Use scripts to deescalate defiant behavior.

Title text: Use scripts to deescalate defiant behavior by Dr. Tim Grivois. Beige background. Bright green book with "Script" on the cover in the lower right.

-by Dr. Timothy (Tim) Grivois, Executive Director

Supporting students who exhibit defiant behavior can be challenging for teachers and school leaders. Defiant behavior can range from non-compliance with classroom rules to outright verbal and physical aggression. One effective way to de-escalate this type of behavior is by using scripted responses. Scripted responses provide a consistent and predictable approach to responding to defiant behavior. 

Pre-planned responses allow teachers to maintain their composure and avoid being drawn into a power struggle with the student. Additionally, scripted responses provide a clear message to the student about what is expected of them and the consequences of their behavior. Ultimately, the use of scripted responses can help de-escalate defiant behavior and create a more positive learning environment for all students.

Unfortunately, without a script, defiant behavior often leads to power struggles.

Teacher: I need you to open your book to page 35 and start on the first few problems.

Student: No, thank you. I’m good.

Teacher: It’s not a choice. It’s time for work, and you’ll need to begin.

Student: (Raises voice) I said I won’t do this.

Teacher: And I said you’ll need to do this. If you choose not to, then…

In this situation, no one wins. While asking a student to work on their assignment is entirely reasonable, engaging in a power struggle rarely results in learning. Instead, teachers can save time and frustration by deciding in advance how to hold students accountable for their work without participating in an argument. Here is one example from Dobson Academy’s PBIS Team that tends to work:

Teacher: I need you to open your book to page 35 and start on the first few problems.

Student: No thank you. I’m good.

Teacher: Got it. Is it because you don’t want to do it or because you’re unsure how to get started?

Student: This doesn’t make any sense, and it looks boring.

Teacher: Well, I can’t help with the boring, but I can help with the ‘making sense’ part. Do you want me to hang out and work on the first couple of problems with you?

Student: No. I just don’t want to do this.

Teacher: Been there, too! I don’t always want to get started on stuff I don’t get. Well, I need to help some other students. Can you at least sit quietly while I work with them?

Student: I guess.

Teacher: Good, because if not, you may need to finish the period somewhere else. But if you change your mind and want to get some of this done, let me know, and I’ll come by when I can.

Usually, students either accept help the first time or at least change their minds when sitting quietly becomes more tiresome than the work. And in the above script, the teacher maintains control of the situation while still validating and supporting the student. Most importantly, the teacher is available to the rest of the class as quickly as possible.

Another benefit of using scripts to address defiance is that symptoms of anxiety, depression, trauma, ADHD, and neglect can often present as defiant behavior. With a script, we may discover where the “no” is coming from, reduce classroom outbursts, and support better outcomes for all students.

If you’d like to work together on a script for your team, let’s schedule a zoom or email me. Then, we can set up a free initial working session to explore whether this kind of intervention makes sense for you. 

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