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What to Do When Frustrated Students Become Defiant

Posted by on in What If?
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Whenever I conduct workshops to help teachers support challenging students, by far the most common concern that I hear is always about students who are defiant and disrespectful. For some, the defiance is overt and loud. For others, the defiant act is less obvious: eye rolling, heavy sighs, mumbling under the breath, extremely slow compliance, or significant glances to classmates that seem to signal "our teacher is being unreasonable again."

No matter the form of the defiant action, the toll that student defiance takes on teachers can be harsh. After all, few teachers go home at the end of a successful and productive school day worried about what will happen next class. Even the most stalwart of us find it hard to leave the emotional problems caused by defiant students at school. These tend to be the problems that cause us to sleep poorly and to contemplate changing careers.

Unfortunately, many of us do not handle defiance as successfully as we could. It's easy to just react out of anger and dismay instead of taking a systematic approach geared to actually resolve the problem and prevent it from happening again.

Instead of just reacting, take a few minutes to determine the cause of the problem instead of the general effect the disruption has on the class. When you take the time to do this, several positive effects happen at once.

You treat the defiant student with respect despite the bad behavior.

You send a message to the other students that you will not lose your cool.

You preserve the dignity of the misbehaving student.

You will be far closer to resolving the situation than if you just reacted to it.

The cause of defiance is usually something that the student has been seething about for a while. Given the nature of the modern classroom, there are plenty of opportunities for students to have wounded feelings or a sense of frustration. And it is often this frustration that causes students to react impulsively and to lash out.

To find the cause, first talk gently to the student who has been defiant. This is best done in private. If you both need a few moments to cool down, then be sure to allow that time. No one can hear even a reasonable explanation when they are stressed and upset.

As you talk, don't be accusatory. Keep your language as factual and dry as possible. Describe what you saw and heard. Then, tell the student that you want to listen carefully to what he or she has to say.

Listen carefully. Ask a tactful question or two. Figure out what caused the incident.

Try not to be preachy. Do not induce guilt. Your relationship with the student has no place in this discussion. Stick to the facts at hand. Determine the cause and act accordingly.

Once you have had this conversation with the student, then you can make the decision about how to proceed. Not every defiant act deserves a harsh consequence. Your innate teacher's judgement will allow you to make the best decision that you can make now that you are informed about the cause.

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Julia Thompson received her BA in English from Virginia Tech and spent the next forty years teaching in Arizona, North Carolina, and Virginia. Recently retired as a classroom teacher, Thompson works for the Bureau of Education and Research conducting seminars geared to help teachers support difficult and challenging students. She is also a contributor/blogger for the American Federation of Teacher's site, ShareMyLesson.com.


Author of several books for teachers, Thompson's most recent book, the fourth edition of The First-Year Teacher's Survival Guide, was published on Teacher Appreciation Day, May 8, 2018, a fitting date for a teacher who spent a lifetime learning from her colleagues both near and far.


Thompson offers advice for teachers on Twitter (@TeacherAdvice), on her blog (www.juliagthompson.blogspot.com) and on her web site (www.juliagthompson.com).

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Guest Friday, 14 December 2018