Teach By Design
Data-based decision making
Oct 4, 2019

Putting a Definition Back in Defiance

When it comes to our referral process, knowing what subjective behaviors like defiance and disrespect feel like isn’t enough. We need to define them precisely and we better do it fast.

No items found.
Apple Podcast Button

Editor's Note: Schools with consistent referral procedures end up with reliable data to make more informed decisions that benefit students. This is the second article in our series exploring the basics of school discipline systems. We'll look for ways to enhance the things you already do in ways you never thought to do them before. Check out the first article about bending a referral process without breaking it here.

I recently watched The Princess Bride with my daughters. It’s a classic Rob Reiner film about a pirate on a quest to find his true love. On his way to her, the pirate meets a few interesting characters – some are helpers; some want him dead. If you haven’t seen it, stop reading this article immediately and watch it. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

There are so many classic one-liners in The Princess Bride.

“No more rhymes, now. I mean it. Anybody want a peanut?”


“My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

“Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line!”

And this one…my favorite: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Every word has a definition. Some words are easier to define than others. What happens when the best way to define a word is with a feeling? Subjective problem behaviors work like that. Words like “disrespect,” “defiance,” “disruption,” we may not be able to define them exactly, but we know them when they happen.

When it comes to our referral process, knowing what subjective behaviors feel like isn’t enough. We need to define them precisely and we better do it fast. Teachers across the country say they experience more defiance and disruption in their classrooms than ever before.

EAB – formerly the Education Advisory Board – conducted a survey to find out how big an issue disruption is for teachers in classrooms across the United States. Nearly 1,900 district-level administrators, elementary school administrators, and school personnel responded. Nearly everyone who took the EAB survey agrees: Classrooms are more disruptive now than they were three years ago. In fact, teachers said as many as 1 out of 4 students demonstrated behavior they would classify as severely disruptive. Twenty-five percent of teachers said they experienced tantrums and defiance several times a day.

Does this sound like your classrooms? What do you do with this level of behavior? A lot of times, students go to the office.

Defiance and Disproportionality

When it comes to students referred for defiant behavior, research shows students of color – particularly black students – are referred more frequently than their white peers. Often, these referrals end in suspensions or expulsions. Curious about the impact subjective behaviors have on a school’s overall disproportionality rates, researchers took a closer look at a giant data set spanning more than 1,800 elementary, middle, and high schools in the 2011-12 school year.[1] They found substantially more of the variance in disproportionality is attributable almost entirely to the way teachers refer students for subjective behaviors. Essentially, if we changed the way we refer students for behaviors like defiance, disrespect, and disruption, we can create greater equity in our discipline processes. The study’s lead author, Erik Girvan, explained it like this:

It’s great to try to make sure kids aren’t fighting or doing those ‘zero-tolerance’ behaviors. That’s important. And also, if we were able to eliminate the racial disparities from the way we refer students for subjective behaviors like defiance or disrespect, we would have a much bigger impact on overall disproportionality in school discipline.

These findings don’t stand on their own. Study, after study, after study confirms schools refer black students more often than their white counterparts for behaviors with subjective definitions.[2],[3],[4]

How can we make defiance more objective?

Defining Defiance

GIF of a high school student saying What does that mean?

Defining problem behaviors is a critical part of any school’s discipline process. When everyone operates from the same definition, teams are able to compare referrals school-wide, looking for trends and driving the decisions they make. A basic definition of defiance is:

Student engages in refusal to follow directions or talks back.

If you referred every student to the office when they refused to follow directions, you’d end the period with nine students sitting at full attention hoping they aren’t the next one called.

To define defiance, you need to make it observable, measurable, and specific.[5]


The behavior needs to be something you can see and describe to another person. This part of the definition takes a subjective behavior and makes it more objective. Referring a student for defiance and describing their behavior as “angry” or “disengaged” makes everything still so nebulous. What did they do that made you think they were defiant? Define the behavior in terms you can see.


Once you can see the behavior, you can measure its intensity and the number of times it happens. Think about a student saying, “This is dumb.” There are countless ways you just heard that statement in your mind.

  • Was it whispered or shouted?
  • Did they say it as they lifted their pencil to start the work?
  • Did they say it as they got up from their desk and left the room?
  • Was it the 8th time they said over the course of 30 minutes?

All of these scenarios make a defiant behavior observable and measurable. It gives you a tangible moment from which to start making decisions.


