Defiance and aggression

All children have moments of being disagreeable. When they are hungry, stressed, tired or upset, they are more likely to talk back, argue, disobey and defy authority. This is normal behavior for young people. However, in some children, frequent and consistent displays of uncooperative and hostile behavior pose a larger concern. In fact, oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and conduct disorder are some of the most prevalent mental health conditions among Americans.[1]

School personnel are well-placed to identify students who may need more support for mental illness.

Oppositional behavior that regularly interrupts daily life for a child, his or her family or classmates for six months or more is a “red flag” that a child’s mental health may need more attention. School staff may notice:

  • Active defiance and a refusal to comply with rules;
  • Amusement when others are reprimanded;
  • Being easily annoyed by others;
  • Blaming others for misbehavior;
  • Deliberate attempts to annoy or upset others;
  • Excessive arguing;
  • Frequent anger and resentment;
  • Frequent temper tantrums;
  • Ridiculing or teasing other students;
  • Sarcasm and “sass”; and
  • Spiteful, hateful language or behaviors, including seeking revenge.1, [2], [3]

ODD often precedes conduct disorder, in which disruptive and violent behaviors violate others’ rights and social norms. School staff may notice:

  • Aggression toward people or animals, such as bullying or physical harm;
  • Deceitfulness or theft, such as breaking and entering;
  • Destruction of property, such as fire-setting; and
  • Serious violations of rules, such as truancy.1

Schools may find it difficult to detect common causes of aggression and defiance.

Many students exhibit defiance and aggression after adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Both ODD and conduct disorder are linked to ACE risk factors that threaten a child’s chances to thrive, including:

  • Below-average intelligence;
  • Delinquent peer group;
  • Exposure to neighborhood or family violence;
  • Family members with conduct disorder or other behavioral disorders, such as schizophrenia, severe alcohol abuse and/or ADHD;
  • Frequent changes in caregivers, or the disappearance of a parent;
  • Institutionalization in early life;
  • Large family size;
  • Parental criminality;
  • Peer rejection; and
  •  Unsupportive home life, maltreatment or neglect.

Ten particular ACEs have been extensively studied. All 10 are linked to higher rates of social-emotional problems and chronic diseases in adulthood such as heart disease, lung cancer, diabetes, depression, violence and suicide.

When a child has an ACE, toxic stress can switch the child’s developing brain into “fight or flight” mode. Rather than coming to school with a “learning brain,” the child is under the influence of a “survival brain,” which interrupts trusting and healthy relationships, the ability to focus, and sound judgment on risky behaviors.

A safe and supportive school can return students to resilience, as well as balanced emotions and behaviors.

School personnel often initially experience working with defiant and aggressive children as a power struggle.3 Frustration over students’ seemingly devious or delinquent behavior is linked to inequitable patterns in school discipline, especially for students of color. The AFT champions safe and supportive schools to address students’ mental health needs, as well as to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.

For students who have ODD or conduct disorder, a safe and supportive school starts with seeing challenging behavior as a symptom of mental illness, rather than hurtful intent. Once we realize that a student’s behavior is not a personal attack, we are better able to de-escalate hostility and disruption when faced with outbursts. Additionally, some long-term changes can help to reduce aggression and defiance:

  • Agree with valid parts of criticism;
  • Ask for specific details about the student’s frustration;
  • Collaborate on tasks the student otherwise avoids or refuses to complete;
  • Distract or redirect with humor;
  • Positively reinforce flexibility and cooperation, when you see it; and
  • Reflect, or restate in similar words what the student has shared.3

Beyond the campus setting, medication and family therapy also can be used to address defiance and aggression. School health professionals, such as nurses, counselors and psychologists, may be able to aid in a comprehensive evaluation for an official diagnosis of ODD, conduct disorder and/or commonly linked conditions, including ADHD, learning disabilities, depression and anxiety, and substance abuse. Treatment is effective, but not a "quick fix," so patience and empathy are crucial in working with children who display aggression and defiance.

[1] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). October 2014. Mental Disorders. Retrieved from

[2] American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. July 2013. Facts for Families Pages: Children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Retrieved from

[3] Smith, Kareen. Defiance and Verbal Aggression: preventing and dealing with challenging behavior. [Fact sheet]. Minneapolis: Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota. Retrieved from