Managing Defiant Behaviour in Schools – It’s Not About ‘Winning’

I’ll be honest with you – this is the one that gets to me. Straight out defiance, seemingly without rhyme, nor reason, or blatant rudeness in language and tone. Being told “no” to something as simple as “tuck your shirt in please.” I mean… there’s no need for it. Unfortunately, for a lot of us, this kind of behaviour is routine for a minority of students – those 20% that bleed dry 80% of our energy, resources, time, attention span, and general will to live. It takes a whole lot of something to be able to calmly and consistently deal with this type of behaviour, so I thought I’d outline some things that have helped me and others, and I believe will help you too.

IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU

This is the first thing to remember. It isn’t about you at all. Remove your feelings and ego from the equation (tough to do, I know).

A student’s defiant behaviour is not a reflection of you. It’s not a reflection of your competence. It’s not a reflection of your worth. It’s not about you. Our most defiant students have a history, usually with a long list of things that have happened and culminate now in the behaviour you’re witnessing.

They may have family issues, issues with self-regulation, literacy issues, self-esteem issues, confidence issues – the list goes on. It’s also usually the case that they’re having issues in multiple areas and with multiple teachers. A simple look at your school’s behaviour log will usually confirm that. This points to requiring a bigger, more holistic response than you can manage by yourself, which no doubt is going on in the pastoral area of your school. You’re an important cog in that, don’t get me wrong, but you’re one cog in a larger machine. Your job is to operate effectively, so that the other parts of the machine can also have an effect. Sometimes these issues arise because the other parts of the machine aren’t working effectively, which again isn’t your fault. Failures in other areas may play out with you because you may be one of the few that are consistently challenging these behaviours and trying to issue corrections, which by default makes you the bad guy.

Again, it’s not personal – understand the context.

Our most defiant students have a history, usually with a long list of things that have happened and culminate now in the behaviour you’re witnessing.

IT’S NOT A POWER STRUGGLE

It might not seem like it in the heat of the moment, but you are the one with the power already. Remember that. You’re the adult (I hope) and you’re the teacher. You have the power to issue sanctions and give rewards, which by definition makes you the one who’s powerful in this context. And the students know that, which is also part of the reason for their behaviour, because for them it’s about asserting the power that they have, which in their head means proving you’re powerless over them. You giving up means that they’re right.

I’ll say this very clearly: Your job is not to “win”. As I just said, it’s not a power struggle. So what is your job? To offer choice.

“If you choose not to follow my instructions/ put your phone away/ take your coat off indoors/ start the writing task (etc, etc.) then…” Issue a straight forward, logical consequence – usually the one laid out very clearly in your school’s behaviour policy. Their response isn’t your issue. Their acceptance or rejection of that fact is neither here nor there. Action leads to clear consequence, issued consistently and (on the surface, even if you’re boiling underneath) calmly. You’ll find it a lot easier to stay calm in the moment if you stick to issuing the choice and consequence and not getting into any other conversations (as Bill Rogers says, focus on the primary behaviour, not the secondary ones that may follow as a result).

Issue a straight forward, logical consequence – usually the one laid out very clearly in your school’s behaviour policy.

FOCUS ON THE BEHAVIOUR, NOT THE PERSON

You’re only human, and it’s easy to resent the few students causing problems. One absolute must is that you need to focus on the behaviour and leave off making value judgements about the student as a person. You can sanction and reward behaviour. You may want to change their personality or hate them for the rest of your life, but that kind of negativity expends a lot of mental energy, which you can’t afford for your health, your private life, nor for the other 400 students that depend on you on a weekly basis. The more impersonal, objective you keep things, the better it’ll be for you.

As a professional in the school environment, you expect to see certain learning and social behaviours, while not expecting to see others. You can set targets for those behaviours and tick them off to see if they’ve been done. That’s impossible to do for something like “having the right attitude”. For the most challenging students, small, achievable targets are key in order to build up a history of achievement rather than failure. You need that momentum. They need it to sustain them for larger challenges. Again, pastoral work will be happening in the background toward that purpose, so you might see they’ve come in with a daily or weekly report that lists behaviours they’re expected to engage in. The onus is on the student, and you also have clear things to look out for in lessons, which you can (hopefully) reward or (unfortunately) sanction them for. Just focus on that. They’re not a failure if they don’t manage it today.

I’d say that it’s like being a parent – they’re your kids and you don’t have the luxury of giving up on them, even if they choose to give up on themselves. Perhaps your consistency and keeping things objective will be the trigger for their change later down the line.

You need to focus on the behaviour and leave off making value judgements about the student as a person.

IT’S A WHOLE-SCHOOL THING

I mentioned that there’s probably (almost definitely) some wider work going on in the school targeted at our most defiant, challenging students. A lot of things influence the person you see in front of you. In the school, this will largely depend on how clearly and consistently the school’s culture, ethos, behaviour policy, routines, and interactions are embedded, rehearsed and reinforced. In the midst of all that work, is you. My message to you is that you are an integral part of that. You have to be trusted to ‘carry the water’ for your organisation. Too many leaks, and we all sink. If you want, you can have those conversations with pastoral leaders, form tutors, parents, and other people around those students to understand the work being done. In fact, I’d recommend that, because it helps to keep things in perspective and helps to build more empathy and understanding.

You have to be trusted to ‘carry the water’ for your organisation. Too many leaks, and we all sink.

IN CONCLUSION

Tackling defiant behaviour isn’t a short-term battle. Keeping objective, focusing on the behaviour and not the person, and getting to know the wider work happening with the more challenging students in our cohorts will all help you traverse the long road.

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