Desperate to disobey?

Gita Krenek

Have you noticed how frequently discussions in the staff room gradually but inexorably gravitate towards the topic of student misbehaviour? Misbehaviour can be irritating and annoying, to say the least, and can waste an awful lot of class time. Many teachers find that willful disobedience on the part of the child is the most difficult kind of misbehaviour to deal with. I suggest that part of the reason for this is that disobedience normally provokes an emotional response in the teacher, such as frustration and anger. Instead of ACTING in calmness and objectivity, he REacts in anger, sometimes out of proportion to the child’s act. This can lead to a situation of conflict and confrontation, where the prospect of resolution quickly fades. To avoid this, it can be enormously helpful to try and figure out WHY a child is not obeying our requests. This will help to deal with each situation in the most appropriate way without losing one’s temper.

Some reasons for children’s disobedience are:

  • They want attention. The more attention you give to misbehaviour, the more attractive it is. Is the child only getting attention when she/he misbehaves?
  • It is empowering. There is an enormous feeling of power, a rush of adrenalin, in defying the teacher. When we give commands, we make children feel powerless. Maybe, for some children, sometimes, their stubbornness (=disobeying the teacher) can be a way to try and regain some feeling of their own power.
  • Looking for security. The child needs the teacher to be a strong point of reference she/he can rely on. When the child is defiant, he could be pushing against you because he needs to know you are strong, in order to feel secure.
  • The child may be trying to be independent. If a child is always in sympathy with the world (if he says “yes” to all your commands), he won’t develop a consciousness of who he is. Especially a young child needs to say “no” and stand back to develop consciousness of self. Balance their ego awakening with what you want.
  • Younger children learn through imitation. If you are firm and authoritarian, they will give that back to you in their “No!”
  • They don’t want to “lose face”. Children, as much as adults, feel the need to not ‘lose face’. That means to admit you are wrong, and thus lose pride. The child is proud of his ‘independence’ (or what he thinks is independence) and to do as someone tells him is to have to give up some of this autonomy, thus losing pride. If the adult implies that what he was doing was wrong, this is an even bigger loss of pride. So the child ‘saves face’ by not doing as he is told, thus retaining some pride.

Note: If you do nothing, the child will know that he doesn’t have to do what you ask.

When a child disobeys, it will probably be for a combination of two, three, or even four of the above reasons.

Example 1: Independence. All children were asked to leave the room walking slowly. Two or three boys ran. Their attitude was: “I’m a big, independent boy now, I don’t have to do what the teacher says.”

Example 2: Power. A girl (4 yrs old) was in the habit of always disturbing other children during rest time. A volunteer asked her to sit beside her (the volunteer). The girl just grinned cheekily at the volunteer with the expression on her face that said, “I have no intention of doing what you ask – what are you going to do about it?” This is a classic example of the power scenario.

Example 3: Saving face. One girl was the last to finish her worksheet. Two boys tried to take away her crayons and table before she had finished. The teacher asked them to wait. To show that they were not going to give up that easily, the boys leaned with their hands on the table, crowding the girl (=first show of strength to save face). The teacher made them step away. Still they did not give up, but again crowded the girl by leaning on the table (=second show of strength to save face).

In any case of disobedience, confrontation by the adult usually leads to increased resistance from the child, so it is not a good first approach – though it is important that in the end, the child recognizes that you are still the boss. Best may be an increasing level of reactions by the teacher. You may decide to give the child an easy way out (Level 1), or start straight away with Level 2 or 3, or even Level 4, especially if the child has been corrected on this subject before. For example, for ‘Independence’ and ‘Saving face’, Level 1 might be enough. For ‘Power’, Level 4. Find what works best for you – and what works best for each child, as each child responds differently.

Level 1: Defuse the Situation
– Give them the opportunity to save face:

  • Distract: In Example 3 above (leaning on the table for the first time), you could say to the boys “Look, why don’t you go and collect all the pencils?”
  • Flatter: try and talk them into doing what you want.
    Example: A 6 year-old boy was asked to tidy his bedroom. He refused. His mother said: “Look, Aunty Mary is coming this afternoon. I have been telling her what a big boy you are now, that you can even tidy your bedroom by yourself. She will be disappointed if she finds that you can’t, but she will be very impressed if you show that you can.” The boy said “OK” and did it.
  • Compromise: If the situation is not worth making a big issue out of, maybe make a compromise (= you give a little of what the child wants, the child gives up a little of what he/she wants, but you still have the final decision.)
    Example 1: A child does not want to wear chappals to the toilet because the previous person made them wet. “OK, you don’t need to wear these chappals but you have to wear something. What about wearing your own ones?” You have avoided a battle of wills, the child can ‘save face’, you get what you want.
    Example 2: A boy does not want to come in for rest time because he hasn’t finished his block construction. “OK, you can have 5 minutes to finish it, but then I want to see you inside with the others.”

Make the activity attractive/special so the ones who don’t want to do it will feel they are missing out.

