HomeHealth & BehaviorBehavior & Discipline

Ask the Experts

How Do I Help a Child Who's Become Defiant?

By Dr. Stacie Bunning, clinical psychologist


My first-grader has problems with anger. When he does not understand a math problem or any work assignment at school, he becomes defiant, rude and destructive. In the early part of first grade, we did not have these problems; now they occur every day all day. I have tried talking to him, creating an award system and punishment (taking toys and television away). As soon as he's out of my sight (at school or any place I'm not) he's back to the same behavior.

He's been told he's the best reader in the first grade and that he's smart. I tried to let the school know that putting him on display when the school has visitors or showing off his artwork is not a good idea and to treat him as any other student. Now what do I do to help him stop being defiant, talking back and being quick to anger toward his teachers? Does he need medication or a psychological evaluation? Please give me some advice.


It sounds like you have two separate but related concerns. Let's deal with them one at a time.

First, you reported a negative change in your son's school behavior since the beginning of the school year. Abrupt or gradual behavior changes can signal a number of things, from matters as simple as classroom seating arrangements to physical difficulties such as vision or hearing changes, to more complex psychological issues, including disorders of attention or behavior, and even family problems at home.

It will take some collaboration to figure this out. Have your child's teacher put together a list of problem behaviors, specifying the circumstances in which they occur. Then, schedule a physical and a consultation with your child's pediatrician to rule out any medical problems, discuss your concerns (and the teachers' list) and formulate a treatment plan. Finally, while a reward system at home is always an excellent idea, immediate consequences generally have more impact on young children. Talk with your son's teacher about her in-class behavior system and how that was applied when he misbehaved.

Your second concern was that you felt uncomfortable with school officials' tendency to excessively praise your son's skills and offer him up as an "exhibit" when the school has visitors. Does the extra attention bother or embarrass your son? Or, are you thinking that school officials may have inadvertently rewarded his negative behavior with praise and attention? These are both legitimate concerns. It sounds like you have already asked that school officials refrain from doing this in the future; if it happens again, a meeting with the school principal would be in order.

A final thought: You mentioned that your son has been called "smart" and "the best reader in the first grade." Is it possible that your son is gifted? If so, his negative behaviors may stem from boredom and lack of sufficient academic challenge.

Dr. Stacie Bunning is a licensed clinical psychologist in the St. Louis area. She has worked with children, adolescents, and their families in a variety of clinical settings for 20 years. Bunning also teaches courses in child psychology, adolescent psychology, and human development at Maryville University in St. Louis.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from readers

"Creative, smart, and gifted children have tremendous abilities and more challenges in school. Imagine, seeing the world through his eyes. He grasps concepts easily, quickly. His brain operates differently than that of his peers. He inherently knows that he is different; and what he sees, what he thinks, and that gives him the feeling of being unique. What is the last thing that you as a child wanted to do when you were in school? You didn't want to be different in anyway. Fitting in and being the same is what a majority of the children adhere to in adolescence and well into higher grades. your son if gifted, talented, creative has an incredible ability to use the grey matter, in his head. One thing for sure, even if you withhold medication is that you might want to consider, a comprehensive evaluation of your child, medically, neurologically, age appropriate IQ evaluation, socioemotional evaluation, and they can do evaluations through the school via the school psych! ologists, (usually long wait) or you can go to a private child psychologist. This evaluation will most likely come up with behavior modification suggestions from professionals that are experts at being an advocate for you son. Ours even went to the meetings at school with the teachers,the school psychologist, principal, to assist us getting our son on a proper plan for his educational success. Recurrent elevated frustrated is certainly a 'red flag', I learned to pay attention to those 'red flag moments'. Gifted and talented children in the United States are forced extra work; when in actuality they need cognitive stimulation- explanation, they need to be challenged academically. instead they are thrown extra work; more math problems; that is contrary to the enrichment that their brains really need. They want to be immersed in learning for the sake of learning, usually. They need their unique questions answered. Intelligently, compassionately, and by someone that migh! t not be as smart as them,(many gifted talent children have an! innate knowledge and can distinguish quickly adults who get it and adults who don't) but at least has the heart to appeal to their sense of wonder and abilities. We as parents need to be passionate advocates for our bright children....who above all else do not want to be singled out as different. They already know they are, and don't need to be reminded that they are different. All they really want is to fit in. It is the teacher, the school, and the educational system to provide that for your son. If you don't see improvement; start letter writing, putting your concerns in writing; the behavior modifications that you are implementing at home. The amazing things that can be effectively put in place to assist your son, are so numerous and very simple...Behavior and socioemotional success are very important components of his early experience in school. troubling memories at this time can be very damaging and hard to redirect in the later school years. Been there!!!! the imp! act can be far reaching. Much success, from one parent to another! Peace"
"I strongly suspect that this boy is a gifted child. My 6-year-old son's behavior sounds very similar to this child's behavior. He has also been identified as a well-above average reader (reads on a 4th grade level in 1st grade), and he excels in just about every other academic area too. I've discussed with his teacher the strong possibility that he's acting out in class due to boredom too. She's been trying to work with us to provide him with additional classwork and challenges to help curb his excessive talking and clowning around. This school year, I think we've made some progress with this. My son also lashes out in anger when he's frustrated or struggling with something he's confused about (or sometimes simply when he's overtired). And, withholding toys or TV has had a limited effect on correcting his behavior. I think the main things we can do are to be patient and consistent with helping him figure out tasks he's confused about and make sure that he is rewarded for good behavior. Also, when the connection is immediate and clear, we are still in favor of withholding rewards as punishment for misbehavior. Best of luck with your situation! "
"This sudden change in behavior could also indicate anxiety.. i.e. He's told that he is smart and the best reader.. His thought could be..What if today I'm not smart and I make a mistake in reading or anything else? The praise and lables may be causing him to feel anxious and afraid that he will be unable to live up to the standard set for him.. Tell everyone to back off... the less saaid about his 'talents' the better.. let him know it's ok to have fun.."
"I am a teacher in an urban setting. I deal with this a lot. Great feedback. I agree with everything except for the final comment. Boredom is not an excuse for poor behavior. I wonder,is the teacher a new teacher? What is teacher/child ratio? Does the teacher have an aide? Is the teacher & parent using the same behavior chart between school & home? Is the child receiving counseling or behavior mgt at school. Is the child being held accountable for his actions? There are many great programs available for children and parents. Just ask the schools guidance counselor."
"Thanks. My first-grade son has the exact same scenario. He is now newly on two ADHD medications and is being evaluated for special education as a duel case: ADHD/GIFTED. Hope you have a simular positive outcome."
"Has the parent evaluated the type of classroom in which this child is enrolled? Our daughter is gifted and became bored with traditional classrooms. Rather than expect her teachers to cater to her strengths, we found that a Montessori curriculum was an ideal fit, allowing her challenges, autonomy and independence without sacrificing her, or other students', learning experiences."
"I feel Dr. Bunning evaded the real questions. She was not specific, and simplified and generalized the real problem. What 'immediate consequences' does she recommend teachers, (or the parent), do with a defiant, disruptive child? Most teachers and parents try about everything, and often these methods still don't work. 'I messages', peer buddies, positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, time out, major rewards for good behavior (which is always short-lived)....the ongoing list that teachers and parents are able to implement, often do not change a defiant child's behavior at all. If he is gifted, how much effort does he put into the 'sufficient academic challenges' that a teacher spends hours every week finding for him? Often, a child like this will finish their challenge assignments quickly and carelessly, then complain about being bored again. How many hours of the day, realistically, can the teacher spend designing a single curriculum for this type of child when sh! e has 30 other kids to worry about? And, at what point, should he be 'somewhat independent' without being disruptive, with the options available in the classroom (books, computer, centers, etc.)? This is a complex child for the parent and the teacher. I do not feel this was a sufficient answer. "
"My son is a smart kid and picks up on things at a faster pace than most of his classmates. If he misses a period or a math problem he falls apart. He needs to know that making mistakes is how a child grows as a person and that it is normal for him to make some errors. It is hard for him to understand this because so often he is not wrong. But now when he has an incorrect punctuation or spelling error, he will write the rule or the word several times for practice. He seems content with this because he is always trying to get it right."
"This letter almost perfectly describes my son except he's not defiant or angry at school, just at home. So I have some insights to share. 1. A child doesn't have to be officially 'gifted' to be bored when he/she is smart or just generally ahead or learning faster than others. 2. I think this type of anger is common in children around this age as they become frustrated with what they perceive as their flaws. 3. In the first part of the year everything may have been easy for this kid. As first grade progresses, it gets a little harder and the teachers grade a little harder - they start taking off for a forgotten period or a badly formed letter, when they previously let it slide. I know my son, a perfectionist in many ways, has always tended to get upset if he didn't know something or he made a mistake, so the increased 'red pen' on his papers is probably upsetting him now."