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"No I won't" understanding student defiance

Student defiance, or resisting the authority of the teacher, is commonplace. In fact, some researchers have reported that the vast majority of discipline referrals are due to defiance (Gregory, 2005; Kohl, 1994). Due to the prevalence of childhood defiance and its potential for bringing instruction to a grinding halt, it is essential for educators to be prepared to understand it and respond to students who exhibit it. The authors will examine defiant behavior and the strategies that can minimize and manage it effectively.


Defiance ranges from minor, easily defused incidents to highly disruptive and dangerous events. Sometimes a student's defiance is so extreme and persistent that the student is identified as having oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition (DSM-IV), ODD is characterized by a

pattern of negativistic, hostile, and deviant behavior lasting at least six months, during which four (or more) of the following are present. The student (1) often loses his or her temper (2) often argues with adults (3) often actively defies or refuses to comply with adults' requests or rules (4) often deliberately annoys people (5) often blames others for his or her mistakes or misbehaviors (6) is touchy or easily annoyed by others (7) is often angry and resentful (8) is often spiteful or vindictive. (BehaveNet® Clinical Capsule(TM))

Students with ODD are at an increased likelihood of having problems with substance abuse or juvenile delinquency, developing a mental disorder, and committing violent crimes (van lier, Muthen, & van der Sar, 2004). This extreme kind of defiance appears to be caused by a variety of factors, including genetics (Eaves, Rutter, Silberg, & Shillady, 2000), chemical imbalance (Jensen, 2001), either excessively authoritarian or laissez-faire parenting (Levy, O'Hanlon, & Goode, 2001), and social factors, such the experience of racial discrimination and poverty that can cause severe social stress in a family (Berkley, 1997). In addition, challenging behavior can be related to the quality of the mother's prenatal care and nutrition; the child's prenatal exposure to alcohol, drugs, and/or lead; poor nutrition; inadequate health care; and maltreatment, in the form of negligence and/or physical and emotional injury (Zirpoli & Melloy, 2001). Although these factors are presented as distinct, it is likely that they intermingle, creating a complex system of causation. Because the prevalence of ODD is less common than milder forms of defiance, we turn our attention to the more moderate and commonly observed forms of defiant behavior in elementary classrooms.

A pattern of defiant behavior, as illustrated by Jon in the vignette to the right, often indicates that a student is trying to accomplish something. The defiance serves a particular function. Researchers who study functional behavior assessment (e.g., Day, Horner, & O'Neill, 1994; Scott & Nelson, 1999) note that behavior tends to serve one of two (and sometimes both!) kinds of functions: to acquire and/or to avoid. Specifically, a student who behaves defiantly might be trying to get something, such as power, autonomy, status, attention, or a sense of belonging. The student also might be trying to avoid something, such as an aversive task or person.

Sometimes teachers and peers can trigger defiant behavior. Zirpoli and Melloy (2001) point out that teachers promote noncompliant behavior when they allow themselves to be lured into power struggles with students, react to inappropriate behavior rather than give students attention for their positive behavior, and respond inconsistently so that students are unsure what teachers expect of them. The strategies of functional behavior assessment, summarized later, provide educators with insights into the functions served by a particular behavior as well as environmental triggers for the behavior and consequences in the environment that could be reinforcing the behavior. With insights into the functions served by the defiant behavior and the conditions that support that behavior, educators can learn to intervene productively.

Some scholars remind us that defiance is not necessarily a "disease" (Diamond, 2003). Instead, it could be viewed as a social behavior that students should learn to use effectively. In fact, Kohl (1994) referred to defiance as a form of "creative maladjustment" that students use to resist adults' negative labels (e.g., "troublemaker," "slow learner"). Nevertheless, patterns of defiance in a classroom indicate that something is amiss. Given these insights into student defiance, what strategies might educators use to intervene productively?


The old saying "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" rings true for many aspects of classroom management, and student defiance is no exception. A fundamental strategy in working with defiant behavior is to establish and maintain a psychologically supportive classroom environment (Patrick, Turner, Meyer, & Midgley, 2003). This kind of classroom features caring relationships between adults and students and among students, clear and high expectations for academic performance and behavior, and opportunities for meaningful participation in learning. In this kind of environment, students can develop social competence, a sense of purpose, problem-solving skills, and autonomy-all of which form a core of resilience in young people (Benard, 2004; Henderson & Milstein, 1996). Classroom Morning Meetings (Bondy & Ketts, 2001; Kriete, 2002), the use of positive behavior supports (U.S. Office of Special Education Programs, 1999), and the avoidance of common classroom management traps (Alderman, 1999) all contribute to the development of a psychologically supportive environment for students.

