11 Strategies to Use with Strong-Willed Children

I’m super excited to have Colleen, from the One Stop Counseling Shop, stopping by The Helpful Counselor to share strategies to use when working with a strong-willed (or defiant) child.

Welcome! Tell us a bit about yourself:

My name is Colleen and I’m a school social worker in a small rural district in Illinois. My caseload consists of general education and special education students who need help with social skills, conflict resolution skills, problem-solving skills, and general help getting through the day.

This year, I work with grades 2-6, but have worked with all grades K-12 in past years! I’m passionate about helping teachers work with students with behavior difficulties such as ADHD, ODD, or Bipolar Disorder and love seeing students who never thought they could do well in school “get it!”

What tip(s) would you like to share with us today?

Strong-willed children can be a challenge in the classroom. Below are several tips to help teach students with challenging behavior. You can explore these tips for supporting strong-willed children in this post on my blog.

Provide thorough explanations of rules or expectations.

Knowing what to expect is critical to help strong-willed kids feel secure.

Establish a contract for behavior and agree upon the rules and consequences.

Outlining each party’s “role” can help students feel like their opinion matters and that they have some control over the classroom environment.

Let students choose how to demonstrate knowledge (groups, presentations, worksheets, posters, teaching others, etc.)

Head-strong kids are often the ones the “traditional school model” doesn’t work well for. They’re often creative, inventive, and problem-solving kids who like to make their own rules and have their own thoughts about what is right and wrong. After all, they try to find their way around our rules all the time. Why not let them have a little choice every now and then?!

Be specific with rules and expectations!

Try to write expectations such as, “Keep hands and feet to yourself” rather than the overly general “Be Respectful.”

Be consistent in your rules and expectations.

Nothing more irritating to a headstrong kid than not being able to predict how an adult is going to react to a situation! Try to discipline consistently, calmly, and predictably.

Pick your battles.

No one likes a nit-picker. Imagine if your boss picked out every single thing you did wrong every day!

Stop Talking!

Be brief and to the point when needing to correct or redirect behavior. Long, drawn-out explanations only make the embarrassment of being disciplined last forever and generally lead to resentment, not respect!

Give students ways to “save face.”

Discipline in private! Your attitude toward students will be mirrored by other students in your class! I hate seeing kids ostracized in 2nd grade because every adult in the building treats them like a criminal.

Use humor.

It’s a lot harder for kids to stay mad if you make a heavy situation light by using humor. Just make sure you’re not laughing at the child.

For example, instead of, “How many times have I told you to stop running,” try “Hey bud! The floors are wet and I don’t want to have to pick up squished pieces of you off the floor. It’d be messy!”

Apologize if you need to.

Not only does this teach children that everyone (even adults) makes mistakes, but it shows them that you have respect for their dignity as a person as well.

Be on their team.

So with everything you do, think about you and I working together against the world. It’s amazing how much a mind shift can change your own feelings about and actions toward a difficult student!

One last point (from the headstrong adult): Defiant kids or those with ODD are not “destined” to be criminals as adults. We can’t know which of our students are going to succeed.

Defiant people have fought revolutions, marched for civil rights, started businesses, and molded the world we live in. If those before us simply accepted everything as it was, many of the rights and privileges we enjoy today would not be available to us.
Be thankful for the defiant people in your life and don’t write off your difficult kids; just figure out ways to harness their “power” for good!


10 responses to “11 Strategies to Use with Strong-Willed Children”

  1. Cindy Tobin Avatar

    Hate to see that “Strong Willed” is still being used as a label. Mary Sheedy Kurcinka wrote a wonderful book titled “Raising Your Spirited Child” in the 1990’s. I used to be a Parent Educator in Minnesota, as Mary is. I am now a Professional School Counselor. I was fortunate enough to take her class at the U of MN on this book. She spoke about the importance of positive labeling and said that “Spirited” came to her when she was horse back riding with her nephew. When choosing a horse, he said, “I want that one! I want the Spirited one!” Part of the book discusses taking negative labels and finding a positive way to express them. I have raised my own spirited child (now 23) and know that showing respect for these children (and ALL children) is key. I like your tips and agree that they are useful, just sad to see the label.

    1. Heather Thomas Avatar

      Hi Cindy,
      Thank you for taking the time to read the article and leaving your thoughtful response. I have certainly seen the term “strong-willed” used negatively as I have also seen the term used to capture a person’s determination.

  2. Rory Avatar

    Thank you. I have a four year old daughter with a very strong-willed personality. I love your words of wisdom and they help me feel better about the situation we are working through with outbursts and defiance.

    I am in the last year of my teaching certification (yay) and I appreciate the effort and your willingness to share your experiences and resources with those of us just beginning the journey.

    You have made my day!

