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Child Defiance

Supporting/working with a youngster who is unwilling to follow expectations, who regularly pushes the boundaries, can be exhausting. The power battles that ensue can all too-easily result in a ‘win-lose’ outcome, which in truth is more of a lose-lose situation because the win can be at the expense of either the pupil’s and/or the adult’s self-esteem. The end result is often resentment and a deterioration in the relationship, leading to further conflict.

Understanding defiance
Defiance is typically linked to one or both of the following underlying needs:

  • The need for control/personal power
  • The need for recognition


The need for control/personal power
This is basic human need - and is shared by all, pupils and adults alike. This perhaps helps to explain why it can be all too easy to accept the invitation some pupils offer to engage in a power battle. For some pupils, they will have learned ‘the dance’ - they will seek to dictate the steps the adult takes, and can be very proficient at doing so! Remembering that such behaviour is borne out of an underlying insecurity (‘Someone please hold the boundaries so that I know exactly where they are’) can be a real challenge but is important if things are to move forward.

The need for recognition
Again, this is a universal fundamental need. In relation to defiance, it can be related to gaining recognition from peers - ‘Look at me - I can win one over the adult’. Alternatively it might be the way the pupil has learned to be noticed by the adult(s) – negative attention is better than no attention at all (see 'Self-esteem').

Reflecting upon the most likely need that is driving such behaviour is the first step in responding effectively to it. If the sense is that it is borne out of the need for control/power, it is important to both keep firm boundaries but also to consider areas of school/classroom life where the pupil can be encouraged to have a sense of control.

Avoiding/minimising confrontation
This is a primary goal. If the pupil persists and steps up the ante, the adult needs to find ways to confidently side-step the invitation to get drawn into head-to-head confrontation. Body language and tone of voice are particularly important – the aim is to act assertively in a way that seeks to keep the self-esteem of both the pupil and yourself intact. Trying to de-personalise the behaviour is also essential. The pupil’s anger and frustration are quite possibly rooted somewhere else and being transferred onto the adult in the classroom. Over time, the youngster will hopefully begin to feel more secure as they no longer feel the need to find out where the boundaries are.

Questions to consider in assessing the behaviour:

  • Does the pupil know exactly what the expectations are?
  • Does s/he understand these expectations?
  • When does the pupil engage in these behaviours?
    –-- Is it at the onset of a task? – this might suggest task avoidance  
    –-- Is it after a break/lunchtime? – this might suggest that it is connected with tensions and conflicts with other pupils being carried over
  • With whom is the pupil defiant?
  • Is the pupil likely to lose face if they comply? – could be related to the need for approval from peers.
  • In some instances the anger might be related to home-based issues – is there are need to involve other colleagues and/or professionals eg in relation to child protection.


Behaviours Possible developmental tasks Competencies related to behaviour Affirmations Strategies

Refusal to follow instructions

Behaviours related to ‘Make me’

Out of seat

To develop socially appropriate behaviours

To learn when to flee, when to go with the flow and when to stand firm

To discover extent of personal power


Follow instructions

Appropriate expression of feelings

You can say no and push the limits as much as you need to – and we will keep you and others safe as you do so

It’s OK for you to be angry, and we won’t let you hurt yourself or others

You can think and feel at the same time

All of your feelings are OK here

You can try out different ways of being powerful

You can think before you say Yes or No

You can learn when and how to disagree

Keep some physical distance away from the pupil; sideways on

Monitor your pitch and tone of voice

Empathy: ‘I can hear that you’re feeling angry/annoyed’

Partial agreement: ‘I can see your point there – but ……’

Restate expectations

Broken record re: expectations

The language of choice: ‘If you continue to disrupt the lesson, you are choosing to have to do the work at breaktime. The choice is yours.’

‘I’ statements – ‘I want you to …’ rather than ‘You need to …’

Consider whether the pupil would benefit from specific input on managing difficult feelings and managing conflict

Look for opportunities to build the relationship – eg finding out about interests

Improving self-esteem - helping the pupil to develop a healthier perception of himself / herself.