Disruptive and Defiant Student Behaviors:

Coaching Teacher Interventions

with Vulnerable Students


CEP 900 12/4/00 draft

Ingrid Gunderson



Successful classroom teaching can be sidetracked by students’ distracting and defiant behaviors.  Many teachers report that inordinate amounts of energy are given to a few students by teachers, school specialists, parents, and administration, often with little or no improvement in either behavior or academics.  Teachers may experience significant instructional difficulty, conflict with the child, and conflict with other involved adults as solutions are sought and philosophies discussed.  Many newer teachers, in particular, report disillusionment.  In recent reports, 30-50% of new teachers have left teaching in their first five years, often citing discouragement linked to disruptive behaviors and related lack of support from administration and parents.


School reform movements and cultural change have heightened uncertainty about how to deal with disruptive students.  Various models of intervention and classroom management have had limited success, when removed from their inspired originators and extended to wide training of teachers and staff.  Initial implementation of newly acquired skills from professional development training, for example, often brings some brief improvement in the classroom.  Then old patterns of student and teacher interaction are often reported to resume.


Many attribute the problem of teacher implementation of strategies to teachers who abandon new skills before they are fully utilized in a consistent manner (Showers, 1990)  Parents, teachers, and principals may clash on beliefs and strategies, thereby confusing the adults who support a troubled child.  And some conclude that most defiant children or their families cannot be significantly helped, because they are too entrenched in pathological patterns.


This paper presents an initial broad overview of four areas related to effective teaching of defiant and disruptive students:  1.) recent studies on teacher efficacy and student efficacy that show promise, and increasing evidence that these models are effective in addressing significant issues in student achievement and behavior; 2.) barriers to teacher efficacy and implementation of behavior interventions with defiant and disruptive students;  3.) coaching as an approach to increasing teacher efficacy with these students; and 4.) classroom strategies likely to promote self-efficacy with defiant students.  My eventual research focus will likely be on school structures that improve teacher efficacy and effectiveness with disruptive children, particularly coaching models of teacher learning.








Self-efficacy in students and teachers


Self-efficacy is a term that represents two types of beliefs considered to drive the behavior of individuals.  The first type is an outcome expectation, i.e., the belief that a specific behavior leads to a specific outcome.  For a teacher or student, this could be the belief, for example, that a certain action will solve a problem. The second type of belief is an efficacy expectation, the belief that one personally can perform the behavior that leads to the desired outcome.  Both expectations are important for self-efficacy.  Efficacy is not synonymous with competence or effectiveness, although performance accomplishment feedback (see below) is the most important source of self-efficacy.


Bandura’s cognitive social learning theory and research (1986) is the basis for a number of studies on self-efficacy beliefs.  Three important outcomes have been demonstrated to result from self-efficacy:  the tendency to initiate a behavior towards a goal, the degree of effort that will be exerted in that behavior, and the persistence of efforts when obstacles and failure are encountered.  Bandura, Schunk (1995) and others have studied self-efficacy in learners, and along with other researchers have found evidence of significant improvements in achievement and motivation.  There are four major sources of self-efficacy.  Teacher learning of skills to help disruptive students is likely hampered, because these four sources are notably absent in many events with disruptive students: 


1. Timely feedback (including self-feedback) on specific performance accomplishment, with accuracy but emphasis on small (partial) successes.  This is considered the strongest factor in self-efficacy. A teacher may not, for example, enthusiastically remark to a student several times each week that he’s really made progress in handling frustration, only yelling out once, and without swearing and shoving.  Some principals may not notice and quickly congratulate a teacher whose defiant student is now engaged in an hour of academic work a day, rather than none.


2. Modeling and other vicarious experiences of observing someone successfully handle a  situation (e.g., where disruptions are about to occur, or are occurring).  Teachers are isolated in the classroom, with little opportunity to watch other adults handle defiant students.  Students may have little chance to see another student struggle with personal needs and then achieve satisfying success in academics and cooperative behaviors.