    1. Heather Avatar

      Consistancy is the hardest part of both parenting and teaching. I have 3 children (born in a 3 year period) and 2 of them are extremely strong-willed. It’s hard not to question our own skills…I highly recommend Love and Logic to get rid of the “battle of the wills”. Once your daughter knows you mean business and that you will not go back on your word, you will see a decrease in behavior.

      However, most likely your little one has a very determined mind-set that will follow her through adulthood which can be a very positive thing. The trick is to channel her independence by giving her two choices that you can live with. That lets her have a sense of power without you feeling like you have given up yours.

      On a personal note, my daughter was a fireball from the time she was born. She is 12 years old and has just started middle school. She is determined and not afraid to advocate for herself. It’s not all rainbows and butterflies…she is still very strong-willed but I truly see how helpful her traits will be as she matures and becomes more independent.

      Best Wishes,

  3. Amy Avatar

    Hi Heather… or Colleen whoever might be able to help me.. I was wondering could I get some advice. I’ve been given the option at my son’s school to list the characteristics that would be best for him in a teacher so that he has a better chance of success in 1st grade (kindergarten was rough for him) and they will place him in with the teacher that fits the characteristics I provide. He is very strong willed but not diagnosed with anything.. but exhibits ODD characteristics. I was hoping this article might help but I’m still at a loss for what I should suggest… any advice???

    1. Heather Avatar

      Hello Amy,

      You will want a teacher that has clear and consistent rules and expectations. I would also recommend trying to find a teacher that can develop a positive behavior plan with him. For example, he would bring a daily note home that says if he followed directions or whatever goal he is working on.

      In first grade, I highly recommend only focusing on one main goal at a time and another goal that he can reach most of the time. This makes it so the focus can be on the primary goal and he will experience success with the secondary goal. After 4-6 weeks, re-evaluate the goals and change them as needed.

      The behavior note/plan should include both immediate and delayed positive reinforcement. I recommend the gift of time or a fun activity for the reinforcement over a physical item. With my own kids I would just call what we already do a fun name, like “family game night” or “movie night”.

      Best wishes,

  4. Joy Bennett Avatar
    Joy Bennett

    I need help with a student. She’s very “strong-willed” or “spirited” or whatever you’d like to call it. Some of the ideas you have on here may help. What I’m more curious about is for lack of a better word, she appears to be mean. She’ll pick on other kids around her, steal their things, and hit and scratch often. Many times it’s unprovoked. How should I handle this with a personality like hers? She doesn’t handle punishment very well, but she also can’t continue to hurt or pick on others.

    1. Heather Avatar

      Hello Joy,

      I would really target empathy building, communication skills, and coping skills. In the meantime, violence is a non-negotiable for me. If she is being violent and hurting other kids, she needs to receive a consequence and each occurrence needs to be documented.

      I’m curious about age. A kinder acting this way is less alarming than say a 3rd grader.

      While there can be many underlying factors as to what’s triggering the behavior, safety of the other students is paramount. At the very least, she should have to write an apology note or apologize to the student on the receiving end of her behavior.

      I would also have her on a daily note targeting “safe hands” and “nice words” with some sort of incentive worked in…don’t forget to have a parent signature line for the parent to sign and return home.

      You will also want to rule out any biological (mental health), developmental delays, or situational issues (foster care, divorce, parent’s new girlfriend, etc.) that may be triggering the behavior.

      Best wishes,

  5. Yessenia Avatar

    Hello. I am a parent of a 6 year old and he has speech delay he started school when he was 3 and had speech therapy. The last 2 years no speech therapy was given we moved to another school district. He did great in Pre-K and Kinder. But 1st grade has been very difficult for him. He is behind in reading and writing. He has become aggressive and goes under the table at school. At home, church and other public places he does fine. I have talked to all the principals, counselors,behavior specialist and Physcologist at school and no solution has been given to me. His behavior at school is totally different then at home. The teacher sends me a folder where she records everything bad he does. She calls me 5x a day during school hours to tell me how bad my kid is doing. I have asked for positive reinforcement. My son is a great caring kid. But he has started saying he is a loser a failure, a bad boy who does nothing right. We never saying any such things to him. He cries every morning because he does not want to go to school.
    Can you please help me find ways to help him.

    1. Heather Avatar

      Since he had a more positive experience in PreK and K, it seems as though is behavior is manifested from academic difficulties. His aggressive behavior is more than likely motivated by a combination of frustration and embarrassment. One way to tell is to have the teacher note when his behavior occurs, as incidents will typically coincide with a certain part of the day…it may not be during a difficult learning activity. It could be later in the day. Think of a fussy toddler that missed their name and is also hungry.

      Steps to take:
      Contact your school’s special education/services department and request a full evaluation. They may try to have you wait through a progress monitoring period, but if your child’s behavior is extreme or escalating you do not have to wait. The school is legally required to pursue special education testing within 30 school days from your request.

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