I just got back from coffee with a friend-of-a-friend who is going into elementary teaching. She asked me how I deal with run-of-the-mill defiance: most kids aren’t completely out of control, but many students do talk back from time to time or respond with stubbornness. She told me that most teachers she has observed either yell or threaten the student into compliance, but that she didn’t want to be “that” teacher. I pride myself in never yelling at children and generally having strong classroom management, so I was happy to give her advice.
Obviously situations really vary, but here are my go-to strategies:
1) "Narrate" Behavior: Rather than becoming upset, I try to remain calm and not get pulled into an argument with a child. I really like using the sentence frame “I notice that you _________.” For example, I might tell a student, “I notice that you are frustrated with your writing.” I’ll follow that with a question or instruction, ie “Can you tell me why you are feeling upset?” or “I want you to take a deep breath and write two sentences.” Often by remaining calm, I’m able to deflate the situation.
2) Give Students Choices: Defiant students normally don’t want to feel like they’re being told what to do. To “preserve” their sense of control, I’ll often give them two options, ie “I notice you are feeling upset. You can walk to the fountain and get a drink of water or put your head down and count to ten. Which choice will you make?” I’ll get down to their level and hold up two fingers. When the student makes a choice (normally exactly what I would have insisted that they do), I make sure to compliment them on making good choices.
3) Counting Down: For some reason, I’ve found that children are much more likely to follow instructions if you give them a little time to do it. For example, if a student doesn’t want to write, I’ll tell them “You have 20 seconds to start your writing. By the time I get to 1, I expect to see your pencil moving. 20, 19…” This seems to give them time to collect their thoughts.
4) Repetition: If I give a student an instruction (ie “You will go take a break at your desk”) and they talk back (“But Juan did it!”) I’ll just repeat my instruction in a calm, even voice.
5) Step Away: Sometimes, more “reasonable” techniques don’t work. However, I NEVER, EVER get into a verbal argument with a student. If I feel like I cannot reasonably solve the disagreement, I need to be the “adult” in the situation. I tell the student, “I am feeling (frustrated). We will discuss this in five minutes” and walk away and collect my thoughts. Just like in disagreements between adults, sometimes both the teacher and the student need time to collect their thoughts. Some teachers feel that stepping away lets the student “win.” Rather, I think it helps the teacher preserve their dignity and respect.
I hope other teachers or teachers-in-training find this helpful! I love to hear about how other teachers manage their classrooms.