3. Convincing verbal persuasion that the student or teacher can expect to be successful in making situations go well.  When defiance and disruption occur, subsequent problem assessments often imply the opposite:  that the student or teacher is flawed and unlikely to bring about improvement under his or her own steam.


4. Emotional and physiological states enhance self-efficacy (e.g., arousal, interest, enjoyment, ease, etc.) or may lower self-efficacy (anxiety, anger).  Teachers and principals will attest that it takes much skill to create a positive, academic climate after a series of disruptive incidences.  Anger, anxiety, and criticisms may override any learning from partial successes (performance accomplishments).


Goldstein et al (1980) incorporated most of the above factors into social “skillstreaming” for students and for teacher assistance.  Brophy (1996) has summarized his own research,and that of others, that has addressed approaches to learning social skills and cooperation.  I am investigating recent studies that show success in reducing classroom aggression, and will include them in the next draft of this paper.


Teacher efficacy

Teacher efficacy is linked to teacher behaviors, thought patterns, and emotional reactions in challenging situations.  High levels of teacher efficacy correlate with:

·      a greater sense of responsibility for student achievement

·      positive expectations for student achievement and behavior

·      strategies for achieving objectives

·      improved student achievement

·      fewer behavior problems

·      greater teacher persistence when obstacles

·      willingness to try innovations in instruction (Soodak, Podell, and Lehman, 1998)

·      positive affect (Ashton and Webb, 1986)

·      a sense of control

·      a sense of common teacher-student goals

·      democratic decision-making

·      more job satisfaction

·      preservice teacher status, especially for elementary teachers (Soodak and Podell, 1998)


Low levels of teacher efficacy correlate with:

·      harsher methods for controlling student behavior (Ashton and Webb, 1986)

·      paradoxically, also turning more control of activities over to students (Ashton and Webb, 1986)

·      calling on outside help to solve learning and behavior problems

·      higher teacher referral rates for special education services, particularly for low socioeconomic status children, and children with both learning and behavioral problems

·      more class time on seatwork and small group instruction (Ashton and Webb, 1986)

·      less collaboration with peers and principal

·      inexperience teaching in the classroom, after preservice work (Soodak and Podell, 1998)


It is notable that teachers in general assume greater responsibility for student successes as compared to student failures.  Failure is more often attributed to outside factors, such as home environment or principal conflicts.  Teachers also assume greater responsibility for group success than for individual student success.  Soodak and Podell (1998) find evidence for separate teacher efficacy factors based on differing beliefs about high achieving and low achieving students, with lower efficacy scores when teaching low achievers. 


Two teacher efficacy dimensions are delineated by a number of authors: general teaching efficacy (GTE), “I think teacher actions make a difference with student success;” and  personal teaching efficacy (PTE):  “I think that what I can do will make a difference with student success”(Soodak and Podell, 1998).  These two types of teacher efficacy correspond generally to Bandura’s outcome expectation and efficacy expectation.  While the terms teacher efficacy, GTE, and PTE have sometimes been used in an unclear way in the literature, there are some striking indicators of difference.  For example, the sharp plummet in personal teaching efficacy in elementary teachers after preservice work, during their first years in the classroom, is not matched by a corresponding sharp drop in general teaching efficacy.


Soodak and Podell report lower teacher efficacy in work with children with behavioral problems as compared to children with learning problems.  Teachers in general referred students to special education at higher rates if they had both learning and behavior problems.  These study results they consider worrisome, given other studies that question benefits of special education instruction, negative results of such labels, disproportionate numbers of minorities labelled, and the small likelihood that children so labelled will ever leave the special education system.


