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How To: Deal with an Oppositional and Defiant Student

How To:  Deal with an Oppositional and Defiant Student

Kit Richert, Ph.D.

Creating Change

Monitoring your tone

With negative and defiant students you may become triggered to be negative too. This is a mistake. Use your Jedi powers to keep your tone neutral when the child is negative, and be positive when the child is neutral or positive.


Oppositional and defiant behavior is often driven by the student’s resistance to being under someone else’s control or authority. Therefore, reward systems may not always work, especially if the child smells your desire to tame them or manipulate them.

Reinforcement that may prove more successful includes:

• Giving praise briefly and discreetly as you walk around; or a quick whisper in the student’s ear when they are on task (do not draw attention).

• Write some good comments on a note and leave it on their desk.

• Reward them with a leadership role.

What else can I do???

Make your oppositional student a helper and a leader. Because oppositional children have a strong need for control, helping them find pro-social ways to channel that need can be a great strategy to help them gain a sense of self-worth and community. Of course, make sure that your student is appropriately prepared, trained, and supervised in the activity. If the student’s academic skills are below grade level, you may consider creating opportunities for leadership or mentorship with younger children.

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Great roles for oppositional students are:

• Leader of a small group, or co-leader of a small group with an adult.

• Caretaker of the class pet.

• Tutor or read-aloud buddy for peers or younger children.

• Buddy, lunch pal, assistant, or mentor to a younger or new student.

• Conflict mediator to help others solve a problem.

• Have them help create and/or lead a community service project.

• Have them construct something for the whole class to use.

Most important, take care of yourself outside the classroom, this is not an easy job! Set realistic expectations. Set the bar low enough so that your student can definitely clear the jump. Build slowly from there! Good Luck!

For interesting Q and A about classroom management, read Teaching’s related article, Classroom Discipline Tips: Dealing With Difficult Students and Parents.

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