Academic journal article Childhood Education

"No! I Won't!" Understanding and Responding to Student Defiance

Academic journal article Childhood Education

"No! I Won't!" Understanding and Responding to Student Defiance

Article excerpt

Ms. Jackson was at her wit's end. For the past two months it was the same routine. Taking a deep breath, she crossed her fingers and hoped that today would be different as she asked the students to join her on the rug for a story. Jon, a wide-eyed 8-year-old, remained motionless.

"Jon, please come join us for a story."


"Jon ... come on over so you can listen to the story."

The small boy's eyes narrowed as his jaw tightened. "No! I won't!"

Student defiance, or resisting the authority of the teacher, is commonplace. In fact, some researchers have reported that the vast majority of discipline referrals are due to defiance (Gregory, 2005; Kohl, 1994). Due to the prevalence of childhood defiance and its potential for bringing instruction to a grinding halt, it is essential for educators to be prepared to understand it and respond to students who exhibit it. The authors will examine defiant behavior and the strategies that can minimize and manage it effectively.


Defiance ranges from minor, easily defused incidents to highly disruptive and dangerous events. Sometimes a student's defiance is so extreme and persistent that the student is identified as having oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition (DSM-W), ODD is characterized by a

pattern of negativistic, hostile, and deviant behavior lasting at least six months, during which four (or more) of the following are present. The student (1) often loses his or her temper (2) often argues with adults (3) often actively defies or refuses to comply with adults' requests or rules (4) often deliberately annoys people (5) often blames others for his or her mistakes or misbehaviors (6) is touchy or easily annoyed by others (7) is often angry and resentful (8) is often spiteful or vindictive. (BehaveNet[R] Clinical Capsule[TM])

Students with ODD are at an increased likelihood of having problems with substance abuse or juvenile delinquency, developing a mental disorder, and committing violent crimes (van Lier, Muthen, & van der Sar, 2004). This extreme kind of defiance appears to be caused by a variety of factors, including genetics (Eaves, Rutter, Silberg, & Shillady, 2000), chemical imbalance (Jensen, 2001), either excessively authoritarian or laissez-faire parenting (Levy, O'Hanlon, & Goode, 2001), and social factors, such the experience of racial discrimination and poverty that can cause severe social stress in a family (Barkley, 1997). In addition, challenging behavior can be related to the quality of the mother's prenatal care and nutrition; the child's prenatal exposure to alcohol, drugs, and/or lead; poor nutrition; inadequate health care; and maltreatment, in the form of negligence and/or physical and emotional injury (Zirpoli & Melloy, 2001). Although these factors are presented as distinct, it is likely that they intermingle, creating a complex system of causation. Because the prevalence of ODD is less common than milder forms of defiance, we turn our attention to the more moderate and commonly observed forms of defiant behavior in elementary classrooms.

A pattern of defiant behavior, as illustrated by Jon in the vignette to the right, often indicates that a student is trying to accomplish something. The defiance serves a particular function. Researchers who study functional behavior assessment (e.g., Day, Horner, & O'Neill, 1994; Scott & Nelson, 1999) note that behavior tends to serve one of two (and sometimes both!) kinds of functions: to acquire and/or to avoid. Specifically, a student who behaves defiantly might be trying to get something, such as power, autonomy, status, attention, or a sense of belonging. The student also might be trying to avoid something, such as an aversive task or person.

Sometimes teachers and peers can trigger defiant behavior. …

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