Effective Ways To Handle Oppositional or Defiant Students




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One thing that is extremely important in promoting effective teaching and learning is the ability of the teacher to get students to obey instructions from the start. How then do you do that? First, it is necessary to know that the classroom is made up of different types of students. Some are obedient and others are oppositional. Knowing this is critical to your success in issuing effective instructions.

You can use these well-thought-out steps to effectively command your defiant/oppositional student. These are:

1. Get the attention of the student;

2. Communicate your requests clearly and simply;

3. Give a follow-up look; and

4. Deliver a positive consequence.

Follow these steps consciously until you can use them by heart.

Obedient students often do what you ask them to do. They don’t pose any problems for you in class. However, the oppositional students do challenge whatever they are asked to do. They always question your instructions.

So, your ability to get the oppositional student to do what you want at first will make a difference in your teaching and processes. In this piece, we are going to discuss how you can effectively give commands to your defiant/oppositional students. We will look at what to do when they obey your commands.

Issuing Commands as a Function of the Teacher

The teachers’ job is to educate and train their students to become responsible people in society. In order to do this, the teacher has to be effective in the classroom.

Coupled with this, there are different types of students in the classroom. Some are obedient and the teacher requires less effort in getting them to learn and acquire the required skills in the curriculum. But some are oppositional and defiant due to one reason or the other. The teacher needs to put in lots of effort in order to manage these students.

Now how does the teacher become effective? One of the most important ways of doing that is the ability to command students effectively. This explains why giving commands is a critical part of the teachers’ job.

Example of Oppositional or Defiant Behavior

Examples help our understanding of classroom issues. This indicates why it is important to consider and analyze one here.

Hazel is a grade seven student. Mrs. Matilda is her mathematics teacher. The following ensued between them in the class:

Mrs. Matilda is teaching a new topic. She turns to write a formula on the board and Hazel quickly rushes to pick something from another student’s bag. On hearing her footsteps, Mrs. Matilda asked: “Who is that? What is happening?” while still writing on the board. Hazel proceeded with her quest and it created a struggle between her and the owner of the bag.

Mrs. Matilda heard a remark, “Give me back my marbles”. She turned and saw them still struggling. So, she shouted Hazel stop that. Hazel said, “No, I want to see”. Mrs. Matilda went closer and Hazel returned the marbles to her colleague.

Mrs. Matilda started the lesson again, explaining the necessary concepts to the class. 15 minutes later, Hazel started to stump her feet generating noise. Mrs. Matilda quickly tells her to stop doing that and continues with the lesson. She stops for five minutes and starts again. This is what goes on between Hazel and Mrs. Matilda in all their mathematics lesson.

From the above, what kind of student is Hazel? What is wrong with Mrs. Matilda’s commanding skills? Let’s discuss this in the comment section.

Components of an Effective Command or Instruction

Effective commands have three main constituents. They are attentional cues, commands, and follow-up looks. Your command will be effective if all of these are considered when giving the command. Now, let’s look at the components in detail.

1. Attentional Cue 

Here, try to get undivided attention when issuing your commands. That is, stop whatever you are doing and issue the command. Make sure the student understands and obeys the instructions before you start doing other things.

Likewise, make sure the student gives his/her full attention before you issue the command. This is critical in ensuring the effectiveness of your instructions. Now, you can consciously devote your attention to the students when giving commands.

How then do you get the students to give you their full attention? How do you do that? Let us know in the comments section below.

If you are still wondering how to draw the attention of the student, know that you can do that through the following:

a. Make use of their names. Thus, mention their names and follow that with the command. For example, “James, please put the Lego away for now”.

b. Make eye contact with the student when giving commands. If they are insistent, call their names and tell them “Look at me.”

c. Get closer to the student but be sure not to go too close because that could be threatening.

2. Command

This is where you issue the command. It is necessary to know that there are several ways of giving commands and your strategy is a matter of personal choice.

Despite the above, there should be certain guidelines that can be followed to increase the effectiveness of your instructions.

3. Make a Follow-up Look

Take some 10-15 seconds to look at the student while standing still without any movement. Don’t also make any sound or talk when you are in that standing position. Don’t respond to whatever the student says or tries to say. Just don’t give up on them. Some of the students might just perform your command so that you will give them some space. That is good at the start.

This will put the student under pressure to think of appropriate ways to comply with your command. You don’t have to yell at the student in order to get him/her to obey your commands.

This method is very effective and doesn’t promote any conflict or altercations between the teacher and the student.

4. Positive Feedback 

This should come after your student has obeyed your command. Try to be appreciative and recognize the student’s efforts in performing your commands.

There are several ways to give positive feedback. It is highly important to use both verbal and nonverbal messages to appreciate a student’s positive behavior. This makes it more effective.

You can use verbal expressions like: “Well done”, “Thank you”, “Good job”, “Nice”, “Cool” etc. to appreciate compliance from your student.

A smile, a soft pat on the shoulder, or a wink can be used to supplement the verbal expressions above when giving positive feedback. But beware of how you do your nonverbal messages. Some students might not be comfortable and sensitive to them. So, do that appropriately according to the nature of the student.       

How to Command Younger Learners

Students disobey commands not because they want to get back at you but because you didn’t give the command effectively. It is sometimes difficult to get oppositional students to obey commands 100%. Even with that, there are some guidelines you can follow to be successful in getting your students to do what you want them to do. These are explained below in detail:

1. Draw the attention of the student 

Do this according to the explanation above on the attentional cue. Achieving this is the first step in getting your students to understand and comply with your commands.

