Working with kids and young adults who are oppositional can be challenging. Being oppositional might mean refusing to do work, breaking rules, and engaging in other challenging behaviors. The truth is, many kids can be oppositional from time to time, so many of these strategies work with all learners. With that said, these strategies are truly aimed at learners who are more significantly oppositional and defiant. These are the students who demonstrate challenging behaviors on a regular basis, purposefully do the opposite of what is told, engage in arguments, and might even show aggression.
Whether or not your student is diagnosed with
Simply put, kids and young adults who demonstrate oppositional behaviors are often in need of significant interventions and supports, not punishments. The list below highlights several strategies for before, during, and after challenging behaviors.
- Build a relationship. Spend time getting to know your
student. Look far beyond their challenges and see who they are as an individual. Find ways to build a positive relationship over time.
- Start fresh every day. This one is important. Treat every day as a new start. Not only does this help educators move past yesterday’s challenges, but it also teaches the student that it is okay to have a bad day sometimes. Make this one your mantra.
- Consider underlying needs. So often, oppositional behaviors are the result of underlying emotional challenges and needs. Take time to consider if a learner is struggling with feelings of anger, anxiety, or anything else. When it comes to challenging behavior, there is always a reason why, even if sometimes we don’t see it right away.
- Explicitly discuss expectations. Teach about social expectations using simple words and visuals. Note that just discussing them once isn’t enough. They need to be openly talked about on a regular basis.
yourwhy. When you have a rule or expectation, explain the why behind it. For example, if you want studentto turn their work into a specific bin, explain that this is so you don’t end up misplacing their work. It might seem silly, but sometimes just a valid reason is enough to help a student understand and follow along.
- Watch your tone.
Toneof voice can mean a lot to kids, and especially to kids with oppositionaldefiant disorder. Notice the way that you say things. “Please take out your homework for today,” is much nicer and calmer than, “Take out your homework right now.” Sometimes, it’s the small things that make a big difference . Explicitlydiscuss consequences. Before challenging behaviors happen, make sure to openly discuss what the consequences will be. Together, come up with a list of what some consequences might be in your setting and discuss why they might happen.
- Make sure
consequencesmake sense. Logical consequences are always more beneficial than punishments. In the simplest terms, logicalconsequence areconsequences that make sense and aim to repair the problem, rather than simply punish. For example, if a student makes a mess, the consequence might be to clean up. If a student says something mean to someone else, maybe they should do a kind deed or write a letter.
- Give choices often. Rather than giving one direction or instruction, give a choice between two or three things. Choice can make a BIG difference! For example, if you want your student to spend time reading, ask them, “Would you rather pick out a novel, read a magazine, or listen to an audiobook?” As an educator, you are still making sure your student is working towards their goals, but you are also giving the student a say in how they get there.
- Develop small goals together. Spend time 1:1 with your student and come up with small and manageable SMART goals that the child can work on. It’s important to make the goals short-term and attainable so that they can reach them and feel successful. Keep in mind that sometimes kids with oppositional challenges don’t see that success often. Getting a taste of it can really change their life. Use that momentum to keep pushing the student forward in the right direction.
- Be consistent. Kids and young adults thrive on consistency. Make an effort to have the same routines, expectations, and consequences each day. This makes it much easier for learners to understand and follow along with the expectations you set.
- Teach strategies for mindfulness. Many kids and young adults don’t know how to put the brakes on when they are upset. Practice mindfulness once or twice a week together to encourage students to develop these skills over time. It is not a skill that develops right away, so lots of practice is necessary. One big positive is that practicing mindfulness in the right way can be fun for kids and young adults.
- Develop routines. The more routines you have for students, the easier it is for everyone. Develop routines for starting group work, turning in homework, writing homework down, lining up, and switching from one subject to another. The more concrete and consistent these routines are, the
lessbehavioral challenges will come up along the way.
- Get all adults on the same page. Consistency from adult to adult is critical. If a student is allowed to run in the hall with one adult but not the other, this can be confusing and even frustrating for the learner. Talk with other professionals, including paraeducators and parents, to try and set similar expectations for the student.
- Practice deep breathing techniques. Teaching kids and young adults to control their breathing can help give them tools to calm down in the moment. It’s important that we teach these strategies ahead of time, so kids can use them when they really need them. Use these free mindful breathing boards to give mindful breathing a try.
- Identify triggers. It’s critical to spend time to think about our students’ emotional triggers. Knowing that group work, doing work in front of the class, or independent work
are triggerscan help you structure your class in a way to minimize those challenges. Sometimes, it takes structured observations to figure out the triggers. If you struggle with this, consider having another staff member take time to observe the student and notice what situations immediately precede the behaviors.
