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54 JULY 2003
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Respectful discipline: The control game – exploring oppositional behavior

Autonomy carried to its extreme gives rise to oppositional behavior where a youngster refuses to be controlled by anybody. Adults often get locked in conflict cycles with such students. Mary Beth Hewitt provides a developmental perspective on oppositional behavior The author suggests positive alternatives for dealing with it through examples of seven common patterns of problem behavior presented by the oppositional child or adolescent.

Oppositional/defiant behavior is developmentally appropriate at three stages in an individual’s life: at age 2 (when a child is going from infancy to childhood), at puberty (when an individual is going from childhood to adulthood), and in old age (when a person is going from self-sufficient adulthood to needing supportive care). What is similar about these developmental stages is that each is a time of intense transition when an individual feels “out of control" regarding his or her life.

Some individuals get “stuck" in an oppositional stage. In my experience, this type of behavior is especially strong when young people feel that they have no control over a life situation such as divorce, separation, a move, death, or a change in school. The reaction is to fight for control.

It is important to recognize that any student can exhibit oppositional behavior without having enough “symptoms" to qualify him or her for a specific diagnosis of oppositional/defiant disorder (ODD). Although students who are oppositional/defiant appear to know right and wrong, they are confused by the fact that the “rules" keep changing from adult to adult. They want to see the world in black and white, because transitions are unsettling to them. As a result, they constantly test the limits. Telling such a student what to do is tantamount to throwing down the gauntlet. When limits are set or directives are given, students who are oppositional feel as if someone is controlling them, and they retaliate.

Generally, these students do not have problems with their peers unless they are in a position of authority (e.g., captain of a sports team, head of a safety patrol). In fact, the student who is oppositional can be viewed as a leader by peers and, especially at the junior- or senior-high level, can be seen as a champion for all students' rights. Peers who are also feeling the need to assert their independence can view the student who is oppositional as a hero. For the most part, the problem student’s “enemies" are adults and authority figures.

Common forms of Oppositional/Defiant Disorder and how to respond

1. Behavior: Complying with the letter of the law but not with the spirit of it (loopholes)

Strategy: Teach the difference between the letter and the spirit of the law

Generally, when faced with the “loophole" kid, staff will try to become more precise in their language or to add additional rules. Rather than trying to plug the loopholes (you'll end up with a list of rules a mile long if you do), I recommend having a lesson at the beginning of the year on the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Unless a child has a language impairment, he or she knows what the staff member means and is merely testing the limits. In a lesson, one can give examples of statements a teacher might make and then ask the students to identify the intent.


Not only does this lesson gets the point across, it generally is a lot of fun for staff and students. Once the teacher is certain the group understands the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law, one additional rule can be added to the classroom list: “Follow the spirit of the law." Now, when a student tests the limit, the staff member can ask, “Are you following the spirit of the law?" This effectively derails the student who innocently looks at you and smiles, saying, “But I did what you SAID!"

2. Behavior: Let’s make a deal
Example: The teacher says, “You need to finish your math before you go to recess." The student responds, “If you let me go to recess, I'll do my math later. I want to do reading now." If the teacher persists, the student will continue to try to “make deals" (i.e., “I'll do half my math now, only have half of recess, and then come back in and finish my math").

Strategy: Ask rather than tell

Many times this type of interchange can be proactively avoided by asking the students what they should be doing, rather than by telling them what they are supposed to do (e.g., “What needs to be done before you go to recess?"). For the most part, students with ODD really don’t want to be doing something different, they just want to have control and not feel as if they are being told what to do.

Reactive Strategy: Interpretation

Students who are trying to make deals are really saying, “I want to feel like I have control over what I’m doing and when I’m doing it." If the staff member interprets that sentiment out loud and points out that they do have control, students often will comply. For example, the staff person could say, “You want to feel like you have control and options about the “what” and “when” of your choices. You do have control. No one can make you do anything you don’t want to. It’s your choice, you don’t do math and you don’t have recess. It’s totally up to you."