2. Eye contact 

The role of eye contact in influencing the behavior of your students can’t be overemphasized. When giving commands, make sure you establish eye contact with the student. Remember a command issued while making eye contact is highly likely to be respected and obeyed. The reverse is the case when you don’t make eye contact with the student during the command.

3. Try to be firm but respectful 

Your command should be given in a firm manner. Don’t try to beg for obedience from your students. Or don’t explain yourself excessively but make sure it is clear for the student to understand what you want him/her to do. These strategies may work on some students but will not be effective in the case of defiant/oppositional students. Desist from using statements like “Do me favor…….” and “Would you please……”

But remember, just like everyone, your students deserve to be treated with respect. This is critical because it helps create good memories of you in the minds of your students. It, therefore, triggers obedience and respect from your students.

For example, if you cast your mind back to your school days, you will realize that the teachers you loved most could have been those who treated you dearly and respectfully.

4. Take advantage of nonverbal communication strategies

Remember your hand gestures, body posture, tone of voice, and manner of speech should be commanding. Thus, your hands should be closer to your body when giving the command. You should not also sit when commanding the student. Maintaining a firm tone can help you in getting your defiant students to do what you want them to do. Finally, showing a deliberate facial expression and speaking in a deliberate manner will increase your chance of getting the oppositional student to obey and respect your instructions/commands.

Young students pay much attention to nonverbal messages than your words and expressions. The reason is that their ability to understand and respond to verbal instructions is still developing. Thus, their ability to focus and interpret verbal expressions increases as they grow in age.

5. No Negotiation or Argument

There is no need for negotiating or arguing with oppositional/defiant students. Thus, don’t bargain with the student to perform what you want him/her to do. Don’t also overexplain your instruction or the reason why you want him/her to follow it. But don’t forget to give clear instructions/commands.

You can give a brief explanation of your command but don’t overdo it. When they question your command, explain once and say “because I said so” as the reason for the command.

6. One Command at A Time 

Give one command at a time to your students. This will make it easier for your student to obey and comply with your commands.

Remember can easily defy commands that involve multiple tasks. So, if you want your student to perform several, give it one after the other. With this, they can easily perform them without excuses.

7. Let the student repeat the command for you

If your student has attentional problems, you might find it helpful to allow him/her to repeat your command once again. Allowing them to do that will help focus their attention on what you ask them to do. Or if he was concentrated on doing something else without much attention to your command, it would disrupt his attention and focus it on your command.

Remember it is important for all students to do that, but it is surely useful for students who can’t focus on several activities at a time.

8. Make a follow-up look 

Do this to help you increase the chances of your students to follow your requests. Do it as explained above. Do it appropriately according to the nature of the student.

9. Don’t forget to give positive feedback

Follow your command with positive feedback after your student has complied with your command.

Commanding Adolescent Defiant/Oppositional Students

You need to modify the steps above to suit the age and nature of your students. Remember, the age of the students matters a lot. Use the following guidelines to help you issue effective commands to your adolescent students:

1. Get the attention of the student 

The way you do it with younger students should be different from adolescents. Try as much as possible to avoid conflicts with your students.

Remember this group of students is most likely to put up defiant behaviors. This is due to their age. Thus, they now believe they can control their own affairs and often see authorities to be a nuisance.

2. Eye Contact

Don’t force yourself to establish eye contact with the student as adolescents can process instructions without necessarily looking at you.

The most important thing to do here is to make sure the student is listening, even without eye contact. Tell them to stop whatever they are doing respectfully, and listen to you.

3. Be respectful but firm 

Be careful when you are dealing with this group of students. At this stage of their life, they try to exert much control of their environment and a little confrontation can result in a conflict with them.

Despite the above, you still have to be firm both in speech and in actions. So, you need to strike a balance between being respectful and firm when giving commands. Always precede your commands with “please” and make sure you are calm enough to avoid confrontations.

4. Communicate clearly 

Your command should be clearly stated. Don’t use ambiguous expressions and words. Commands should be issued one at a time to avoid overloads and misinterpretations.

Avoid the use of questions when giving commands. You should be clear and straight to the point.

5. Avoid arguments and negotiations 

At this age, these students are more likely to argue or try to negotiate with you to get their way. So, try as much as possible to avoid that.

However, do it in a respectful manner such that they will not find reasons to rebel against you.

6. Follow-up Look 

With adolescent students, you need to be extra sensitive to the reaction of your students when you are using this strategy. The defiant student might use it as an opportunity to play with you. So, take away your eyes when you notice that but don’t move away from the student until your request is obeyed.

Some students might also perceive it negatively. So, look away when the student reacts negatively to your follow-up look but don’t leave his/her vicinity.

7. Positive Feedback

Appreciate the behavior of the student if she/he complies with your request. Say “Thank you” after they have obeyed your command.

This will tell them how respectful you are towards them. It can, therefore, encourage future compliance with your commands. Remember, these students love to be respected in their environment.


It can be concluded from the above that issuing commands is an integral part of your job. It is also clear that oppositional or defiant students are everywhere in classrooms. So, your ability to succeed in the classroom is partly dependent on your ability to effectively command your defiant/oppositional students. We realized that you can do it effectively by following a step-by-step process such as 1. Getting the attention of the student; 2. Issuing clear and simple commands; 3. Making follow-up looks; and 4. Giving positive feedback. It is clear to state that you have to practice this process until you become a master of it.  

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