- Develop a calm down area. Not all kids will need a calm down area, but the ones who need it, really need it. A calm down area is just a special spot for students to go and regulate themselves when they are angry or upset. It is a helpful strategy to keep kids in the room, have them practice coping strategies, and get them back to learning quicker.
- Give genuine praise. When a learner is doing something positive, privately let them know. Remember to be specific and genuine in your approach. You might say, “I noticed you worked really hard through that test even though it was a little bit frustrating. That was awesome of you and it showed
you’re reallydoing your best. Thank you.”
- Provide breaks. Kids with social-emotional needs can’t be at their best all of the time. They need down time. Schedule structured breaks and activities to give some down-time in their day.
- Teach coping strategies. So often, kids don’t know how to calm down on their own. They need to be explicitly taught skills that can help them feel calm, safe, and regulated. Most importantly, kids need to learn and practice these skills when they are calm (not when they are upset). That means spending time actually practicing listening to music, writing in a journal, and coloring. Teaching coping strategies is not a waste of time; it’s a life skill. Learn about unique ways to teach coping strategies or grab this free list of coping strategies to get your students started.
- Stay organized. Keeping the classroom and schedule organized will keep your learners organized, too. A lack of organization can frequently be a trigger for oppositional kids who need extra structure in their lives.
- Give special responsibilities. Help your most oppositional learning develop a greater connection to the school and classroom by allowing them to give back in some way. Assign the student to water the plants each morning, pass papers back, or be in charge of technology. Try to align the classroom responsibilities with their interests, if possible.
- Teach social skills. Simply put, if kids aren’t behaving in a socially appropriate way, we need to teach and re-teach those social skills until they can. To support this need, I have developed social skills lessons for elementary kids and social skills lessons for middle and high school students.
- Use student interests. One effective way to keep learners engaged
isusing their personal interests in lessons and activities. Choose read aloudswith trains or bikes, if that is what your student loves. Use math problems about dogs, if that is a particular interest.
- Avoid power struggles. A power struggle with a student is always a losing battle. Your best defense is using techniques to avoid power struggles in the first place.
- Let the little things go. If a student wants to use a pink gel pen to complete their work, let them! If a learner wants to work standing up, why not? Ask yourself if the behavior is interfering with their learning or not. If it isn’t, try to let the little things go!
- Learn ways to calm yourself. Dealing with a student’s challenging behaviors can be difficult
inthe moment, especially if those outbursts are directed specifically at you. Find ways to calm yourself down, such as deep breathing or positive self-talk). The calmer you can be, the better it will be for all your learners.
- Integrate strategies for
social emotionallearning. Kids and young adultwho are oppositional often need supports with social and emotional skills. Learn how toyou can integrate social emotionallearning or start with these free strategies for SEL.
- Brainstorm with other professionals. When you are looking for new strategies and solutions, it’s often helpful to talk with other specialists in your school who know the child. Brainstorm with the school counselor, social worker, psychologist, and any other professionals who work with him or her. Brainstorming with a paraeducator who works with the student can also often be very helpful.
- Consider incentives and rewards. While intrinsic rewards are always better, it’s true that sometimes kids and young adults need some extra encouragement along the way. Use this free list of rewards and incentives to get ideas to help motivate your learners.
- Talk with the child’s counselor. If possible, get permission from guardians to talk with the child’s outside counselor. It can help to try and work on some of the same strategies together.
- Focus on your own self-care. Working with a student who is oppositional can be extremely stressful for the adults involved. Remember to focus on your own self-care so that you can be the best you for all of your learners. Grab this free educator self-care poster as a reminder.
IN THE MOMENT STRATEGIES
- Stay calm. Kids and young adults feed off others’ energy. Make it your mantra to stay calm. Sometimes this might mean acting like you are calm, even when you are not! Having a calm attitude is essential
tohelping kids and young adults feel safe and protected. Not only does a calm demeanor help students regain calm themselves, but it also models appropriate behaviors for them at the same time.
- Be clear and concise with expectations. Give specific and simple directions as to what the student is expected to do. It’s important to watch your tone of voice and say these expectations in a non-emotional way. If a student is refusing to start their work, calmly tell them, “Please complete up to number 10. Thank you.”
- Give space. When kids are upset, the last thing they need is an adult talking at them and telling them what to do over and over. So often, they already know but need time to get there. Talking to them can sometimes just create more of an argument. Tell them what you need to tell them, but then walk away. Give them space to get themselves started.
