out this video for more suggestions.
  • Build self-management of behavior by implementing one of the differential reinforcement procedures, perhaps strengthened by engaging the student in self-monitoring.
  • Properly assess and address each of the reasons for misbehavior.
  • Offer acceptable (to you) choices. Choices allow students to feel that they have some input in the matter at hand. They have some power (power that is subtly directed by you). More about offering acceptable choices can be found here.
  • Recognize that knowing what to do and actually doing it are two different things. Ascertain whether the failure to follow a direction is a performance deficit or a skill deficit. If the preferred action is sometimes performed, the student most likely is able to perform it. If the action is never performed correctly, the nonperformance most likely is caused by a skill deficit. If the former is suspected, consider providing motivation, perhaps through the use of a contract. If the latter seems to be the case, teach the correct action via shaping and/or task analysis.
  • Teach social skills. Our defiant students haven’t yet learned—or haven’t become proficient in displaying—prosocial behaviors. If students aren’t showing these social skills, we must teach these skills to students. With or without a packaged curriculum, you can instruct students in more acceptable responses to recurring situations. You might even use The Survival Guide for Kids with Behavior Challenges and the 100 lesson plans that accompany it.
  • Avoid saying the word upset. (“You’re getting upset over nothing” or “Don’t get so upset.”) No one who is upset thinks they are in that state of mind. They’ll invariably reply with “I’m not upset!” In their minds, they are reacting appropriately given the circumstances of the situation.
  • Respond to refusals during your group instruction using this six-step procedure:
    1. “I understand.” (Or “I hear you” or “I see.”)
    2. “Let’s schedule an appointment to talk about it.”
    3. “However, right now you need to . . .” (Or “It is time for everyone to . . .” or “I need everyone to . . .”)
    4. “Thank you” if the student complies. Provide encouragement if compliance does not come quickly: “I know you can do it” or “I know you’ll make the right choice.”
    5. If complaints and/or refusals continue, state one of the following:
      1. “I must be fair to everyone in our class by keeping the lesson going.” (Or “I must teach right now. If you’d like to continue this conversation, I am available during . . .”) Suggest a time when the student would not want to meet with you (for example, lunch, recess, after school).
      2. “I need you to ____ so that you can ______.” (Identify a benefit to following your direction, such as keeping all of the points, enjoying all of recess, eating lunch with friends, being able to leave the classroom with the others rather than one minute later, and so on.)
    6. Administer a consequence if argumentative behavior continues while stating your belief that the student will follow the direction in order to keep his or her remaining privileges.
  • For students who tend to refuse directions, use one or more of the following approaches:
    • Avoid telling students what they should not be doing. Remove words like don’t, never, and not from your vocabulary when addressing misbehavior or giving directions. Tell students what to do.
    • Avoid saying if. It sounds like you are offering a choice. Replace it with the optimistic when. Instead of saying, “If you sit down and get to work, I can come over to assist you,” say, “When you sit down, I will come over to assist you.”
    • Keep moving as you give direction. Avoid hovering over the student.
    • Ask for permission to give some advice. (“Hmm, mind if I offer a tip for handling this?”) If permission is given, respectfully and supportively offer suggestions for better behavior.
    • Instead of giving a direction, ask, “What should you be doing right now?” If the student is uncertain, give him or her hints or point to the posted listing of rules and/or routines.
  • Implement other strategies from my website.

Teaching students with defiant and argumentative behavior patterns can be a frustrating or a rewarding experience, depending on how we view the situations in which we find ourselves. With a positive professional mindset and consistent implementation of effective strategies, we can enhance the chances of our students and us exiting the school with smiles on our faces.

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

  1. Kirsten Drummond says:

    Thank you Dr. Mac for this information!!! So helpful!

  2. AK says:

    Many moons ago (8 years) I took your course in Hunter. Though it was a short few months, your website, emails, and ideas are a constant presence in my life. I have frequently advised colleagues about many of your ideas and suggestions. THANK YOU for sharing all the wonderful, practical, and encouraging pieces of advice.

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