Conducting Morning Meetings

Morning Meeting, articulated and promoted by the Northeast Foundation for Children (Kriete, 2002), is a structure for beginning the school day. Before coming to the Morning Meeting circle, students read and interact with a message board or chart that will become part of the meeting. They then participate in the four elements of the meeting: Greeting, Sharing, Group Activity, and News and Announcements. The entire meeting can last between 15 and 30 minutes.

The Greeting enables students to say "hello" to one another in any number of traditional and nontraditional ways. After the Greeting, a student will start the Sharing portion of Morning Meeting by stating, in one sentence, something he or she would like to tell the group. Classmates are encouraged to listen during the sharing, then ask a predetermined number of questions in response to the sharer's invitation ("I'm ready for questions and comments"). The third component of Morning Meeting is a Group Activity, which usually involves a game, such as those often played in camps, scouts, and other social groups. The final part of Morning Meeting is News and Announcements. The class's attention is focused once again on the message board. Students read the board and discuss the interactive portion before transitioning into the school day.

As Kriete (2002) explains, Morning Meeting teaches a variety of skills and makes important contributions to the tone and content of a classroom. She notes that Morning Meeting establishes a climate of trust and helps students to believe that they are valued. In short, Morning Meeting helps to establish a psychologically supportive environment in which students are less likely to behave defiantly.

Using Positive Behavior Supports

Special educators have recognized for years the power of positive behavior supports in enabling students to optimally participate in school (e.g., U.S. Office of Special Education Programs, 1999). Unlike traditional approaches to behavior management, which view the individual student as a "problem" that must be "fixed," a positive behavior support approach views the individual in context to understand why the behavior occurs. Although positive behavior supports can be implemented in response to a student's difficulties, many teachers recognize them as powerful proactive strategies. Like Morning Meeting, positive behavior supports contribute to a psychologically supportive environment in which students feel valued and are able to succeed. In this kind of climate, defiant behavior is less likely to occur.

Ruef, Higgins, Glaeser, and Patnode (1998) summarized five teacher-recommended, proactive, proven positive behavior support strategies: altering the physical environment, maintaining predictability and scheduling, increasing choice making, making curriculum responsive to students, and appreciating positive behaviors. Paying attention to these areas enables all students-not only those prone to defiance-to participate successfully in classroom life.

Altering the Physical Environment. Room arrangement and the use of space can influence student behavior. Teachers can avoid overcrowding students at desks, in workstations, and in high-traffic areas of the classroom. Crowds and noise can trigger problem behavior, as can an over- or under-stimulating physical space. Teachers also may need to consider accommodating individual students' environmental needs. For instance, distractible students can benefit from a well-defined workspace located away from high-traffic areas and an identified spot on the carpet when sitting on the floor.

Maintaining Predictability in the Schedule. Predictable classroom schedules and routines help students feel secure and decrease anxieties, frustration, and challenging behaviors, such as defiance. Students should be made aware of the schedule and be prompted to refer to it throughout the day. When changes occur to the daily schedule, such as a fire drill or absence of a teacher, students should be prepared and informed about what the day will look like. Related to maintaining a predictable schedule is preparing students for transitions during the school day. If teachers make students aware of upcoming transitions, students will have time to finish their work and prepare for a change.

Increasing Choice Making. Many have argued that dueto high-stakes accountability, teachers havenarrowed curriculum and instruction to focus on test preparation (Abrams, Pedulla, & Madaus, 2003; Barksdale-Ladd & Thomas, 2000). In an attempt to comply with local, state, and national mandates, teachers may have reduced the choices available to students and thereby increased the likelihood of defiance. Ruef et al. (1998) asserted that students need opportunities to make choices in order to believe that they have some control over their environment. Of course, adults can develop lists of acceptable choices, perhaps in conjunction with students.

Making Curriculum Responsive to Students. Teachers who adjust the substance and process of instruction to be responsive to a particular group of students are likely to experience less challenging behavior than those who do not (Ruef et al., 1998). In fact, Ruef and his colleagues noted that tasks reflecting students' interests and developmental levels were associated with positive behavior, whereas tasks that did not reflect these characteristics were associated with challenging behaviors. They also noted that the difficulty level, length, and pace of an activity influenced students' behavior. Given these findings, the authors recommended that teachers think carefully about the nature of the task (e.g., High or low interest? Too easy or too difficult?) and the way in which it is presented (e.g., Use of different modalities? Pace? Tight teacher control or more student-centered?). When students believe they can be successful, they feel supported and are less likely to behave defiantly.