- Use de-escalation strategies. De-escalation strategies are the techniques you can use to help calm a situation (or learner)
inthe moment. Read up on different de-escalation strategies you can use or grab this free de-escalation strategiesprintable as a reminder.
- Avoid taking materials away. While this is a critical de-escalation strategy, I think it’s important enough to mention separately. If a child or young adult is using their phone when they shouldn’t be, never take it out of their hands. If they hand it over to you, that’s one thing. It is never advisable to forcefully take something from a child or young adult, though. This just creates a power struggle and will only incite more anger from the child or young adult. Give the instruction, walk away, or give wait time, but never take something physically from a learner.
- Let the little things go. When kids and teens are struggling, make a concerted effort to ignore minor challenging behaviors. Ignore the small things when you can instead of redirecting every problematic behavior that comes along. Sometimes kids and teens need that space and time to make a better choice on their own. For example, if a student is making silly noises to get your attention during independent work time, try letting it go. Keep working through and helping the child, as needed. Again, this technique is specifically for minor challenging behaviors when it is more beneficial to let them go than address them in the moment. As always, it’s important to be responsive to the child’s mental and emotional needs. Just like with other techniques, it might be important to follow-up with other interventions at a later time.
- Help the child regulate their emotions. When a student is upset, it’s always most important to help them get back on track. Give the student time to regulate their emotions by going to a calm down area, spending a few minutes to themselves, or getting a drink at the water fountain.
- Don’t take it personally. This is easier said than done, but it’s important to remind yourself not to take behaviors personally. Kids and young adults with behavioral challenges are struggling. They are acting out in the best way they know how to get the support they need
inthe moment. Take a deep breath and walk away when you need to.
- Make sure the child is calm. Before reflecting on an issue, it is critical that the child or young adult is calm first. If a learner is still upset, give them extra time to calm down and chill out before moving forward. Remember that the ultimate goal is helping that student learn from their ups and downs. That is only meaningful when they are truly calm and ready to learn.
- Give time for reflection and problem-solving. While challenging behaviors are happening is not the time to learn. Kid and young adults are emotionally overwhelmed at this stage, meaning no learning is taking place. However, after a child is calm is the perfect time to reflect and problem-solve for the future. This is when
the newlearning is happening. Spend time talking with the student. Be inquisitive about what happened and not accusatory. For example, you might say, “I noticed you had a problem today with ____________. What happened?” and “What could we do moving forward?” Spend some time brainstorming ideas, strategies, and solutions.
- Be creative. It is critical to stay open-minded during the problem-solving phase. If a child or young adult gives you an idea, consider it. Not everything will work, and that’s okay. It’s important to allow the child or young adult to be part of the problem-solving process, though. For example, if a student says they think they would do better working while listening to music, consider it. Try it. It’s okay to consider strategies even just a trial. Even if it doesn’t work out, it helps give responsibility to the learner themselves. It also shows that you are fair and willing to try things to help them be successful.
- Make a plan together. Sometimes, it’s helpful to write out a specific plan with strategies moving forward. When you do this, it’s important to list strategies that the student will do and strategies that the adults will do. While you don’t always need to write out a plan, having these strategies listed and documented helps in a couple of ways. First, it holds all parties responsible for the strategies. Second, it documents that you are trying new strategies. This can be important in the
future,so that if it works, you can continue (and if it doesn’t, you can just try something else!). If necessary, you might also consider developing an entire behavior intervention plan.
- Give strategies time to work. Not every strategy is going to work perfectly right away. Give them a few times and days before determining if they are effective or not.
makeupfor mistakes. Teaching kids and young adults how to make up for their mistakes is important. It’s also important that they don’t feel they are thrown into this alone. Help them through it. For example, if a student said something meanto someone else, help them write an apology note to their friend. If a student made a mess in another teacher’s classroom, help them find a time to go in and tidy or clean the room to give back. Not only will this help fix the damage, but it teaches a critical life skill.
- Apologize when you mess up. Sometimes,
inthe moment, we all make mistakes. After some reflection time, if you think you’ve made a mistake, own up to it and privately apologize to the student. This often goes a long way with kids who are oppositional. A genuine apology can help mend relationships and help the student see that the world can sometimes be a fair place.
- Forgive and move on. Remember that every day is a fresh start. Once an incident is over, do your best to forgive the student and move on. Kids (even big kids) are still kids who are learning and growing.
- Don’t give up. No matter what, never give up on your learners. Even the kids who are oppositional and challenging need all of your support, encouragement, and love. Tell them you won’t give up with your words and show them
withyour unconditional support.