You need to be able to say what defiance is and what it isn’t in your classroom. These boundaries make the behavior specific. For me, I can handle a whispered annoyance or even an audible one so long as eventually they start working on something. Leave the room? That’s a different story. What observable, measurable ways are you willing to put up with defiant behavior in your classroom? What is something you won’t tolerate? Be clear in your own mind what these boundaries are and then share them with your students. Let them in on your expectations and hold everyone equally accountable.

It’s great to try to make sure kids aren’t fighting or doing those ‘zero-tolerance’ behaviors. That’s important. And also, if we were able to eliminate the racial disparities from the way we refer students for subjective behaviors like defiance or disrespect, we would have a much bigger impact on overall disproportionality in school discipline.

Managing Defiance in the Classroom

GIF of young girl saying Ok. What do I do next?

How do we respond to defiance when we see it? Remember that survey from earlier? There seems to be a large disconnect between districts and schools on just what to do to manage defiant behavior throughout the day.

Nearly 100% of district administrators responding to the survey said they implement Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) district-wide. Just over half of teachers report using those PBIS practices even frequently. Pete Talbot, the lead researcher for the EAB survey, summed it up best:

“Since consistency across classrooms is critical to the PBIS approach, the fact that all teachers are not trained, and even those who are trained do not use the practices in their daily work, undermines its effectiveness. It is essential that schools give teachers the time and resources they need to develop strong classroom management skills.”

Students agree.

GIF of a man saying Yep!

In a 2006 study, researchers found students referred for defiant behavior weren’t defying every teacher in every classroom all day long.2 Their behavior was situational, occurring in specific classrooms with specific teachers. When researchers asked students about those classes where they were cooperative with their teachers, students described them as caring people who expected excellence. Researchers call them Warm Demanders.

If we want to affect the way we refer students for subjective behaviors, we need to take a closer look at alternatives to sending students out of the classroom. What can you do in the moment to address defiant behavior? What can you do throughout the year to build that trust essential to creating cooperative learning environments? I spoke to Dr. Kathleen Strickland-Cohen here at the University of Oregon to get some strategies you can implement right away. Here are a few of her ideas.

Responding to Defiance...In the moment

Ask yourself THE question

Is the student actually capable of doing the task with minimal prompts? If the answer is no, it’s likely they see the task as punishing in some way and want to avoid it altogether. A good way forward is to modify the task in the moment. Look for ways they can build some success: Add visual prompts or use graphic organizers. Whatever you do, let them know a break is coming and you’ll be back to check in with them. You could even let them select what they are working toward.

If the answer is yes, it’s time to start figuring out what to do to get them engaged in the assignment.

Find a compromise: What will they agree to?

When students let you know they won’t do something you’ve asked them to do, see what you can do to get them started anyway. Maybe you ask them to work on the first three problems. Sometimes the only thing you can get them to agree to is writing their name on the top of the paper. Whatever it is, it’s a start. Offer up your compromise and then ask them if they can agree to it. Use this strategy in the moment or build it into a behavioral contract as part of a long-term preventative approach. Communicating a compromise might sound like this:

“See if you can start working on these first three problems and I’ll come back in five minutes to check on how it’s going. Is that a place we can start?”

Build behavioral momentum

Are there smaller, easier tasks they can do before tackling the harder thing? We do this all the time as adults. It’s why so many of us start our workday answering email. It’s easy, productive, and we feel a sense of accomplishment. Help your students build similar momentum. Point out some smaller, simpler tasks they can take on before diving headfirst into the harder assignment.

Use their motivation as reinforcement

For the most part, defiant behavior happens when students want to avoid something. [It’s possible they’re looking for attention from you or their peers, but 9 times out of 10, they’re probably looking to get out of doing something.] Use their motivation as a way to get them reengaged in the lesson.

“If you can work on these 5 things, then you can move to work with a partner on the rest.”

Provide choices

Give students choices for how they’d like to complete the work. For example, show them a visual schedule of activities they need to complete. Let them choose the order. You can also break assignments down into smaller components and let students choose which part(s) of the assignment they want to complete with a partner versus independently.

Preventing Defiant Behavior...Over Time

Make content more relevant and meaningful

Sometimes defiance looks like disinterest. When students check out of a lesson, it’s up to us to find ways to reignite their curiosity. Connect lessons to real-world issues. Ask students how they relate to the topic and feature their perspectives in your lesson plans. Everyone engages more deeply when the material is relatable.