The odds against teacher efficacy

Soodak and Podell remark that a “potentially dangerous situation occurs when a teacher with low personal efficacy encounters a student who is difficult-to-teach due to learning problems, behavior problems, or both ... what is the outcome of a mismatch that brings together a teacher who believes that he or she is ineffective and a student whose qualities differ sufficiently from the norm so as to create a substantial teaching challenge?”  Given the large numbers of new teachers hired at urban schools with high risk, low socioeconomic students of a differing culture (or schools experiencing turmoil and staff turnover), who are likely to experience plummeting personal efficacy, likely to demonstrate harsher approaches to behavior issues, fewer specific strategies, less persistence, and less  innovation, difficult-to-teach students are indeed vulnerable.


All four major sources of self-efficacy (above) are absent or minimal for the typical classroom teacher working with a defiant or disruptive student.  Isolation in the classroom prevents timely, specific performance feedback, particularly feedback on small successes.  When feedback does occur, it often is centered around problems and therefore is experienced as criticism, which undermines efficacy of teacher, parent, and student.  Typical medical models of assessment and behavioral reinforcement schedules are also problem-oriented and falter in implementation.  They cause additional problems when they emphasize a locus of control external to the teacher or student.  They may also unwittingly reinforce children’s problem behaviors simply by the flood of attention for failures rather than successes.


Isolation and busy teacher schedules also prevent observation of successful models of teaching.  The exception to this is often the professional development workshop, where there is little opportunity for follow-up with powerful performance feedback and practice.  Learning does not transfer to ongoing classroom implementation (Showers, 1990).  Verbal persuasion is a weaker source of efficacy, but somewhat effective when peers or principal collaborate to discuss student issues.  Lack of conference and preparation time may preclude spontaneous or timely collaboration.


Emotional and physiological states cloud cognition and decrease learning during disruptive and defiant events.  The intensity of teacher-student interaction often builds by the third month of school, and teacher outcome expectations and efficacy may be at risk of being rigidly entrenched in powerful negative expectations, decreased effort and strategies, and negative affect.  All of these are known factors in student failure.


Price (1996) emphasizes the necessity of strategy collaboration and mutual support among adults when working with children with defiant and aggressive behaviors.  It may be in the nature of work with defiant and aggressive children that these problems frequently cause divisiveness among the adults involved.  Soodak, Podell, and Lehman (1998) find that teachers are hostile to special education inclusion of these children and that this increases the chances of inclusion failures.  Soodak and Podell (1998) note that research is needed on the social context of teacher efficacy.  Hipp (1997) investigates principal feedback to teachers and collaborative strategy formation effective in increasing teacher efficacy.  Showers (1990) notes the poor likelihood of newly learned teacher skills transferring to the classroom without practice and “coaching” collaboration with other teachers and staff.



Showers (1990)  and Edwards and Newton (1995) describe research on coaching that gives evidence of positive effects on teacher efficacy and job satisfaction, as well as improved student achievement and behavior.  I have begun an investigation of  literature on peer coaching and mentoring.  Coaching may be especially effective with behavior and learning problems, perhaps even more so when collegiality develops with the special education teacher or principal.  A coaching model constructed on principals of self-efficacy for work with disruptive students would:

·      provide realistic and structured teacher performance goals for effective feedback, particarly to teachers who have low efficacy with disruptive students.

·      train coaches to give specific time-contingent feedback.  This would emphasize successes of teacher and student, and also accurately note needed goals.

·      train teachers to recognize partial successes at times that the teacher may recognize only failure.

·      coaching would originate from teacher goals whenever possible, not parent or administration.  (“Help me with my student/parent” rather than “this is the correct approach to teaching.”)

·      build from current teacher strengths and expertise with a student, rather than starting with outside experts’ assessment, criticisms, and implied need for complete retraining

·      train teachers to support student self-efficacy through parallel strategies

·      scaffold teacher learning of new strategies according to the teacher’s skill level and cognitive-emotional readiness.  “Cookbook” approaches often requested by teachers may in fact be best suited for gradual skills practice.  The coach could give the teacher brief case vignettes, student-friendly academic materials imbedded with social skills tasks and efficacy information, provide contacts with other teachers, and other resources in a carefully structured sequence.