Appreciating Positive Behaviors. Although teachers want to avoid bribing and manipulating students through contrived reinforcement systems, making positive comments in the classroom will contribute to a psychologically supportive environment more readily than will negative, punitive comments. In addition, positive, encouraging comments can help students develop behaviors that serve them well in and out of the classroom. Punitive comments, on the other hand, can intensify defiance and trigger other challenging behaviors. Ruef et al. (1998) encourage teachers to use words of encouragement, appreciation, and affection as well as hugs, pats, and smiles to signal to students that they are, indeed, on "the right track." In fact, Walker, Colvin, and Ramsey (1995) encouraged teachers to praise students for exhibiting behaviors that are close to, or necessary for reaching, the desired goal, recognizing that it could take a while before students have perfected a new, complex behavior. Students who do not have the social, learning, or behavioral skills that will help them thrive in the classroom require coaching and feedback as they develop those skills. When teachers approach students' behavior proactively, they establish an expectation of success and communicate their confidence in students' ability to succeed.

Avoiding Classroom Management Traps

In the crush of activity and on-the-spot decision making in elementary classrooms, teachers can slip into responses that can exacerbate rather than minimize defiant behavior. Alderman (1999) provided useful warnings to teachers about common classroom management traps. By steering clear of these common pitfalls, teachers can preserve a psychologically supportive environment.

The Too-General Trap. When teachers give instruction or direction to students, they must choose their words carefully. Effective directions are specific and stated once in 10 words or less (Bloomquist, 1996). Ineffective directions include vague directions, question directions, rationale directions, frequent directions, and multiple directions. Vague directions use imprecise language (e.g., "Cut it out") that does not communicate clear expectations. If a student does not know what behavior is desired, he or she will be unable to do it. Question directions are stated as a question, such as, "Would you stop tapping your pencil?" This invites a student to provide an answer, either with or without behavioral compliance. Rationale directions are those that include an explanation as to why the student should follow the directions. For example, Ms. Jackson, from the introductory vignette, asked Jon to join the group so he could "listen to the story." Students can perceive this to be a lecture, and may resist by arguing against the teacher's rationale. A typical response could be, "I don't need to come to the rug because I don't want to listen to the story!" (Bloomquist, 1996). Furthermore, rationale directions sometimes become too lengthy. This technique is ineffective, because students will usually quickly stop listening and then focus on the teacher's body language rather than the words (Alderman, 1999). Another form of ineffective direction is one that is repeated frequently, thereby eliciting a cycle of giving directions and obtaining defiant responses. Finally, one should avoid giving directions that include multiple steps in one statement (Bloomquist, 1996), a format that easily confuses and/or frustrates some students.

The "I Must Win Them Over" Trap. Often, the students who struggle the most inspire teachers to dedicate themselves to helping those strugglers to succeed. Teachers hope to see sweeping changes in student behavior and dream of being the one who visibly turns the child's life around. Visible, sweeping changes, however, are not always common, and many of the greatest changes are not readily observable; for instance, it may not be until many years later that a teacher learns of the impact he or she had on a student. Therefore, Alderman (1999) advises teachers not to expect or demand immediate changes. Instead, he recommends that teachers focus on achieving small steps toward the desired goal and celebrating that progress with students and their families. For example, if Jon, the boy from the introductory vignette, were to say "No! I won't!" but then stomp over to the rug, his behavior could be viewed as improved. Although his language is the same, his actions have shifted toward group participation, and this is better than complete refusal to participate. Ms. Jackson might say, in a matter-of-fact tone, "It's good to have you with us, Jon," and proceed quickly to the story.

The Passionate Discipline Trap. Pleading or getting angry while disciplining students is an easy trap to fall into that can trigger student defiance. Often, with the best intentions, a teacher might say something like "Could you PLEASE, just this once, do as I ask?!" or "My goodness! IfyoudothatONEMORETIMEI'll..." These kinds of responses are likely to elicit further undesirable behaviors from students who enjoy exerting power over adults. Alderman (1999) suggests several strategies for avoiding this trap. First, use a matter-of-fact approach to discipline. This includes controlling facial expressions, vocal intonations, and body language. Next, point to or quote a classroom rule that the student is neglecting to follow. Finally, consider writing on a small piece of paper or a sticky note to clarify for the student what he or she should be doing. Each of these strategies can help the teacher avoid an overly emotional response.RESPONDING TO DEFIANT BEHAVIOR

Despite a supportive classroom climate and impeccable avoidance of management traps, some students will continue defiant behavior. This section covers options for responding to such defiant behavior. Although teachers may understandably prefer to avoid thinking about a student who defies their authority and disrupts lessons, avoiding the problem will not resolve it. Kohn (1996) recommends that teachers think of defiance as an opportunity to teach students something new.

