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Some ESL teachers are lucky to teach in a premier school where most of the learners are not only smart but also well-behaved. However, some teachers have to face challenges when they have to deal with learners who are not only weak in English but also problematic. Perhaps, defiant or oppositional learners exist in most schools and may be ESL teachers’ biggest headache.

What about those learners’ misbehaviours? To lessen these immediate and gradual adverse effects of student misbehaviours, it is of primary importance to identify what exactly are these behaviours inside classroom. They always demonstrate these problematic and irritating behaviours; disruptive talking, chronic avoidance of work, clowning, interfering with teaching activities, harassing classmates, verbal insults, rudeness to teacher, defiance, and hostility (Sun and Shek, 2012). Sound familiar? Have you experienced at least one of these annoying misbehaviours? I am sure these disturbing behaviours in your classroom are intolerable and stress-provoking, and perhaps you have to spend a great deal of time and energy to manage the classroom.

Obviously, the misbehaviours showed by your learners retard the smoothness and effectiveness of teaching and also impede the learning of the other learners or their classmates. Just like me, a few years back, I did not know what to do or was unsure how to deal with my defiant or oppositional learners. I believe many ESL teachers out there may also have the same problem. Here, I would like to share some inputs based on my reading and experience dealing with defiant learners.

Personally, I think it is of paramount importance for ESL teachers to understand the characteristics of those defiant learners. Defiant or oppositional learners can be hostile to teachers and their peers, they do not seem to listen, and do not do what they are told to do. Sometimes, they purposely want to upset their ESL teachers. There have been cases where the more teachers try to manage them, the more they resist and retaliate (Cooper, 2016). Cooper (2016) also describes a defiant learner as someone who challenges the behavioural norms in the classroom, often shows low academic achievement, and lacks motivation. In some worse cases, defiant students sometimes make their classroom like a zoo or circus.

Blanchard and Johnson (2014) describe oppositional and defiant learners as having the following characteristics. Firstly, these learners have a strong need for control. They will do just about anything to gain or maintain this control. They hate it when teachers tell them to behave, keep quiet or stop disturbing their classmates. They believe they control their actions in class and that the teacher is not their boss. If the teacher or an adult draws a boundary to their action or imposes any kind of rule, these defiant learners will feel compelled to step across that line.

The second strong characteristic of oppositional and defiant learners is that they naturally deny responsibility or blame. They believe the nuisance they create is acceptable; there is nothing wrong with it. They become a nuisance to the teacher and their classmates and believe that their irritating behaviour is reasonable. Moreover, they tend to blame others for their own mistakes or misbehaviour. What is exciting to know is that they always do something which attracts the teacher’s attention, yet, they often feel they are “picked on.”

Next, according to Blanchard and Johnson (2014), oppositional and defiant learners also tolerate a great deal of negativity. They seem to flourish on large amounts of conflict, anger and negativity from others, and are frequently the winners in escalating battles of negativity. That is why the more the teacher scolds them, the worse or more irritating they become. Surprisingly, they often are sensitive and easily annoyed. Some of them may or may not be diagnosed with ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder).

Now, what can be done? What options do ESL teachers have to deal with defiant and oppositional learners? According to experts and based on my experience, these oppositional learners must be carefully approached. I admit, I made some mistakes when I tried to deal with my oppositional and defiant learners. That is the main reason why I choose to write about this topic this time so that this article can benefit those ESL teachers who have been getting challenges and headache from their defiant and oppositional learners. Blanchard and Johnson (2014) and many other experts have listed more or less similar tips. These are the Dos and Don'ts in dealing with learners who are oppositional and defiant. The following actions and reactions must be avoided as they make the situation worse:

  1. [if !supportLists][endif]Losing one’s temper; yelling and being sarcastic. They NEVER work. (True. Very true. I made this mistake. I lost my temper; of course after trying to advise them in a soft and friendly manner which did not work. At times, I would shout at the top of my voice. It did not work)

  2. Nagging, talking for a long time or using long lectures (not my style to nag)

  3. Engaging in interaction in front of other learners (Yes, I made this mistake too. I confronted them right after their irritating act right in from of the others in the classroom; raising my voice at each of them in front of others)

  4. Trying to persuade the learners – or bribing him (of course I persuaded them to behave well but bribing them never came to my mind)

  5. Threatening defiant learners (yes, I did this too. I threatened to chase them out of the class if they continued to misbehave. I also threatened to report their misbehaviours to the discipline teacher whom they were scared of.)

  6. Trying to embarrass the learners or putting them down (I did not do this)

  7. Bringing up their past (Nope)

  8. Using negative body language (occasionally, yeah, I did display it)

  9. Getting annoyed by every little thing they do wrong (yes! Yes! Yes! I just could not stand it)

  10. Making assumptions or labelling the student (Definitely, I labelled them; of course, negatively but I only did that in my heart)

As I admitted above, no doubt I made some mistakes in my actions and reactions when I was challenged by defiant and oppositional learners during my ESL lessons. That was years ago when I lacked the relevant knowledge and input. Until today, year in year out, I still have defiant and oppositional learners especially among the Form 4 learners. It is not easy to deal with them as they have been defiant learners for so many years, maybe since Form 1 or Year 4. It is more challenging to deal with them if they have never been warned or reprimanded by any of their previous teachers.

