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Teaching Profession Opinion

The Difficult (and Satisfying) Run of Teaching Defiant Students

September 26, 2016 4 min read

By Allison Riddle

My dad and I share an insane joy of running.

The best advice he ever gave me had to do with the hardest runs. He taught me that when a run feels the most challenging, I am probably making the most progress. “After an especially difficult run,” he said, “notice how much stronger you feel on the next run. Your discomfort is gone, your speed is back, and you are ready to tackle whatever the road offers you.”

Working with defiant students can be a difficult run. Not every day is hard, but some can be incredibly rough. I struggle to remain consistent, calm and confident when a student escalates the defiant behavior and tests me in front of other students. By the end of the day, I sometimes feel worn out and discouraged. But the following days often do run smoother, somehow. Maybe the student has learned I will follow through, or maybe I carry myself with greater confidence for having made it through the struggle. By midyear, my ‘runs’ with a student often diminish and I notice we are beginning to build a trusting relationship.

In a strange way, my most challenging students become my favorites. Perhaps not at the moments they push back--but over time I have realized that my hardest students have made me a stronger, more effective teacher.

A few years ago I had that student, the one who tested my limits and made me better. Fifth graders, generally excited about school, usually begin the year with wide, curious eyes and a yearning to learn something new. But this young lady, who I will call Stephanie, walked in carrying some very heavy baggage and a serious attitude problem. She and I made it through a very difficult year, sometimes feeling like we were tested in the fire. Over the year her behavior did improve, though at times it seemed like I handed out consequences to Stephanie as if they were Skittles. I was so surprised when she showed up to the last day of school, walking into our room with a huge smile and an attitude of gratitude. “Mrs. Riddle, my mom said I didn’t have to come to school today because report cards are done,” Stephanie said. “But I told her I wanted to come . . . because you like me.”

Because I like her. Students usually tell me how much they like me... but this girl came on the last day because I liked her.


See also: The Surprising Grief of Teacher Leadership


There are dozens of books and theories about working with students who struggle behaviorally. While I appreciate many of the methods, I am convinced that in the end, it’s about the effort we make to build a trusting relationship even when it is difficult. Every day I showed Stephanie that I accepted her, while at the same time expressing that she must follow the expectations of our class. My dad might say that Stephanie and I made progress running our marathon by focusing on the hard, short runs

Here are a few other ‘training tips’ I learned during my most difficult runs:


  1. Be consistent. Students who are emotionally fragile benefit greatly from being able to trust that the teacher will respond consistently to not just him or her, but to every student’s behavioral choices during class.
  2. Give space to students who are emotionally escalated. Teachers are so time-conscious, and we want to solve problems quickly in the limited amount of time we have with our students. But when an adult tries to force an escalated child to comply, the situation usually worsens. Giving the student ample time to breathe and calm down will ultimately result in greater gains.
  3. Model respect. Although a punitive consequence may seem a logical move to most educators, it often sends a message that those with the most power can have their way. Harsh punishments rarely expose the cause of the behavior and lead students to making more appropriate choices. By speaking in a respectful, low tone, and offering reasonable consequences directly related to the student’s misbehavior, a teacher can gain trust, allow the student to maintain dignity
    in front of classmates, and hopefully encourage the student to reflect on their choices.
  4. Express your hope for the student. Deep down, every teacher wants each student to be successful both academically and socially. Expressing this hope to both the child and his/her parents brings everyone in on the same ‘team’, and allows a smoother baton pass during those difficult runs.

Students with behavior and emotional difficulties desperately want teachers to be the adults in their lives that help them make it to the next mile marker. Let’s do this by reflecting on our hardest runs and building the stamina needed to work with our most challenging students as we show them with our behavior, “I like you, I believe in your abilities, and I am so glad you came to school today.”

Allison Riddle is the 2014 Utah Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). She teaches 5th grade at Foxboro Elementary School in North Salt Lake, Utah

The opinions expressed in Teacher-Leader Voices are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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