“Break Glass in Case of Emergency”: How to Manage Defiant Students

Our previous article on difficult students lays the groundwork for how you deal with defiant students. The PEACE acronym used in that article is your first line of defense. When those things fail, you get out the hammer and break the box. The situation has then gone from difficult to defiant.

Many instructors understandably fear defiant students. There is no doubt confrontations are difficult. Like most people, I dislike conflict. I am there to help create an atmosphere of supportiveness and energy, not one of conflict. But sometimes we must stick up and speak out for our class.

Luckily, confrontations with defiant students are rare. In several thousands of classes taught over 10 years, I can recall only three times I’ve been in what I would truly call a defiant situation.

There is a saying: “You teach people how to treat you.” You will set a standard with the decision you make about how to respond to a situation in class. Your class will learn about you from your response. It’s important for your class to see you stand up for them when a student is being disruptive, for instance. They don’t want you to give up control of the class to a couple of talkers. Likewise, you can lose your class’s respect by going ballistic over something unimportant. Find the inner strength to use the least amount of force necessary to get the intended result, and know that your class will be observing how you make that calculation.  

Christine Nielsen does a great job describing how to summon the strength to deal with a defiant student in her excellent ICA article, “Your Superhero Cape and its Seven Special Powers.” In that article, she recounts the story of asking one of her riders to leave, and provides tips for instructors on how to put on their own “superhero cape” to help gain the confidence to do what is necessary to protect their class.

Before you take any kind of action, it is important to know the attitude of your management. To what extent will they support you? Are they committed to safety and “keeping it real,” or do they subscribe to the “customer is always right” kind of thinking? Do they have policies about handling disruptions in class? (If you do have an incident with a student, I suggest you report it to your supervisor.)

In any event, the decision will always come down to you making a judgment call rather quickly. That decision will have two parts, and both are critical to dealing with defiant students.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *