Defiant behaviour is defined as the act of refusing to comply with a rule, direction or request made by someone in authority (e.g. parent, educator, support staff or other adult) by challenging, opposing or resisting behaving or conforming to what is asked or expected. Defiant behaviour may look like sarcasm, backchat, breaking rules, rude remarks and swearing.


For a range of reasons, most children have been defiant at some point. Some level of defiant behaviour may be a part of the normal developmental phase they are going through (e.g. two- to three-year old, adolescence).

It can be in response to overwhelming stresses in their lives (e.g.  illness, moving homes, parental separation), or in response to difficulty with coping with emotions (e.g. anxiety, feeling tired, hungry or upset). This defiant behaviour pattern is generally short-lived and tends to disappear as the child adjusts to their new circumstance or matures or develops skills to cope with their emotions and behave in positive ways.


Defiant behaviour becomes a concern when the following occur:

  • the frequency (i.e. how often a child exhibits defiant behaviour) becomes excessive,
  • the duration (i.e. how long each incident of the defiant behaviour lasts) becomes excessive,
  • the intensity (i.e. the strength of the defiant behaviour) escalates from minor behaviours into extreme behaviours, and
  • the defiant behaviour negatively impacts the child’s participation in activities, interaction with others, their day-to-day functioning and development.


When a child begins to persistently exhibit defiant behaviour, the climate of the context (e.g. childcare, early childhood, primary and secondary school, disability support and youth services) can change dramatically. A considerable amount of time and energy can be spent on the child showing the defiant behaviour, which can have a deleterious effect on the quality of the learning experience for all the children. Supporting a defiant child leaves adults feeling defeated, exhausted and unsure about what to do next. It feels like everything becomes a never-ending battle of wills. Adults become concerned that each time they give in, they are reinforcing the defiant behaviour; they worry about what that is teaching the child and how it is going to affect the child in the long term. Research consistently shows that managing behaviour is linked to staff experiencing high levels of stress, burnout and job dissatisfaction.


As soon as Olivia is asked to do particular tasks (e.g. packing away) or asked to stop doing something to start a new activity (e.g. finish colouring in, start a writing activity) or stop something that she shouldn’t be doing (e.g. touching the heater), it’s a straight out ‘No’, followed by ‘Why do I need to pack away? You aren’t my boss’, or ‘I don’t want to stop colouring in. You can’t make me’, or ‘I am going to touch the heater. Watch me.’ If her teacher persists in repeating the instruction or correcting her behaviour it results in her yelling, doing it even more and insisting that her teacher needs to say sorry to her. This often results in Olivia missing out on participating and completing various activities throughout the day because she is busy focusing on challenging, opposing or resisting behaving to what is asked or expected of her. This has also caused not only the teacher a lot of frustration, stress and worry, it has also affected the peers because they don’t like the constant conflict that is occurring in the room.

Hence, defiant behaviour affects everyone involved and the child who is exhibiting defiant behaviour requires necessary help to learn positive ways of behaving and managing their emotions.


Positive Behaviour Support (PBS) focuses on evidence-based strategies and person-centred supports that address the needs of the individual and the underlying causes of behaviours of concern, to enhance the quality of life for both the individual and those that support them.

PBS recognises that there is no single cause for defiant behaviour. It is a complex behaviour that is a product of the interaction between multiple factors contributing to its development and persistence.

Defiant behaviour is like the tip of the iceberg so it is essential to look beneath the surface to work out the why before we can address the problem.

There are three main setting-related factors which impact the child and their behaviour:

  • environment
  • activity, and
  • interaction

These factors place different demands on the child and when any of these demands outweigh the child’s skills to cope with them, the child engages in defiant behaviour.


Dominic regularly refuses to comply with requests. Often this begins at the start of the preschool day inside with the children arriving and choosing from a variety of indoor investigations. He immediately refuses to come inside. He ignores and refuses all directives to enter the room and participate in activities. He just says ‘No, I’m not doing that’, or ‘You can’t make me’ and clings to outside equipment or goes off to the other side of the playground and plays.

Some of the skills needed to cope with this interaction include:

  • Activity preferences – Do the inside activities provide the same level of control, variety and personal space in the same way as the outside activities?
  • Flexibility – Is Dominic able to view situations in a different way? Is Dominic able to switch from preferred tasks to less preferred tasks? Is Dominic able to switch behavioural responses?
  • Compliance skills – Can Dominic comply with instructions where power is used to coerce him to do something?

As Dominic does not have the skills needed to cope, he resorts to defying requests to enter the room.

The example highlights that defiant behaviour is not without purpose. It is never too late to address defiant behaviour, even if it has been occurring for a while.

Developing a comprehensive and individualised PBS plan to address the defiant behaviour involves three stages: Assess-Manage-Prevent.

  • ASSESS: How to identify the reasons for the defiant behaviour,
  • MANAGE: How to respond when defiant behaviour occurs, and
  • PREVENT: How to minimise or eliminate the occurrence of defiant behaviour.


Assess Stage Aims

The Assess stage aims to identity:

  • Activities during which the defiant behaviour occurs,
  • Environments in which the defiant behaviour occurs, and
  • People dealing with the defiant behaviour.

Assess Stage Checklist:

  • Child’s profile – Gather information about the child to create a comprehensive picture of the child, their abilities and needs.
  • Behaviour data collection forms – Record measurable details (e.g. frequency, intensity, duration) about the child’s defiant behaviour.
  • Functional Behaviour Analysis (FBA)- Systematically reflect on an incident by analysing the antecedents (what preceded the defiant behaviour), describing the defiant behaviour, consequences (what happened after the defiant behaviour).
  • Hypothesis – Determine the purpose (function) that the defiant behaviour served.


Manage Stage Aims

The Manage Stage outlines how to effectively respond to the behaviours that occur before the defiant behaviour and after. Appropriate responses can help to safely defuse, redirect, and de-escalate the situation in the least disruptive manner.

Manage Stage Checklist:

  • Escalation stages – Help those supporting the child to recognise the number of stages the child exhibits as their emotion rises (i.e. mild escalation, moderate escalation, extreme escalation and recovery stage).
  • Escalation profile – Help those supporting the child to recognise what non-verbal and/or verbal behaviours are exhibited in the different escalation stages and how long it can last.
  • De-escalation plan – Help those supporting the child with guidelines on how to immediately respond when the behaviour occurs, safely defuse and de-escalate the situation in the least disruptive manner.


Prevent Stage Aims

This stage aims to prevent the occurrence of the defiant behaviours by minimising or avoiding the triggers that cause it and teach the child alternative behaviours.

Prevent Stage plan

The plan details strategies to minimise or avoid the triggers that contribute to the defiant behaviours by providing the child with:

  • Supportive environments – Tailoring environment related aspects to minimise or avoid triggers that set off defiant behaviour.
  • Supportive activities – Tailoring activity related aspects to minimise or avoid triggers that set off defiant behaviour.
  • Supportive interactions – Tailoring interaction aspects to minimise or avoid triggers that set off defiant behaviour, and
  • Teaching the child – Teaching the student positive ways of communicating their messages and managing their emotions and behaviours.


Use the practical tools (checklists, forms, and strategies) in D for Defiant: Positive Behaviour Support guide to develop comprehensive PBS plans that can be used to support children of all ages consistently in all settings.

This invaluable guide is useful for parents, caregivers, educators in childcare, early childhood, primary and secondary schools, disability, mental health, allied health, and supervisory professionals.