Powering the Global Education Conversation: About EdCircuit

#SELChat: Dealing with Defiance

What happens when our kids are defiant?  

The best educators I know are the ones who love their students like their own family. When these caring adults talk about the children they teach, they often refer to them as “my babies.” There’s a sense of belonging and responsibility. The challenge for such passionate leaders can be to give proper due to mama, daddy, auntie, grandmama, grandpa, uncle…the blood relatives. 

I’ve been on both sides of the conversation over the past two decades as an educator and a parent. I have claimed children as my own and loved them through tough times; I have also been the single mother on the other side of the table who has been judged by the school’s powers that be. In both cases, what I have discovered, is that we adults must remember that we are all on the same team: Team Kid.  

With that in mind, how do we motivate the young man who doesn’t want to do his work even though he is more than capable? How do we encourage the young lady who only shrugs her shoulders when asked a question? How do we reach the student who doesn’t seem to care?  

First and foremost, we must never forget that regardless of role―teacher, administrator, family member, student―we are all on one team together. Therefore, we must commit ourselves to honoring one another―believing, speaking, and acting with the best interests of the other adults at heart. We are all working toward the same goal: the success of the child.  

Once unity―especially among the adults―is established, we must keep these things in mind:

More than meets the eye ― For kids who are defiant, there is usually more going on in their heads and in their hearts than what we know. Often it is difficult for children to articulate what they are thinking and feeling. It may be helpful to use stories, songs, or movies as a conversation starter. Once a child knows he is safe, he will begin to open up and share. Providing a safe place for him to share without judgment will help him process and make sense of his inner world.

Bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind ― When we humans feel threatened, we go into “fight or flight” mode. Kids who are stressed because of trauma are living in a constant heightened state. If they are triggered, they can become superhuman in their response. As the adults, our job is to remain calm. Repeat this mantra under your breath when a child in your care is acting out: “I am bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind” so that you can respond in a quiet voice in order to de-escalate the situation. Your peace breeds peace.

Choices and consequences ― Even as we respond with compassion to children facing trauma, we must maintain our high expectations and state them clearly. For example, “We use kind words. We keep our hands and feet to ourselves. We work as a team. All assignments must be completed on time.” Similarly, we recognize that every human being has the opportunity and power to choose. If a student chooses not to abide by our standards, there are consequences. The consequences need to match the offense and appropriate conversations for the sake of restoring the student to the school community need to be had. There is no room for shaming. For example: If a student chooses to avoid assignments, she misses recess and spends time tutoring with a teacher or other students until the work is complete.

Time and consistency ― There are no quick fixes. When a child has a wounded heart, he needs to know and experience our love and support consistently over time. Only then will he have the courage to trust again.  

Approaching children going through a rough patch with understanding gives them the grace and space to grow rather than dooming them to a lifetime of struggle. One of our goals as caring adults is to provide a place where children can develop and practice the life skills they need to be successful now and in the future. Our love must not be dependent upon their perfection. We just need to see they are trying.

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Further Reading
  1. National Education Association – Dealing With Defiant Students
  2. edCircuit – Tamara Fyke Columns
  3. SmartBrief – How leaders create, sustain SEL
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