Defiance is a common challenge for teachers. Being honest, it’s a downright pain. You’ve planned out what you want to do and now they’re not cooperating. Maybe, you have an immediate need to complete a task and they’re refusing. It is excruciatingly frustrating. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to defiance. Behaviour can be the result of a myriad of reasons and emotions. However, there are three questions you can ask yourself and two strategies to consider that can help you get to the bottom of their defiance and win without fighting.
What are they defying?
This is a great place to start. Clearly defining a problem is an essential first step in solving a problem. Defiance isn’t necessarily the problem. If a teacher asks a child to jump out the window and the child defies them, that’s an intelligent decision.
I would advise the teacher to create a physical or mental record of instructions the child is defying. If a teacher can see a high volume of defied instructions, it could be a sign that they are over-instructing the child. Is there a need to have so many direct instructions? Think of your direct instructions as a finite resource for the day. Keep them to a small number so they’re more likely to be followed. Alternatively, the child might be refusing to engage with a certain subject or type of work? This will give the teacher crucial feedback when it comes to choosing a strategy. Perhaps it’s too difficult or doesn’t interest them. Search for patterns.
Why are they defying?
I like viewing behaviour through the lens of emotion. There’s a theoretical perspective that states behaviour is the result of pleasure, pain, fear or anger. I love this view as it is easy for teachers to grasp without extensive training. When the child is defying an instruction, are they defying because they get pleasure from the attention? Are they afraid of failing? Are they angry at not having their opinion listened to? Do they feel the pain of being unable to do the work in front of their peers?
Depending on what the underlying emotion is, the strategy will be very different. It is critical to be curious when faced with challenging behaviour as opposed to judgemental.
Is the instruction worth it?
If you are teaching an extremely defiant child, this question should be your go-to. The answer may be yes, but the answer is often no. I often do this, I bring an interaction close to a full-scale confrontation and then realise it’s over where they stand in a line or picking up a crayon they claim isn’t theirs. From reflecting on my teaching, I have come to realise that a lot of direct defiances can come from me trying to assert my authority needlessly, micromanage a child’s actions or providing minimal choice in their day.
Choice and the language you use to instruct children prone to defiance are your best friends as they limit the situations where a child has only two options of yes and no.
Distracting a child with simple choices can create win-win interactions where they are so preoccupied with choosing the seat they sit in and the colour pen you’ve offered them whether they respond to a topic with a poem, comic strip or comprehension that they are achieving the main objective you want them to. Here are three areas you can provide choice.
How they learn: The learning objectives are the core of the lesson. How they learn them isn’t. If you give a defiant child choice over how they achieve these objectives, there is less room for defiance. For example, let the child choose how they learn facts about a country. They could research online, they could read books from the library, they could watch videoes, they could listen to audio about the country. The only limit is the amount of choice you are willing to prepare.
Where they learn: If you are unable or unwilling to change the task, let them choose the location. Allow them to choose from a variety of locations. Perhaps they want to sit beside a friend. Maybe they want to sit at the teacher’s desk. Could they sit at a table alone? The key is to build the trust that by allowing them this choice, they are agreeing to engage with the task. You are allowing them control over the less important things so you control the most important: what they learn.
What they learn: This can be great for topics such as history where the topic is the Vikings, for example, and you allow them to choose what area they focus on. They could choose from weapons, food, clothes, day-to-day life. You set the framework that they must learn five new facts, but they are controlling what the topic they learn about is within that framework.
The way you “sell” a task is crucial when working with an oppositional child. Everything needs to appear attractive, optional and fun (even if it isn’t). It takes a lot of practice to change the way you instruct a class but it can prevent problems before they arise. I taught a defiant child who would immediately engage in a full tantrum at the instruction of desk work. It was incredibly frustrating as I used to go to huge lengths to ensure the work was fun and within their ability. I overcame this through learning they needed to see some fun on the horizon. I started to preface all deskwork with a question to the general room, “Would anyone like to do P.E (or whatever was deemed fun) today?” to which all the hands would shoot up. I would then follow it with “Ok, we’ll get this quick task completed and then we can head straight down”. That small tweak in language made a huge difference as they saw the light at the end of the tunnel and were fully motivated. If I ever slipped back to direct instruction of desk work, defiance crept back in. Reflecting on and improving how you sell your instructions can improve compliance.
I’ll be the first to admit that defiance rubs me up the wrong way. Obedience is far easier to deal with. However, if we reduce the situation to the point that the child is not changing their ways and the teacher is not changing their ways, nobody is going to win. Making changes and incorporating choice is extra work and there can be an underlying urge to go toe-to-toe with a defiant child and try to assert your authority. I believe that winning without fighting is always a better solution, however, and the three questions and suggestions above can help you achieve this goal.
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