Managing defiance isn’t easy

On the back of the last couple of years, I’m having more and more conversations with teachers about defiance. It often plays out like this; you make a reasonable request to a student to stop misbehaving and not act out in a certain way, only to be confronted with a stubborn ‘no’, or even worse, an escalation or explosion of irate behaviour.

It can be extremely frustrating and, at times, soul-destroying.

Why is it happening?

Firstly, it’s not just because of Covid, although that has exacerbated the situation.

The pushback and defiant response you see is often something parents have conditioned from a very young age. This is where Covid plays a role; it’s been happening more frequently over the last two years as our children have spent significant time in their family bubble. Our students have had limited opportunities to learn and navigate the social dynamics of life. In some cases, other teachers have reinforced this conditioning in earlier years of the child’s education journey…so parents are not solely responsible.

What’s happening is Coercion. Coercion is best described as the action or practice of persuading someone to do something by using force or threats. Defiance in our students comes about when the child is locked in the Coercive Cycle. This cycle is unintentionally created by the adult, leading to undesired behaviours being reinforced.

Here are the four steps that play out in the Coercive Cycle:

  1. The parent or teacher makes a reasonable request
  2. The child ignores the request or reacts with hostility
  3. The parent or teacher responds with hostility or withdraws
  4. The child doesn’t do what was asked

And we go back to the start of the cycle, where the four steps are continually repeated. The deeper the child gets into the cycle and the more times it’s reinforced, the harder is it to break.

Then what happens?

The adults are more reluctant to make requests, and the child has less and less practice in responding appropriately. The negative behaviour is then reinforced and normalised in the child’s mind.

The good news is that we can help the child break out of the cycle, but getting an improvement in behaviour requires support. We can do this by:

  1. Understanding when the child is trapped in the cycle
  2. Understanding the behaviour
  3. Separating the behaviour from the child…avoid labels
  4. Having a plan for responding to the behaviour…adopting Restorative Practices will work best here.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but there is no quick fix to breaking the cycle, but the more understanding we have, the better chance we have to help our students.


Check out other articles Simon has written here.