Don’t Give up on Stubborn, Defiant Students

Some students seem determined to test the boundaries of proper academic, social and interpersonal behavior. Resistant to most common interventions, they refuse to change for the better, and some will push back on your support and help.

It's critical for teachers not to give up on students who have a hard time following your rules.But we don’t have the option of simply discarding these children. You have to keep trying to bring them along. Here is what has worked for me:

Speak the truth

Hard conversations cannot be avoided. When working with struggling children and their families, you need to speak the plain and objective truth. Stick to the facts, and consistently remind the child you’re not speaking from a place of anger, but rather from a place of caring and concern.

Children who get called on their poor behavior often feel targeted and singled out. Telling them you care is an incredibly powerful way to disarm them and counter their rationalizations that they are being picked on.

Don’t judge

While you’re speaking the truth about their actions, reinforce to struggling children that you are not making a personal judgment: You’re comparing their actions to objective measures of how to behave.

Many times I’ve seen parents and students accuse teachers and administrators of playing favorites and picking solely on them. The best way to counteract that is to focus on the child’s choices and show how they affect the school setting and their personal success. Focus all your efforts on helping prevent the behaviors that are getting in the way of student success.

Never abandon

Frustration will set in. You’ll feel a strong desire to simply move on from the child and the situation. The best teachers resist that urge and keep reinforcing their expectations and caring for the child.

This also means that when the child has a small success, which might be as minor as getting through a school day without an issue or turning in all their homework, you recognize it with a special word or act of encouragement. In their upside-down view of the world, the child will want you to cast them aside and focus on someone else. However, I believe the child also wants your attention, even though they’ll be hesitant to admit it.

See the larger context

For the most part, a combative and resistant child is coming from a home or a background that fosters a defiant attitude. Take this into account, and keep in mind that you may be thrust into a quasi-parental role.

If that’s the case, act as such. Offer words of encouragement. Be there to listen, and practice patience when the child goes off the rails. If dysfunction is deep in the family, it’ll deep in the child. That will flow into your classroom.

You may also find yourself acting as a help to the parents of the child. I’ve found that as I’ve grown older and become better able to be a parent to my students, I’m asked for more guidance and advice from parents.

Plant a seed

You’ll be traveling down a path of frustration and disenchantment if you stake all your success on a massive turnaround in the child. You’ll have to settle with small victories from time to time, and remember that you’re planting a seed that might not come alive until after the child has moved on from your class.

I’ve met students over a decade later who still speak fondly of our time together and how it helped them get on the right road. Of course they could never admit it at that time.

Find other resources

You are not the be all and end all for solving a student’s problems. Reach out to colleagues and resources both inside and outside of your school for help. A welcome trend is that communities have come to realize that engaged and positive children are far better members of the community. Work with your school’s administration and counseling department, as they’ll know far more than you about the breadth of resources.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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