Consider the Function of the Defiance

A Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) is a systematic, seven-step way of determining the function, or purpose, a behavior serves. The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997 require that an FBA be conducted under certain circumstances. However, the less formal use of an FBA by a classroom teacher can help that teacher understand the function of the student's behavior and lead to effective intervention. For example, the appropriate intervention for Jon's defiance will vary, based on what function his behavior serves. If he is defiant because he wants to avoid rug time, the intervention should be different than if he is defiant because he wants attention.

There are seven steps in an FBA (see Figure 1). First, one must observe the student's behavior in context to determine what external factors cause and maintain the behavior. This step entails describing the behaviors in observable terms, noting the antecedents that appear to trigger the behavior, and identifying the consequences that appear to reinforce the behavior. second, a hypothesis should be formed about the function a behavior serves in a particular context. As stated earlier, many behaviors are directed toward acquiring something, avoiding something, or both. Third, the validity of this hypothesis should be assessed through monitoring the behavior, including when it occurs in both the presence and absence of the predicted antecedents and consequences. Fourth, an intervention should be designed that allows the student to achieve the desired function of the behavior by performing a behavior the teacher finds more desirable. This may require teaching the student a "replacement behavior." The goal is to create a win-win situation wherein both the student and the teacher get what they want. Fifth, the teacher may need to alter the environment in order to help the student replace the old behavior with the new. For example, if a student's disruptive behavior stems from a particular classmate sitting next to him or her, then the seating arrangement should be modified. Or, if the defiance is related to the student's frustration over assignments he or she finds difficult, the teacher should modify instruction and perhaps assignments so the student can participate more appropriately. Sixth, the effectiveness of the intervention must be considered by monitoring its impact on the student. Finally, if ineffective in supporting behavior change, the intervention should be altered.

Ideally, the functional behavior assessment will provide adequate insight into the student's defiance to enable the teacher to intervene and support positive behavior. Perhaps, for example, Jon's teacher discovers that Jon's defiance is related to his anxiety about the student who sits next to him on the rug. Jon seeks to avoid contact with his peer through his defiance, and the teacher reinforces his behavior by allowing him to remain in his seat. By helping Jon get to know the other student, the teacher may resolve the defiant behavior.

Further Interventions

Although teachers can resolve student defiance and many other troublesome behaviors with insights gained through an FBA, some behaviors are so ingrained that more direct, assertive approaches need to be considered. We review some of them here.

Use the Premack Principle. When applicable, teachers should use the Premack Principle (Warner & Lynch, 2002). As applied to teacher commands, the principle produces a directive followed by an incentive statement, reflecting a "When .. . then .. ." format. For example, the person making the command could say, "When you put away your markers, then we will take a game break," or "Once all chairs are pushed under the desks, we can go to recess." This strategy is beneficial in that it pairs a non- or less-preferred activity with a preferred activity (Warner & Lynch, 2002), thereby encouraging the student to comply with the request.

Provide Consequences. Teachers may need to provide students with consequences for defiant actions. Consequences should be mild, with the intention of informing the student that the behavior is not appropriate. Consequences can be very effective when used appropriately (Bloomquist, 19%). However, students probably will be unhappy with the consequences, and some might express this displeasure. If students do express their unhappiness, the teacher should listen to the student's point of view and avoid getting into a power struggle. If the teacher is unsure how to respond to the student's displeasure or to an explanation the student provides, the teacher can tell the student that he or she will think about the situation and get back to the student at a designated time. The consequence should still be administered (Evertson, Emmer, & Worsham, 2006) in order to avoid providing reinforcement for the student's behavior.

Teachers may want to consider the two main types of consequences-natural consequences and logical consequences-when planning consequences for defiant behavior. Natural consequences are those that occur directly as a result of the action, and include emotional responses. For example, if one falls off a bicycle, one might hurt oneself, or if one trips in front of the whole class, one might feel embarrassed. This form of consequence often proves to be the most effective, but it is difficult to administer. In Jon's case, a natural consequence of his refusal to join the group could be disappointment at missing an exciting group activity. The other main form of consequence, a logical consequence, is imposed by someone. In order to be effective, logical consequences should be "relevant," or directly related to the problem behavior. An effective way to develop relevant consequences is to think about what the student should be doing and design the consequence based on that desired behavior. For example, if Jon refuses to participate in a group activity, perhaps he will have to finish it during another period of the day. When consequences are logically connected to the misbehavior, they are likely to discourage the misbehavior. Still, it is important for teachers to gain insight into the function of the student's defiance in order to know what kind of consequence might be effective. Irrelevant consequences are likely to elicit anger and further defiance.