·      give the teacher cognitive tools to defuse emotional-physiological states of anger and anxiety, easily triggered by student defiance and aggression.  Anecdotes and reinforcement of partial successes help counterbalance feelings of failure. (“You really helped him yesterday. You delayed discussion until you weren’t so mad, and he was ready to suggest his own strategies.  So someday he can do that when he’s upset. And you chatted in a friendly way about your cat today, rather than letting him control the tone and keep things angry.”)

·      plan nonreactive “breaks” for student or teacher at times likely to have high emotional intensity, for example tutoring a younger student in another classroom or co-teaching with another teacher on a project.

·      alert teacher and principal to discriminate occasions that require specific administrative support

·      provide a model for observations through co-teaching or exchange of peer coaching roles and feedback (Edwards and Newman, 1995, Hasbrouck, 1997).

·      avoid unnecessary aversions, such as some child study team meetings that are time-consuming, draining, and unlikely to focus on small, immediate goals

·      gives preintervention or early intervention support, rather than referral and delay for  3-10 weeks as outside experts complete assessment and problems become entrenched


The coach/consultant could be a special education teacher, social worker, school psychologist, peer teacher, or lead teacher.  A rich opportunity exists in inclusion settings for exchange of peer coaching by the regular classroom teacher and the special education co-teacher.  In unusual circumstances a principal or vice-principal may attempt an ongoing coaching role.  However, conflicts with the administrator’s performance evaluation role and schedule demands may make support untrustworthy or unreliable. The best choice of coach may be determined by the skills and experience the coach has shown with defiant children and parents,  skills shown mentoring teachers, ability to offer well-planned resources to the teacher, and brief onsite availability several times a week for 3-5 months as the teacher needs.


Vulnerable children: disruptive, defiant behaviors

Certain subgroups of children may respond atypically to teacher interventions.  It may be useful to teachers to differentiate behavior patterns in a subgroup of students that show differing reactions or differing sensitivities to teacher-student interactions.  These students may react with defensiveness, defiance, or aggression to teacher approaches, such as positive recognition by teacher, moderately intense affect of teacher, and focus on behavioral/social goals.  Escalation of problem behaviors may follow these approaches, and teachers can feel particularly discouraged when these special efforts to help students meet with failure.  Teachers are often aware that self-efficacy is low in these students.


If this group of children experiences “normal” teacher interventions as emotionally charged, coercive and controlling, too permissive, or eliciting helplessness in the face of intense internal and social needs, they may react with distress and use skills at gaining power and control.  They may, for example, unwittingly amplify a preexisting problem, gain center stage as class clown or school bully, elicit adult attention by being the repeated victim of bullies, increase disruptive motoric activity, defy requirements for task completion, declare a jaunty apathy (“I don’t care!”), have inappropriate verbal outbursts, or show various forms of aggression when prior self-control was demonstrated.


Differences in student reaction to teacher interventions have been noted many times in the past.  Often these children have been individually assessed as EI, EBD, ADHD, or as having conduct, antisocial, oppositional defiant, or attachment disorders.  Multiple labels are frequent.  Or they may be described as having cultural, family, and peer influences that discourage academic achievement and socialization, and encourage defiance of school goals and authority.  School staff and parents become hopeless in this confusing shower of labels.  And some children may show such reactions or sensitivities only for defined periods, bewildering classmates and causing confusion about appropriate assessment and intervention.


It may be productive to look at the phenomenon of teacher-student interactions with children who have defiant and distracting behaviors, regardless of the initial cause of their difficulties.  Some teachers are known to successfully minimize these behaviors (Brophy, 1996).  They facilitate a relatively positive school experience for child, parent, and classmates and assist academic progress, despite nonresolution of the original problems.  Strategies that provide even partial respite from these intense struggles are invaluable to child, parent, and teacher, and may play a crucial role in resilience of the child and family throughout the schoolyears.


General classroom interventions considered effective for improving behaviors and increasing motivation, cooperation, and achievement are:

·      scaffolding the challenge of academic tasks to meet the needs of individual children (Hoffman and Pearson, 2000).

