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3 Tips for Working with Children Who are Defiant

August 17th, 2021 | 3 min. read

By Lisa Williford

Recognizing early childhood educators may be encountering some challenging behavior as a result of the chaos and uncertainty that many families and children have experienced over the Pandemic, William DeMeo, PhD, author of When Nothing Else Works: What Early Childhood Professionals Can Do to Reduce Challenging Behaviors, shares three strategies for working with children who are displaying defiance or opposition to authority. 


My name is Dr. William J. DeMeo, and I am a developmental school psychologist. I have worked with young children for the past 30 years, both in the urban setting and private practice setting, serving young children and families in the greater Cincinnati area. 

I want to talk about the effects of the pandemic and what we can do to help young children, especially those who are displaying challenging behaviors because of the experiences they've had in the last 20 months. We know the pandemic has definitely had an impact on us and our families, in addition to our young children. There is a lot of uncertainty, fear, anxiety, and stress associated with the pandemic that can definitely lead to challenging behaviors, especially as young children enter your program for the first time in a long time.

I had the opportunity to survey over 15,000 early childhood professionals and their number one concern regarding challenging behavior happened to be children who are defiant and children who are in opposition to authority. This is when you ask them to do something and they either tell you “no”, or they refuse to do it. So let's talk about some ideas and strategies, because we know a number of our children are going to display this behavior, especially because of what they experienced recently. 

1. Make Sure the Child is Hearing AND Listening

First, make sure the child is attentive to you. Once you know  that they're attentive to you, make sure it's not a hearing issue. Also, make sure it's not a listening issue because hearing and listening are two different complexes within the neurological systems of the brain. Once you know they can hear and they are being attentive—that they are listening to you— one great way to make sure that they've listened to what you’ve said is to have them repeat back what you’ve said. Ensure that they are able to auditory process the information that you’ve provided. If all of those systems are operational, then you know this might be oppositional or defiant behavior. 

2. Use Positive Commands

Once you have established that this is defiant behavior, one strategy is to use what we call “positive commands”. Here's what I mean. If I said, “I don't want you to think of elephants!”  What did you just think of? Elephants. But I asked you not to! We use a lot of “No”, “Don’t”, and “Stop” commands with children. Children remember the last thing they hear. So if you say “don't run,” guess what they remember? If we take every negative command and change it to a positive, we can get 85% compliance. Another example is a young child at the lunch table stabbing his fruit with a fork. You don’t say “stop” or he will take the knife and stab the fruit with that too. If we change our commands to a positive command, we can get 85% compliance just with this simple strategy. 

3. Demonstrate the Desired Behavior

The next bit of strategy I will mention to you is demonstrating desired behavior, because we know young children listen with their eyes. Here is why. If I say, “This is the sign for the letter “F” in sign language. Please make the sign for “F” and do exactly what I tell you to do. Take the sign and go ahead and place it on your chin.” However, I place the sign on my ear instead. What will happen? The children will place the sign on their ear, because they listen with their eyes. That is because 75% of all information is processed visually by young children. That's how they listen. So the more you visually cue with pictures, and the more you demonstrate the desired behavior, the better children will be able to listen.

I hope some of these particular suggestions are going to be very helpful to you as your young children return to your program. I wish you the best of luck and have a great, great year.

Author(s)William DeMeo

Lisa Williford

Lisa Williford, an experienced marketing event coordinator, served with Kaplan Early Learning Company and Gryphon House from 2020 - 2023.