By the time Antonio walked through the doors of Bronwyn Harris’s third-grade classroom, he’d already secured a reputation as a troublemaker. Harris, a veteran teacher in Oakland, California, had worked with many troubled students, but she wasn’t prepared for Antonio.

“He said ‘no’ sometimes before I even finished asking,” Harris recalls. “Once, I said, ‘Hey, you don’t even know what I was going to ask you.’ He said, ‘It doesn’t matter. No!’ Another time, a kid tapped him on the shoulder, and Antonio turned around and attacked him, fists swinging.”

Harris reached out to the boy’s family and found out he had been diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder. Harris had never heard of ODD before, but when she looked it up, she understood why she felt so stressed and helpless. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, ODD is “a pattern of disobedient, hostile, and defiant behavior directed toward authority figures.”

You may never encounter a student with an official diagnosis of ODD; experts say that somewhere between 1 and 16 percent of students are affected, but many are undiagnosed. Yet you’ll almost certainly encounter opposition and defiance in the course of your career. (After all, defiance can be a part of normal development.) Here are some strategies for keeping the peace and creating a happier, healthier classroom community.

Establish realistic behavior targets.

Let’s say you have a student who refuses to sit on the rug for story time, and instead throws a fit and leaves the room. First, identify the behavior you’d like to see. Be realistic: If the child is habitually leaving the room, simply staying put is a big step.

Then, collect some baseline data. How often is the child behaving in the desired way? Zero percent of the time? Twenty percent? Baseline data helps you set reasonable goals and track growth, says David Anderson, senior director of the ADHD and Disruptive Behavior Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute. Work toward increasing the target behavior over a week, using a combination of positive reinforcement and consistent consequences. Don’t expect magic, cautions Anderson. Behavior change is slow and takes practice.

Praise positive behavior.

Children who exhibit defiant behavior receive lots of negative attention. Shift the focus to the positive by giving specific feedback when you notice the child engaging in the target behavior. But note: Some of these kids are so used to negative feedback that positive feedback can make them feel insecure, says Raychelle Lohmann, a school counselor at Wake Young Men’s Leadership Academy in Raleigh, North Carolina. “Be careful of suddenly putting them in the spotlight,” she advises, as many react defensively. Depending on the student, it might be best to whisper a note of praise, or to talk to the student privately.

Wait before reacting.

Sometimes teachers unwittingly set the stage for defiance by assuming the worst about a child. “We may be so worried that the child will act out that we end up being overly coercive,” Anderson says. “But many times, the child may not be planning on acting out.” So take a deep breath and don’t intervene unless necessary. You may be able to avoid a power struggle altogether—and be pleasantly surprised with positive behavior that you can praise instead.

Talk to your class.

Oppositional behavior affects the entire class, so it’s important to acknowledge what’s going on.

“One day when Antonio wasn’t at school, I talked to the class about how different things are easy for different people, and how some people have an easier time controlling their feelings than others,” Harris says. “The students responded really well and were [better] able to ignore Antonio’s outbursts later.”

Remember that students may not be as sensitive to disruptive behavior as adults are. “Kids are often more tolerant of what others are working on,” Anderson says. He suggests teachers say, “We all have moments where we lose our cool or have difficulty following directions. That’s something we as a class are working on, and our job is to help one another.”

Enlist help.

Ask your school counselor for help. They can conduct a non-obtrusive observation of student behavior and teacher interactions, and provide tips to de-escalate behavior problems. They may also be willing to work with students individually. “Oftentimes, these kids just get mad, and they don’t realize there’s a sequence of steps that happens,” Lohmann says. “I teach them how to identify triggers and what to do when they start feeling mad.”

Rebecca Briscoe, a second-grade teacher at Harmony School of Exploration in Houston, also recommends establishing a relationship with your school’s special education team, even if there’s no IEP. “If a student is having an outburst and you can’t deal with it, call them,” she says. They can use their specialized tactics to calm things down, and may even be able to work with the child one-on-one while you teach the rest of the class.

Establish a system of emotional communication.

Empower your students by working out a system of communication that allows them to let you know when they’re nearly at the end of their rope. Try a 1–10 scale, with 10 standing for “everything is wonderful” and 1 representing the worst. To keep it private, try having your student pass you a card, or give an agreed-upon non-verbal signal.

If a child indicates he’s having a bad day, it’s best to keep things low key. Some good alternatives for high-stress days include allowing the student to read quietly, to work off some energy in the gym or other part of the school, or to visit a counselor.

Make a contract.

Behavioral contracts can work well for middle school students, but only if they are involved in problem solving and help identify both target behaviors and rewards and consequences.

First, keep expectations reasonable: “If a student isn’t doing any homework, they’re more likely to start doing part of it rather than all of it,” says Anderson, who advises a future—oriented rather than a punitive approach. “You might point out that they have a free period where they could ask for some homework support, or you could ask them if there are ways they can structure their environment at home to be free of distraction.”

Take specific and measured action.

General guidelines—such as keeping a GPA above 2.0 to play sports—aren’t helpful for many kids. Create specific action plans that detail the steps students need to take, supports, and scheduled check-ins.

Involving a student’s family may or may not be helpful. Often, families are overwhelmed and exhausted. When defiance is a problem in the classroom, it’s best to let the school or district psychologist take the lead in setting up parent-teacher meetings.

Understand students’ challenges.

“These kids can push every button a teacher has,” Lohmann says. And the all-too-human reaction to constant defiance are feelings of dislike and frustration. Yet, it’s important to step back. “You’ve got to understand they’re still children,” Lohmann says. “Step into their shoes and think about what it would be like to feel that level of anger and frustration constantly, to not have a lot of friends. Then, you can start to develop a relationship with the child,” she continues. “And we know that if these kids start to trust their teachers and really believe their teachers are there for them, these children will start to work with them.” 

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Photo: Adam Chinitz