Practical Tips for Working with Defiant Students

Practical Tips for Working with Defiant Students in Speech Therapy

Sometimes students don’t want to do as asked. But what about working with defiant students who never do? These practical tips will help you cope.

“Work? Who, me?”  If you have students who are, shall we say defiant, then you’d probably be happy to get that polite rejection. More typically, the defiant retort comes in 4 letter words.

defiant kids, ODD, speech therapy, special education

If you work with mainstream students, switching to defiant students with social/emotional disorders needing occasional hospital visits can be quite a change. Especially when they are middle schoolers, a trying time in general!

Here are a few helpful tips that I learned for dealing with defiant kids. Especially from the year when I worked with a student who was the poster boy for Oppositional Defiant Disorder. The consulting psychiatrist for the school system said his description should be in the DSM-5! After 30 years of working with troubled children, this kid was the most defiant student he had ever consulted on.

Did you ever try doing speech therapy based on Nikki Manaj for a year? What we will do to keep students engaged!

Tips for Working with Defiant Kids

1. Give your defiant students some control over the content or the activities they are being asked to learn.

2. This opens the door for practicing language for negotiating and compromising, as well.

3. Take care of your students’ needs first. They probably have a lot going on in their heads that they have to work through, anyway. Maybe afterward they can begin to focus.

4. Make sure to start building a connection with every emotionally disturbed student that you can, even if they aren’t on your caseload. Next year, they might be!

5. Don’t bother trying to find just that right materials that will excite defiant kids into learning. But your relationship with them may help them be able to start the learning process. Although that one year, I had to throw in Nikki Manaj all year long!

Are you jumping hurdles to engage your defiant students?

Sometimes every session feels like your defiant students are making you jump hurdles. Then try incorporating their speech/language goals into activities that allow them to reflect on the issues that are filling up their thoughts. Problem-solving in real-life scenarios and language for compromises are two examples of needs that most defiant students will have.

If you have to incorporate the one interest that gets them to come to your room all year long, work on reducing the amount of time spent in therapy. By the end of the school year, Nikki was only in my room for 5 minutes of the last speech session of the week.

How about vocabulary for identifying and expressing the intensity of the emotion they are experiencing at that moment? This blog article has a great Emotions Wheel with tons of words to choose from!

Try hands-on activities for defiant students.

Your students might get more engaged with hands-on activities for learning vocabulary for emotions and conflict resolution.

  • Make a personalized dictionary.
  • Play games with photos of different facial expressions or situations.
  • Find or draw images to make a picture dictionary.
  • Look up synonyms using a great online student dictionary.
  • Use their favorite TV shows or movies to discuss how the characters handled conflicts and how it could be done differently. Your students may even know where to find short clips to watch. (You will pre-screen them for their suitability, of course, until they have proven they deserve that privilege.)
  • Use a comic-making site for the student to summarize the scenario, then come up with an alternative solution.

Social Problem Solving with Defiant Kids

‘How big is your problem?’

Students who explode over every small incident need lots of varied vocabulary for angry emotions to be able to think about the severity of the problem.

Defiant students also have difficulty with empathy skills*. My clinical experience suggests that the route to take involves discussing the problems of others. When you use real-life scenarios that the students can relate to, you are more likely to get your students involved. But make sure that you are discussing someone else’s problems!

When you try to build perspective-taking skills using something that happened in your student’s life, the response you may hear is, “I don’t care what they think/how they feel.”  Because, of course, they don’t. So, try using someone else’s problems!

That way, you can say,”I know that you don’t care, but this boy does. How do you think his friend felt when he did that?” Explaining their reasoning helps the defiant student internalize the language and problem-solving skills that they need. Fortunately, there are resources out there to help you get started!

Conflict Resolution Skills

Along with problems empathizing, kids with behavior disorders frequently get into fights and arguments with others. Do they have the language skills they need to be able to resolve conflicts? Often students with emotional disorders have higher-level language problems that have been masked by their behavioral issues.

Try out this set of FREE informal questionnaires for teachers, parents, and your defiant students to see if there could be language problems involved. Then check the resources section below for more free resources for working on language for conflict resolution.

Free resources for working with defiant kids.

Problem Solving with Teenagers

This website has a wealth of information on problem-solving, including problem-solving steps, a video of this in action (with a lovely Aussie accent), scenarios, and some downloads.

Social Skills Solving a Problem

This is an animated YouTube video about the steps to problem-solving. The voice is a bit mechanical, but students may like the animation.

30 Problem Solving Scenarios

Download this free resource from Home Speech Home.

Check out the Problem Solving or the Social Skills section of my store for more help!

*Skoulos, Vasilios, and Georgiana Shick Tryon. “Social Skills of Adolescents in Special Education Who Display Symptoms of Oppositional Defiant Disorder.” American Secondary Education, vol. 35, no. 2, 2007, pp. 103–115. JSTOR, Accessed 30 May 2020.

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I’m Linda, an SLP who loves helping you build effective communication skills for your students using strategies and visuals. Pictures are time consuming, so let me make your life easier!

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