No matter what, for teaching and learning processes to take place effectively, ESL teachers cannot simply ignore those defiant learners who keep on demonstrating their misbehaviours throughout the year. Therefore, based on experts’ (Blanchard and Johnson, 2014) recommendations and my little experience, I would love to share these tips with ESL teachers to make the situation better:

  1. [if !supportLists][endif]Using a calm, neutral voice – no matter what! (Initially I laughed when I read this first tip. How could it work? But gradually, I tried. It worked, works and will always work! Yes, I still feel angry and sometimes very furious when defiant learners misbehave in class but we should not reveal our anger to them. We have to stay calm and show them we are not emotionally affected by their misbehaviours. Of course it is not easy to put a fake smile at that boiling moment but you have to do what you have to do!)

  2. Giving clear directions and using short explanations; not more than 10 words. (This one also works well. Our short and quick response to their misbehaviour is another indication that we are not affected by their misbehaviour. Lesson continues after a brief comment from us. They more we talk about what they did, they will believe that they have got our attention.)

  3. Discussing things briefly and privately. (This was also done. I talked to them in private immediately after the lesson or whenever suitable. I told them about what they could and could not do in my classroom. Of course, I grabbed the opportunity to uplift their spirit by highlighting anything positive about them. For boys, if needed I would hold their hands at the end of the session while saying, "I know you are a good son and I know you can change to be a better man")

  4. Making eye contact, controlling facial expressions, watching body language. (Yes, as I said, I tried to control my facial expression and tried my best to hide my anger. Trust me, ESL teachers are great actors!)

  5. Focusing on solutions, not problems. (Yes, better not to harp on the problems too much)

  6. Asking questions, listening to their responses, and considering what they are saying. (Definitely, I asked lots of questions during the private meeting with the defiant learners. We can learn a lot about them and their misbehaviours by listening to their answers. Very enriching!)

  7. Having clear boundaries and predetermined consequences for behaviour (The limit or boundary of their behaviours during my ESL lessons is made clear during the private meeting. We have to do so because as I said actually they do not know what they have done is wrong or irritates others)

  8. Stay Positive. (I know it is easier said than done but being positive is one of our best options. These defiant learners need a lot of positive adult interactions. Even greeting them at the door and asking about their day can set up a positive start to the day)

  9. Stay Proactive. (Our experience will equip us with strategies to handle oppositional learners. We need to monitor our classroom frequently especially at the beginning of the year; when we have to teach a new group of learners. We should have plans in place beforehand on how we will deal with misbehaviours displayed by our new learners)

  10. Make Expectations Clear. (In our first or second lesson, we must make sure our learners know and understand what behaviours we will and will not tolerate; the dos and don’ts. We must be fair to them too. Our students should know how we run our classroom. They should also know that they will all be given appropriate consequences and fair treatment for their good acts and misbehaviour in the classroom)

  11. Positive Interactions. (This one works well. We have to make sure we pay close attention to how often we praise our oppositional ones. The rule of thumb? For every negative comment we make, we should make three positive comments. And be sure to be genuine with our praise. If we do not mean it, our learners will know and we will get the opposite of the results we are looking for)

In short, no doubt, dealing with defiant and oppositional learners is demanding. Just breathe. Use whatever relaxation techniques we need to use to calm us down before responding to their misbehaviours. Mentally count 1 to 10, pray, or take a really deep breath. This does not only calm us down but also give us time to think about how we should and will respond. Remember, sometimes defiant learners challenge us to the limits but as ESL teachers, we have to master ourselves; we cannot afford to lose control of our sanity all the time.

Personally, I always try to be positive when dealing with the defiant learners. How? I thank Allah, the Almighty for giving me the opportunity to test and challenge my ability to deal with this special group of learners. I am thankful to Him and my beloved defiant learners for the great experiences which widen my horizon and maturity as an ESL teacher. I always remind myself, "Who am I?" and always whisper, "I am a teacher who wants to make a change no matter what". I motivate myself further through these gentle reminders; "I am strong", "Stay strong", "Explore and have fun with them", "Stay awesome", "Keep going, just do it", "Stay calm and colour your life with new experiences" and "Be yourself; be an agent of change for them; they need you; perhaps, they only have you to help them change".

Hopefully the tips shared above will be helpful to you. In shaa Allah.


Blanchard, S. and Johnson, J. (2014). May I Have this Dance? Effective Interventions for Oppositional and Defiant Students.

Cooper, T. (2016). Managing the Oppositional-Defiant Child in the Classroom.

Sun, R.C.F. and Shek, D.T.L. (2012). Student ClassroomMisbehavior: An Exploratory Study Based on Teachers’ Perceptions. The ScientificWorld Journal Volume 2012.

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