·      coaching (vs telling) styles of teaching on academic tasks (Hoffman and Pearson, 2000).

·      coaching and structured student-directed goals on behavioral tasks (Glasser, 1986).

·      teacher “immediacy”: warmth and personal interest in students (Brophy,  1996)

·      teacher consistency and clear communication regarding behaviors and requirements

·      explicit classroom academic focus (vs explicit behavioral/social focus), at least for grades 3 and up.

·      imbedding social skills learning in academic tasks (e.g., language arts theme on a story about friends who fight; science theme on the physiology of anger and consequent inability to concentrate).

·      reduced teacher affective intensity, especially negative affect

·      time-contingent praise for effort and strategy (vs praise for performance) (Dweck, 2000)

·      authentic tasks

·      cooperative vs competitive classroom activities

·      authoritative leadership by teacher and school, including natural consequences quietly given with empathy (vs authoritarian or inconsistent leadership)


Teacher interventions considered useful with defiant and disruptive children include:

·      intentionally resuming teacher “immediacy” (warmth and interest but businesslike approach) following disruptive incidents (vs teachers who remain distant, disapproving, or tensely focused on eliminating disruptions).  These moments require a skilled balance of positive outlook and businesslike brief follow-up on requirements and feedback.

·      reduced affective intensity, positive or negative (appearing casual and relaxed although the teacher is, in fact, vigilant re: specific goals).  Positive recognition can be given without uncomfortable or false dramatization, and without hidden lectures.  Problem behaviors are handled briefly and respectfully away from peers and others, whenever possible.

·      scaffolding social tasks in order to avoid failure, anxiety, and the provocation of trust issues in the early teacher-student relationship.

·      giving teacher attention to partial successes and student effort, however intermittent.  Reinforcement of disruptive behaviors through teacher attention and time is carefully avoided (while limit-setting and consequences are firmly implemented).

·      providing proactive structures for these students before overt problems develop such as social skills building (Goldstein, 1980) that does not reinforce misbehaviors or detract from academic time; or redirection of power struggles to student leadership in community activities (Brooks, 1991) such as collecting milk cartons, monitoring the hallway for vandalism, or creating an authentic math activity on rollerblade prices.

·      skilled teamwork on communication, reinforcement of successes, and limit-setting with parents and administration, anticipating predictable conflict.

·      seeking collaboration with peer teachers



The complex challenges of teacher-student interactions have been greatly aided by recent work on self-efficacy in students and teachers.  Recent research may have its largest impact on teacher training that transfers to the classroom, an issue that has particularly stymied efforts to help defiant and disruptive students and their discouraged teachers.


Recent studies on teacher efficacy have illuminated reasons for prior failures to achieve this goal.  These studies show promise for solutions.  Solutions must address dynamic concerns of both special student populations and teachers that struggle with human learning curves.  Improved approaches will be successful not only  through their accuracy and specificity, but also through structures that support teacher learning and implementation over time. 


According to the self-efficacy model, these approaches need to break down teacher isolation that blocks performance feedback, positive and timely reinforcement of successes, the opportunity to see successful teaching with particular problems, verbal persuasion that specific goals are achievable by the teacher, and teacher learning of skills that impact responses, including emotional-physiological reactions, to distressing situations.  Coaching has shown promise, when applied towards specific goals over time to meet some of these teacher needs.




Ashton, P. and Webb, R. (1986) Making a difference: Teachers’ sense of efficacy and student achievement. New York: Longman.


Baker, J. (1999) Teacher-student interaction in urban at-risk classrooms: differential behavior, relationship quality, and student satisfaction with school, in The Elementary School Journal, Vol. 100, No. 1


Brooks, R. (1991) The Self-Esteem Teacher.  Loveland, Ohio: Treehaus Communications.


Brophy, J., ed. (1998) Advances in Research on Teaching, Vol. 7. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.