How do you make students feel welcome and valued?

When students understand they are welcome and perceived by staff to be valued members of the class, they’re more likely to do things. They know you’re trying to help them become successful. Build a positive relationship from the beginning – or start building one after getting off on the wrong foot.

Build on a student’s strengths

If a student hasn’t been successful in the past, they’re less likely to want to try again. Look for the things they do feel good about. Use their strengths to increase their confidence. That way, when you ask them to do the harder things, they know they can at least try.

If writing isn’t something that a student excels at, don’t have her be the note taker. Find a way she can contribute to the writing process – character development, outlines, editing other students’ work – aloud. This keeps her engaged and builds confidence in the skill without requiring she put her own pen to paper every time.

Remember: It isn’t personal

This is something to remember in the moment, but practicing this skill takes time. Often, the behavior really isn’t personal. However, even those times when a student singles you out and wants to make it personal, don’t engage in a back-and-forth. You’ll inadvertently escalate the situation and create bigger problems instead of fixing the small stuff. When they’re looking for a tug-of-war, don’t pick up the rope.

Anticipate triggers

Every weekend, I know the moment I ask the 4-year-old to pick up her room I’ll see hysterics. I’ve learned if I want to see the floor by Sunday afternoon, I need to find a way to make cleaning up less aversive than it already is. You can do the same thing in your classroom. You know exactly those moments that cause a collective groan or the times when Sarah will put her head on her desk and never look up. Anticipate those moments and help students prepare for them. Offer pre-corrections, transition activities, or alternative behaviors. Anything you can do to ease them into the task will get you a win.

Add Academic Support

Go back to the question you asked yourself in the beginning. Is the student capable of doing the task with minimal prompts? If the answer is no, it’s possible the student needs additional academic supports. Your school has lots of ways students can get the additional support they need: Study halls, intervention rooms, small groups. If it turns out a student needs an intervention, check with your school’s interventionist to find out what they can do to help.

Defiant behavior in your classrooms isn't always students saying they won't do something. Sometimes it escalates. Sometimes defiance looks like yelling, throwing, disrupting the entire class, and leaving the room. In those moments, anyone would write a referral and send a student to the office. For everything else, start with your own definition of defiance. Understand what it looks like in your room as well as what it doesn't look like. Share your expectations with your students so nothing is a surprise. Then, as lower-level defiant behaviors creep up, reach into your classroom management toolbox and give some of these strategies a try.

1. Girvan, E., Gion, C., McIntosh, K., & Smolkowski, K. (2017). The relative contribution of subjective office referrals to racial disproportionality in school discipline. School Psychology Quarterly, 32(3), 392-404. doi: 10.1037/spq0000178
2. Gregory, A., & Weinstein, R. (2008). The discipline gap and African Americans: Defiance or cooperation in the high school classroom. Journal Of School Psychology, 46(4), 455-475. doi: 10.1016/j.jsp.2007.09.001
3. Forsyth, C., Biggar, R., Forsyth, Y., & Howat, H. (2014). The Punishment Gap: Racial/Ethnic Comparisons in School Infractions by Objective and Subjective Definitions. Deviant Behavior, 36(4), 276-287. doi: 10.1080/01639625.2014.935623
4. James, M., Ferguson, K., Harmon Jr., W., & James, K. (2018). We're Not Misbehaving: Cultivating the Spirit of Defiance in Black Male Students. In N. Carter & M. Vavrus, Intersectionality of Race, Ethnicity, Class, and Gender in Teaching and Teacher Education (pp. 110-123). Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV.
5. Nock, M., & Kurtz, S. (2005). Direct behavioral observation in school settings: Bringing science to practice. Cognitive And Behavioral Practice, 12(3), 359-370. doi: 10.1016/s1077-7229(05)80058-6

Download Transcript

Kathleen Strickland-Cohen, PhD, BCBA-D


Kathleen Strickland-Cohen, PhD, BCBA-D

Kathleen Strickland-Cohen is a Research Associate Professor in the Educational and Community Supports research unit at the University of Oregon. Her research focuses on the effective and sustained implementation of schoolwide PBIS, including building schools’ capacity to use functional behavioral assessment to design and implement function-based behavior support plans for students who require individualized support.

No items found.