Have you ever encountered a student who has more trouble than others when it comes to complying with class rules and following directions? Have you been frantically called in to intervene when a child has had his third outburst in two hours, simply because he was asked to put away his favorite book or tie his shoelaces before recess on the playground? Does this child constantly challenge authority? Do you have teachers at their wits end running to you for ideas on how to work with a defiant student?

While some children come with a formal diagnosis of ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder), a majority are not picked up by the radar. Nonetheless, as school counselors, it is imperative for us to extend support. These are some of my best practices to support defiant children at school.

1. Teach Students to Regulate their Emotions

One of the first steps towards working with defiant children includes providing explicit teaching on self-regulation. If you know me, you know how much I love using the Zones of Regulation across all grades so as to provide students and staff a common and coherent language when it comes to managing one's emotions. This Self-Regulation Guidance Lesson is my go-to each year. It is equally important to help students, as a class, and even individually with specific students, and this lesson is great to help them identify their triggers, behavioral responses, which zone they are in, and what coping skills they could use to compose themselves when in the red, the yellow, or the blue zone.

As a Tier 1 intervention in a class with defiant student/s, I also ensure to do activities with them relating to Size of the Problem, so they are able to understand if their reaction/defiance is actually an appropriate response to the problem at hand.

2. Create and Teach them to use the Calm Down Corner

A must-have in any counseling office, a calm-down corner is a safe space where kids can come to when they need help managing strong emotions. This part of your office is supposed to feel cozy and welcoming.

My calm down corner has a bulletin board with calming mandalas indicating what it is. Download the calm down corner mandala banner for free here! On the same bulletin board, I have an image of a "dot dude" meditating and folders where I keep my free Feelings-Check Posters and Guided Meditations. I also have a coping strategies toolbox where I keep calm down cards.

I introduce students struggling with defiance to this space so they know where they can come when they feel dysregulated and frustrated. That said, I have to admit that it is perhaps not physically possible for a defiant student to visit the Calm Down Corner in my office every time they have a meltdown, which is why I help teachers, at the start of the year, to replicate this space in their own classrooms/breakout spaces so kids who need to access a calm space more urgently can go here instead of coming all the way to my office. However, I make sure to educate teachers and students about how, when, by who, and for how long this space is supposed to be used so that it benefits them all and there is no misuse of this zone.

Do you have a Calm Corner/Zen Den/Peace Corner in your office? What does it look like?

3. Work with them in Small Groups or Individually

More often than not, students who exhibit defiance and non-compliance, whether passively or aggressively, end up needing additional support from the school counselor. Therefore, I work with these students in a small group or on a one-to-one basis after I have received a referral from the parents and/or teacher.

With my upper elementary students, this Self Regulation Group Curriculum has been my go-to. In a tier 3 setting for grades 2-6, I use this Self Regulation Individual Curriculum. However, you are most likely to pick up on defiance, opposition, non-compliance and other related behaviors in young children and it is so important to teach them about choices and consequences early on in an attempt to prevent future problems.

For my K-2 kiddos, I created this brand new and highly specific Defiance and Following Directions Individual Curriculum. Through engaging activities, crafts, and games, students will learn the strategies they need in order to follow directions. These activities are hands-on to keep little ones engaged.

4. Provide them Social Skills Training

A defiant child is often one who doesn't have many friends. When they consistently exhibit aggression, disruption, and frustration, at the cost of the peace of the class or even by sabotaging a classmate's work, other students are less likely to be willing to be friends with them. Considering children who need support in this area are also not as cognizant when it comes to reading social cues or using a social filter, they tend to push potential friends away from them. This might mean that you would need to help them identify and establish a relationship with one "buddy" or integrate them into a social skills group.

social skills training

5. Sensitize the Class

All children at some point might refuse to stay on task or get frustrated and throw a tantrum in front of everyone or may even backtalk when asked to do something they don't want to do. So the first couple of times a defiant child exhibits this behavior, the others are likely to not pay too much attention to it. But at some point, when instances of these negative behaviors increase when this child is not present in the classroom, it would be valuable to have a brief and empathetic talk with the other students on how we all have different needs and how some children need more help than the others. You could together discuss ways in which they could help this particular classmate. You will be surprised at how caring and empathetic some of their responses are.

6. Collaborate with Teachers

Since teachers are in the classroom and will have maximum contact time with the students, it is important for you as the counselor to equip them with effective strategies to handle students who are defiant and don't follow directions. Some helpful suggestions could include using a behavior chart with that particular student, offering praise immediately after a good behavior is exhibited, tips to stay regulated while dealing with a dysregulated child, disengagement and diffusion as and when needed, and recommendations for how to monitor the effective utilization of the classroom calm down corner, among others. I love to use the Pre-Referral Intervention Manual to find ideas. Don't forget to give teachers a brief update on how your individual/group sessions are going with that student.

7. Extend Support to Parents

Keeping parents in the loop is essential. Make sure to report incidences of defiance before the end of the day. (You might need to get help from classroom teachers for this as you might not always be around). Make sure parents know what you are doing in your individual/group sessions with their children every 2-3 weeks and update them on their child’s progress. I even go ahead and suggest recommended books/journal articles that parents can read in order to support their child better. Most importantly, how you speak to them about and to their child matters. In my experience, parents value empathy above all else! Sending home behavior surveys is a great way to gather information as well.

8. Reach out for External Support

While we want to help and support every student on our caseload, there are times when we will not be fully equipped to handle certain students and their situations. When I’ve worked with students with a formal diagnosis of ODD and Conduct Disorder, I have had to either work in sync with their therapist outside of school or have had to make referrals to these specialists after collecting post-session data that shows little to no improvement in terms of school-based counseling. Knowing when to make a referral outside is a sign of a good school counselor, in case you’re wondering!

How do you handle defiant students? I’d love to know in the comments. 


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