Use Time-Out. Although some researchers suggest that time-out is not always the ideal consequence, it does have the advantage of giving both the teacher and the student a chance to get away from the situation, think, and calm down (Evertson, Emmer, & Worsham, 2006). It also allows students to test their boundaries for autonomy and control, while still remaining in a supportive environment (Charney, 2002). If a teacher decides to use time-out, he or she must have a plan for how it will be used. This includes knowing where time-out will occur and deciding ahead of time what actions will warrant time-out.

Some important things must be considered when planning where time-out will occur. Time-out should occur in a quiet place where there will be little to no mental stimulation. Often, teachers send the student to a desk in the hall, where the student has opportunities to chat with friends who pass by. Under these conditions, time-out can be an experience that reinforces the student's undesirable behavior. A teacher also must consider the purpose of the student's defiant behavior. In order for time-out to be effective, the teacher must be confident that the student is not exhibiting the defiant behavior to escape an aversive situation, such as an assignment or class activity that he or she dislikes. If avoidance is the function of the student's defiance, putting the student in time-out will only reinforce the defiance by helping the student escape. Students should understand, as part of time-out, that their feelings are never inappropriate; however, the actions used to convey these feelings (the actions that might have elicited their placement in time-out) can be inappropriate (Nelsen, Lott, & Glenn, 2000). Many resources are available to help teachers implement time-out (e.g., Brady, Forton, & Porter, 2003; Charney, 2002; Nelsen, 1999). Teachers considering time-out should research the strategy in order to develop a system likely to help their particular group of students.

Try Behavior Charts. Behavior charts are a management tool that can be used for many different forms of misbehavior, including defiance. They come in many forms. For example, Barkley (1997) suggests the use of a daily report card. The advantage of the daily report card is that it involves the family in teaching the desired behavior. As implied by the name, this process involves the teacher filling out a form each day to record and rate the student's behavior. This form should be reviewed nightly by the student's guardian, who then acknowledges the positive remarks and gives points and rewards for the positive behaviors. Guardians should discuss the positive and negative behaviors with the child each night, along with possible strategies for avoiding the negative behaviors and maintaining positive behaviors in the future. A second form of behavior chart is a contingency contract. This contract should outline the behaviors the student should exhibit and the rewards or punishments that will be implemented if the behavior is or is not displayed. The student and teacher come to an agreement on the behavior, rewards, and punishments. Both the student and teacher sign and date the contract (Blendinger, Devlin, & Elrod, 1995). Levy et al. (2001), however, suggest proceeding with caution when using behavior charts, especially those similar to the daily report card. They argue that charts should be implemented for only three to six weeks; after this time period, the children acclimate to them and do not work as hard to gain the rewards. Therefore, behavior charts are not effective for long-term use. Figure 2 provides an illustration of a behavior contract that teacher and student (and parent) can develop collaboratively to target specific behavioral expectations and rewards. The form encourages teacher and student to identify a time period after which progress can be assessed and decisions can be made about next steps.

Collaborate With Other Adults. Teachers who work with defiant students must use several key resources. The first resource is the parent(s) or guardian(s) of the student who exhibits defiance. It is likely that these adults encounter the same difficult behaviors from the child at home and know of a strategy that works for the child. If not, or if their strategy is ineffective, it might be beneficial to collaboratively create a plan for preventing and responding to the behaviors. A collaborative plan ensures that the adults approach the problem in the same way (Greenspan, 2003). If the student's defiant behavior is frequent and/or severe, the teacher should consult with a professional who specializes in defiance. Colleagues, too, can assist in problem solving and the development and assessment of interventions.

Although the thought of managing students who exhibit defiance can be intimidating, a variety of strategies can help. Building a strong classroom community and avoiding common management traps are important for preventing defiance. When defiance occurs, one must consider the function the defiance serves in order to determine appropriate ways to intervene. The goal of intervention is to enable the student to meet his or her needs in more appropriate ways and to preserve a productive learning environment. With a repertoire of strategies for preventing and responding to defiant behavior, teachers can strive to maintain a psychologically supportive environment in which all students believe they can succeed. Under these conditions, defiant behavior is likely to be minimized.


Copyright Association for Childhood Education International Spring 2007


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Due By (Pacific Time) 08/27/2015 12:00 am
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