Classroom Strategies for Defiant Behavior 

By Laura Driscoll
Read Time:  min
You need a bag of tricks for any situation.

Defiance is an inevitable and generally not a welcomed part of a classroom. You are spending your day getting through your content, building community, and regularly demanding that students do many tasks. From time to time, they are going to have different ideas.

Even walking down the hallway can be a challenge, with one of those 20+ students deciding they'd rather skip. As a building-based school psychologist, I frequently supported teachers in developing behavior strategies they could use repeatedly. Strategies for defiant behavior were the most frequent request.

Prepare

The best thing you can do to prepare for defiant behavior is to have a strong classroom community. This classroom community will reinforce rules and norms, encourage each other, and make defiance less likely. Developing a strong classroom community is a whole other post (or book), so let's look at some preparation and strategies for defiant behavior you can use to diffuse and minimize.

Pre-Selected Consequences

One key to managing defiant behavior is having a pre-determined idea of how you will handle it. When a student becomes oppositional, it can be easy to react in some less than rational ways.

For students with frequent defiant behavior, develop these consequences with the students. Typically, they follow the classroom consequences, but discussing and writing them down can be a powerful intervention.

In addition to showing the cause and effect of noncompliance, you can also discuss with the student what supports they might need and which don't work well for them.

Calm Down Area

Students are often not in excellent control of their emotions or actions when they are defiant. It can be helpful to give them time and space to reset. Consider having a calm down area in your classroom with straightforward procedures. 

Teach Skills

Students aren't usually defiant just because they feel like it. Often, they lack the skills to verbalize how they feel, ask for help, or ask for another option.

In one classroom, a teacher had a visual velcro-ed to all the students' desks. One side was green, and the other was red. When students needed help, they flipped the card over to the red side. It was a simple, nonverbal way to ask for help.

As with academics, students need to be taught many social-emotional skills we think come naturally. Spend time as a class practicing how to disagree respectfully. These steps can be practiced and used in moments of noncompliance.

Reflection

Reflection should occur after a student is defiant, and both the student and the teacher should do it. As a teacher, you can think about how the situation could have changed. Did you stick to your pre-determined consequences? Did you use some of the tricks further down this page? Is the student missing some skills, like asking for help?

Students can complete reflection sheets. These shouldn't be punitive and should be paired with an adult discussion. 

behavior reflection sheets for students

Relate

Aside from Kindergarten teachers, you know when you are getting a student with a history of defiant behavior. The best way not to repeat history is to purposefully and effortfully build a positive relationship with this student. Separate the student from their behavior. Work on making sure they know you are on their side and they belong in your classroom. Do this well, and you will barely need the rest of this post.


I worked with a teacher, let's call her Ginnie, who had the biggest heart and the worst classroom behavior management strategies. Very quickly into each year, multiple kids would be

Functional Spaces That Promote Positive Behavior

Listening and Responding

Active listening is a great way to build that relationship. When you are debriefing with a student or trying to understand what upset them, listen to what they say and rephrase it back to them. Checking to understand their concerns and feelings is an incredible tool. It keeps that relationship positive, and often, you get great information from them. 

Let me check that I understand what you said. You felt embarrassed when I told you to sign up for after-school help, so you didn't get up and do that when I asked.

I-centered language is helpful to prevent a situation from escalating. Keep your language focused on what you need from the student and why rather than what you want them to stop doing. 

I need everyone to clean up their writing materials so we can line up and get to art on time. If we are late to art, the class won't have enough time for their project today.

Look for the Why

All student behavior, positive and negative, is a communication of some kind. What is the student communicating with their defiant behavior? It doesn't need to be deep. It could be that they don't like you very much. In which case, go back to relationship building. 😉

Seriously though, students could be defiant because the work is too challenging, they don't feel confident, they don't like spelling, their partner isn't nice to them, they wake up late, etc. Knowing the why changes how you approach the student.

Using ABC logs or anecdotal recordings can help you discover what is behind your student's defiant behavior. A lot can also be found through a well-intentioned conversation where you tell the student what you have noticed. 

Behavior Plans

This resource helps you create a data-based plan that comprehensively focuses on improving student need through instruction, incentives, and whole-class modifications.