Brophy, J. (1998) Establishing your classroom as a learning community, Motivating Students To Learn.  New York: Guilford Press.


Brophy, J. (1996) Teaching Problem Students. NY: Guilford Press.


Brownell, M.T. and Pajares, F. M. (1996) The influence of teachers’ efficacy beliefs on perceived success in mainstreaming students with learning and behavior problems: a path analysis.  Florida Education Research Council, Inc. Research Bulletin, 27, p. 11-20.


Dweck, C. (2000) Caution - praise can be dangerous, in Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Issues in Education, Abbeduto, L., ed. Guilford, CT:Dushkin/McGraw-Hill.


Edwards, J. L. and Newton, R. R. (1995) The effects of cognitive coaching on teacher efficacy and empowerment.  Paper presented at the American Education Research Association, April 1995.


Embry, D. (1995) Intensive Peacebuilders Guide. Tucson, AZ: Heartsprings, Inc.


Glasser, W. (1986) Control Theory in the Classroom. New York: Harper and Row.


Goldstein, W., Sprafkin, R., Gershaw, N., and Klein, P. (1980) Skillstreaming in the Classroom. Champaign, IL: Research Press Co.


Greenberg, M. Domitrovich, C., Bumbarger, B. (July 1999) Preventing Mental Disorders in School-Age Children: A Review of the Effectiveness of Prevention Programs. Center for Mental Health Services, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. www.personal.psu.edu/dept/prevention/CMHS.html.


Hasbrouck, J. (1997) Mediated peer coaching for training preservice teachers, in The Journal of Special Educationn, 31, pp. 251-271.


Hipp, K.A. (1997) Documenting the effects of transformational leadership behavior on teacher efficacy. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, March, 1997.


Hoffman, J. and Pearson, P. (2000) Reading teacher education in the next millenium, Online @ CIERA article #00-01.


Hoover, J. and Oliver, R. (1996) The Bullying Prevention Handbook: A Guide for Principals, Teachers, and Counselors. Bloomington, IN: National Education Service.


Hussar, J. (1999) Predicting the Need for Newly Hired Teachers in the United States to 2008-09.  National Center for Education Studies.


Mackenzie, R. (1996) Setting Limits in the Classroom: How to Move Beyond the Classroom Dance of Discipline. Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing.


Kohn, A. (1993) Punished by Rewards. NY: Hough Mifflin Co.


Maddux, J. (1995) Self-Efficacy, Adaptation, and Adjustment: Theory, Research, and Application. NY: Guilford Press.


Price, J. (1996) Power and Compassion: Working with Difficult Adolescents and Abused Parents. NY: Guilford Press.


Ross, J.A. (1998) The antecedents and consequences of teacher efficacy, in Research on Teaching, Brophy, J., ed., Vol. 7, pp. 49-73.


Schunk, D. (1995) Self-efficacy and education and instruction, in Self-Efficacy, Adaptation, and Adjustment: Theory, Research, and Application. NY: Guilford Press.


Showers, B. (1990)  Aiming for superior classroom instruction for all children:  a comprehensive staff development model, Remedial and Special Education,  11:3, p. 35-39.


Showers, B. and Joyce, B. (1996) The evolution of peer coaching, Educational Leadership, 53, pp. 12-17.


Soodak, L.C. and Podell, D.M. (1998) Teacher efficacy and the difficult-to-teach student, in Advances in Research on Teaching, 7, pp. 75-109. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.


Soodak, L.C., Podell,  D. M., and Lehman, L.R. Teacher, student, and school attributes as predictors of teachers’ responses to inclusion, in The Journal of Special Education, 31, pp.480-97.


Taylor, B., Pearson, P., Clark, K., and Walpole, S. (1999) Effective schools/accomplished teachers, in The Reading Teacher, October 99.


Walker, H., Stiller, B., Severson, H.H., Feil, E.G., & Golly, A. (1998) First step to success: intervening at the point of school entry to prevent antisocial behavior patterns, in Psychology in the Schools, 35, 259-269.