Level 2: Assert your authority in a warm way

  • Younger children: If they still won’t co-operate:
    – (If a child won’t pick up the blocks on the floor): “Come on, we’ll do it together.” Take them by the hand so they have no option.
    – (If a child will not help to tidy up): “I see you don’t understand what to do. Sit here and watch, and when you are ready to join us, join in.” If others complain, say, “She hasn’t learned it yet, we know how to do it already.”
  • Give a warning. “If I have to speak to you again, you will have to sit by yourself.” This encourages self-control as the child now has to decide whether to be good or not.

Level 3: Become very firm
In example 3 above, when the boys displayed their strength for the second time by leaning on the table, they were being disobedient despite knowing very well what was expected of them.

  1. “Do you understand what I asked you to do?”
    “What part of ‘leave her alone’ don’t you understand?”
  2. “Why are you not doing what I asked you to do?” “I don’t want to.” “That’s OK, you can not want to – but you have to do it”. It is good that they learn to do what they don’t like – it builds will power and self-discipline by overcoming resistance. “The successful person has the habit of doing things failures don’t want to do.”
  3. “When I ask you to do something, I expect you to do it.”

Level 4: Consequences
One of the most interesting things for some children is to find out what you are going to do about a problem they are causing.

In their home situation, the consequences for non-compliance may be the kind of thing that we want to avoid. Nevertheless there has to be some consequence for bad behaviour, especially if it is repeated, or if the child willfully disobeys what he has been asked to do or what he knows perfectly well is expected of him. But on the other hand, you don’t want to make an enemy of your students with lots of punishments. The consequence doesn’t always have to be a ‘punishment’, but if there is no consequence, the child will keep doing it. The consequence doesn’t even have to be a big consequence, it can be quite a small consequence, as long as there is something.
– Sit apart from the others?
– Go to the end of the line?
– Miss out on an activity? Or do a boring task instead of what the others are doing?
– Sit in the classroom at break time for 5 minutes without doing or saying anything?
– Write a letter of apology?

It must be painful (the least important), immediate, and in keeping with the problem. CHILDREN MUST KNOW THAT IT WILL HAPPEN.

Example: In example 1 above (boys running instead of walking) you could call back the boys who ran and either make them wait till last, or make them sit for two minutes to think about their behaviour before joining the others.

Especially with older children, it is important to say why you are reprimanding. “You are not listening to me, so I want you to sit over there and think about it for a while.” “It seems you don’t understand the rule about not disturbing others. I want you to go outside the classroom and think about it. When I come to get you, I want you to explain it to me.”

Younger children
Normally it is counterproductive to physically push/pull/move a child around, as it reinforces that you are the boss/bully who is only getting your way because you are stronger. Nevertheless, for a younger child Level 4 could be an occasion where physical force may be appropriate – not violence of course, but using your superior strength. (It is more appropriate for a young child because one cannot appeal to his reason to the same extent as an older one who is more open to the principles of fairness, justice and rules). But the key is that it must be done with respect for the child.

Example: In Example 2 above (the girl who was disturbing others during rest time), when the girl cheekily challenged the volunteer (“what are you going to do about it?”), the volunteer walked over and picked the girl up and took her to sit at the side of the room beside the volunteer. The girl made a huge fuss, crying and struggling. The volunteer took her outside and sat her on her lap, looking at her lovingly. The girl continued struggling and crying, arching her back in a typical attention-getting ‘tantrum’. After some time, she looked at the volunteer and was completely confused by the loving look. ‘Hey, that’s not right. You are supposed to be angry and then I can have a temper tantrum. But what do I do in this case?” The interesting thing is that the next day, the girl was perfectly well behaved in rest time, and when another child was disturbing, she turned around and told him to sshh!! From that day on the girl did not misbehave again in rest time. She was also particularly friendly to the volunteer.

This example shows that if you can be firm in a loving way, the child does not dislike you (something teachers may fear and therefore hesitate to be strong). On the contrary, the child has found in you the strength he/she has been looking for, and this draws him/her to respect and like you more. I have experienced this many times: the day after a very firm reprimand, the child is often waiting at the gate for me, with a huge smile or a gift of a banana.

To quickly interpret a situation and successfully respond in the most appropriate way is hugely challenging. Teachers need to strike a delicate balance between:

  • Knowing when a situation is not worth making a big fuss about versus not letting a child get away with disobedience.
  • Being a strong, secure anchor but also not being over-authoritarian.
  • Being strong but also being quiet, gentle, and loving.
  • Giving enough attention to problem behaviour but not giving too much attention to it.

Remember, once you are reacting out of emotion or anger, you have lost control of yourself and therefore also of the situation. Calmness and a deep understanding of each individual child will make dealing with disobedience much less of an antagonistic upheaval.

The author has taught English to school children in Austria and Ecuador and to young adults in India. At present she is working as a volunteer in a small NGO-run primary school for rural children in the foothills of the Himalayas. She can be reached at

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