Learn how to teach defiant students.

The Story: The Defiant Student

“Get to work Sophie,” Mr. Clarke says as he circulates his classroom, noticing that Sophie once again has her head on the desk. “No,” Sophie quietly mumbles in response. “Sophie, last time you refused to work, I had to write you up as being defiant. You don’t want that to happen again, do you?” Sophie nonchalantly shrugs her shoulders. Ignoring the shrug, Mr. Clarke replies, “come on, let’s get to work,” as he walks away. Sophie stares quietly at the wall until the bell rings.

Later in the day, Mr. Clarke approaches his seventh-grade colleague, Ms. Miller. “Do you have problems in math class with Sophie refusing to do her work?” Ms. Miller replies, “Sometimes. I’ve noticed that she completes assignments without issues if they are simple calculation problems. But if it requires any amount of struggle, she often refuses to do it.” Mr. Clarke responds by saying, “I’m not that lucky in science. She just says ‘no’ to almost everything in my class. She’s one of the most defiant students I’ve ever worked with!”

The Context: Significant Learning Delays

Sophie is being defiant, no doubt about it. However, the question is, why is she being defiant? Statistics show that children with special needs are nearly twice as likely to experience a suspension or expulsion than their nondisabled peers. This number becomes even more staggering when you recognize that there’s a law actively working to prevent this suspension for a child with a disability! Furthermore, research aside, active teachers and administrators know that children with special needs are far more likely to display this type of defiance, sometimes despite our best efforts to prevent it!

What’s going on here? While capturing the complexity in a summary is difficult, Sophie is identified as a child with special needs. Recent standardized test scores showing significant delays in several key areas, including Working Memory (% Rank=1 WISC-V), Sentence Composition (% Rank=0.5 WIAT-III), and Math Problem-Solving (% Rank=0.3 WIAT-III), begin to paint a picture of the problem. Additionally, as a 7th grader, she’s also deeply involved in the social aspects of her development, making the presence of her disability a major variable in her willingness to participate in class. Given her challenges in working memory and writing and her math problem-solving need, she’s likely to need more support than her peers to succeed on tasks that require her to use skills in these areas.

Sophie’s defiance, while legitimately defiant, is the direct result of her need, which means that her teachers aren’t likely to fix it through punishment or pleading. They will have to explore the cause of her defiance and address it using the effective through-and-around method that makes special education work. She’s not a “defiant child.” She’s defiant when she perceives that she lacks the skills necessary to complete a task, and this defiance is magnified when she feels the eyes of her peers staring at her.

The Point: A Two-Tier Solution

Sophie’s teachers should develop a two-tiered solution to her defiance.

First, the team should consider adaptations that empower her around her need in each class. It is important to highlight that these accommodations should be aligned with her needs (working memory, writing, and mathematics problem-solving) not focused on the byproduct of her need – defiance. By selecting appropriate accommodations, Sophie’s team will effectively change her perception that she can’t complete a given task and give her confidence, increasing her willingness to participate.

Secondly, the team needs to plan ways to improve Sophie’s skills. She’s demonstrated four areas of need her team should address. Instruction should be planned to actively improve the following:

  1. Sophie should be taught strategies to improve her working memory.
  2. Sophie should participate in intensive instruction designed to improve her writing skills.
  3. Sophie should be taught various strategies of mathematics problem-solving.
  4. Sophie should be taught appropriate ways to ask for help that doesn’t include refusal/defiance.

The Story Continues: Addressing Student Needs

Upon reflection, Mr. Clarke realized that the assignment Sophie refused to complete required a tremendous amount of writing. He arranged to meet with Sophie and her learning support teacher to discuss ways he could support her in his class, including adaptations to upcoming writing assignments. Sophie will be taught to use graphic organizers to capture and organize her thoughts before writing and will be encouraged to use them on upcoming assignments. Mr. Clarke recognized that several other students in his class also struggle with writing, so he’s excited to welcome Sophie’s learning support teacher as a co-teacher in his class. This partnership will strategically highlight the importance of writing as a learning tool in social studies by allowing students to review and apply their writing skills in authentic ways. It will also provide additional instruction to those who need to continue to improve their writing skills.

As a result of this instruction and support, Sophie gains confidence and begins participating in more activities. She even finds other students in the class that also struggle with writing. This creates authentic social opportunities for Sophie to bond with her peers. Over time, as her skills improve and she experiences effective support, her defiant behaviors are eliminated.


Be Action Driven

  1. Learn more about how to select appropriate adaptations in our “Tools for Effective Inclusion” course.
  2. Check out what the US Dept of Education has to say about Manifestation Determinations.