In The Moment Tricks

Okay, you prepared, reflected, built the relationship, and collected data. You still need some in the moment strategies for defiant behavior.

Waterfall Compliance

Waterfall compliance is simple. You start with a simple request that has a high probability of compliance. You follow up with another one of those high-probability requests. Maybe even another. Then, you give the request that has a low probability of compliance. Try 2-5 high-probability requests followed by a low-probability request.

High > High > High > Low.

Students are much more likely to comply when on a compliance streak. Once they have complied with several requests, they are going over that waterfall. 

* Only a good strategy when the student can do the tasks.

Do, Not Don't Statements

Phrase your language positively and clearly. Avoid telling the students what they should stop doing and instead tell them what they should be doing. Break it down into simple, easy-to-complete steps.

Just as the rules in your classroom are phrased positively, your language should mirror that classroom contract.

Praise + Criticism

Students with a history of defiance are used to receiving negative feedback. Try pairing redirection or corrections with some praise.

Jeremy, we need to line up for lunch to have enough time to eat. I was impressed with how you lined up this morning. Let's do it just like that again. 
Fiona, I noticed that you are interrupting your partner. You must both listen and work together for the project to work. I know you can do that because you are a good listener in guided reading groups.

Breathe

When a student is defiant, it can feel disrespectful and stressful. We might not always be our best selves in that situation. Give yourself time to formulate an effective response by taking a deep breath. 

This has a lot of purposes. It gives you a minute to compose yourself. It lets you bring your emotions back in line. And it models for the student how to handle a negative situation.

Limited Choice

Give the student some choice to make it easier to comply. It is okay if it is a false choice with a less preferable option, like the one below. It can also be between two preferred activities.

Henry, you can bring your writing work to the table and work with me or finish it during independent reading.

Save Face

Provide the student with an opportunity to save face. Often, students inclined to be defiant will dig their heels in when met with a demand. Give them an out within your request.

Darryl, please begin your reading assignment. I want to make sure you have an opportunity to do the partner work.

By giving a reason for compliance in your request, you allow the student to show that they are complying for that reason and not just because you asked. Giving directives privately, kindly, using the student's name, and making eye contact is also helpful. It removes some of the adversarial nature of requests/demands on a student.

In a classroom of twenty-plus students, defiant and non-compliant behaviors are inevitable. How often this happens, how it happens, and how quickly it stops are the parts that you have control over.

Focus on preparation, relationship building, and simple tricks to keep students positive and part of the community.

What strategies for defiant behavior do you use? Comment below!

Helpful Behavior Resources

Individual Behavior Plans

This resource helps you create a data-based plan that comprehensively focuses on improving student need through instruction, incentives, and whole-class modifications.

Reflection Sheets

Editable Reflection Sheets

Think sheets prompt students to think through their positive and negative behaviors and consider the best choice. 

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ABOUT LAURA
I’m a school psychologist who left her office (closet?) and got busy turning a decade of experience into ready to use counseling and SEL resources.

I live in New York City with my adventurous husband and relaxed to the max daughter who’ve grown to appreciate my love of a good checklist.

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  1. I teach music at a school with quite a few students with defiant behavior, often in the same class. I am trying to be very specific with amount of things students need to do to earn a reward or to earn a consequence. Do you have any tips for behaviors such as when a student refuses to be in their area and either 1. walks, runs, or crawls across the room or 2. is in their area but continue to flip around and roll on the floor? I have a handful of students who do those things. I know that that sounds really awful, but it is a very specific behavior I see with a handful of students. None of them are identified at Special Needs. I don’t know if that makes a difference in how you would handle the situation.

    1. Integrate a “Which animal am I?” at the beginning of class and they can each slither, hop, crawl, jump, roll” to help you guess their animal. Play music in the background.

      Go with it. They are only young once. ♥️

  2. Hi there,
    I’ve implemented a lot of these techniques with a kindergarten student in my room; he’s made gains, but the latest is refusal into get dressed for outdoor and dismissal times. We had a visual changing chart which he used to respond to, including a “beat the timer” game, but now, he’s no longer responding. Any suggestions?

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