3. Behavior: Violating rules right in front of a staff member


Strategy: Planned ignoring

Planned ignoring is a conscious decision to not attend to the behavior at the time it occurs. It does not mean ignoring the behavior forever, which would be condoning it. Usually, when a student violates a rule immediately after it has been given, it is an attempt to engage the staff member in an argument and seize control of the classroom. Behaviors that are insubordinate but do not endanger the physical or psychological safety of others can be temporarily ignored. When the student sees that the staff member is not going to “give up" control of the classroom by taking the time to engage in an argument, the behavior often stops. If, however, when the behavior is ignored the student escalates it, the staff person needs to interpret the meaning of the behavior. (One caveat: It is important to let your class know about the strategy of planned ignoring at the beginning of the year. You might say, “There are going to be times when someone violates a rule and it looks like I’m not paying attention or I’m letting them get away with it. I want you to know that I am choosing to ignore them for the time being because what’s most important is that I continue to teach and you continue to learn. I want you to know that the misbehavior will be addressed at a later time and the student will receive consequences for his or her behavioral choices. The rules haven’t changed."

4. Behavior: Intense need to “have the last word"
Because oppositional behavior is all about control, students who exhibit it have an intense need to have the last word. Remember that they do not want the argument to end, because when it does, their sense of control ends also. Unfortunately, dealing with a student who has the intense need to win often generates in us the same intense need to come out on top.

Strategy: Let them!

Make the conscious decision to “surrender to win." Let the student have the last word. Once his or her goal has been achieved, the behavior generally ceases. Once again, “parting-shot" inappropriate comments can be ignored and consequences given later.

5. Behavior: Constantly questioning “why?"
Like 2-year-olds, students who are oppositional/defiant will question the purpose for a direction. Then they will question the explanation. Their purpose is to maintain control of the discussion.

"You need to put your feet down."
"Because that’s the rule."
"Because having your feet up bothers other people."
"Because it bumps their chair or blocks their way."
"Why is that a problem? They could move or go around."
"Because people are entitled not to be bothered."
And on and on and on.

Strategy: Agree to answer, but during “their" time

Generally, if you've made it a habit of “asking" rather than telling (e.g., “Where do your feet belong?" instead of “You need to put your feet down"), the student isn’t as likely to get into the “whys." However, if this occurs, the first thing to do would be to try planned ignoring. If the questions continue, you can agree to discuss the reasons but only during “their time." For example, “If you’d like to discuss this, I’d be happy to during (your lunch, before you go to recess, after school)." Students who are truly interested in the reason will agree to your request. Those who are just trying to get control of the class will usually respond to your reminder (e.g., “It’s not that important I need to get to lunch").

6. Behavior: Staff splitting ("Mrs. Smith doesn’t say anything when ...")
Many students who are oppositional constantly point out inconsistent enforcement of the rules by adults and use this as a rationale for their own behavior. What the students are trying to do is make this an issue of whether or not adults are consistent rather than focusing on the real issue: whether they are choosing to follow or break the rules ("I don’t have to follow the rules if the adults don’t enforce them").

Unfortunately, many adults fall for this. There seems to be an irrational belief that if only every adult in the environment treats students the same way, they will behave. The total weight of the student behavior is put on the adults, and the responsibility is built on enforcement rather than on compliance. Although consistent enforcement does help keep the rule in the forefront, inconsistent enforcement neither causes nor excuses inappropriate behavior. The issue isn’t whether the staff member is or isn’t doing his or her job, the issue is that the student is violating the rule and is looking for someone else to blame.

Strategy: Put the focus back on the student

When confronted with “Other staff don’t do anything when I.." rationalizations, say, “You feel because you broke the rule and you weren’t called on it that the rule has changed. It hasn't." or “You would like it to be Mrs. Smith’s fault that you are breaking the rule."

7. Behavior: Refusal to comply
"You can’t make me."
"What are you going to do about it?"

When students say, “You can’t make me," they are asserting their control and challenging yours. They are silently hoping that you will rise to the challenge and try to control them. Like it or not, they are right. We can’t make anyone do anything against his or her will. These students are also upping the ante – challenging us to come up with some punishment that will mean something to them. The “game" is to show us our own powerlessness, and these students will often laugh in the face of any punishments we might use, even if at a later time they might wish they hadn't.

Strategy: Agreement

You can consciously choose to avoid getting into a power struggle. I generally agree with the student by saying something such as, “You are absolutely right. I can’t make you. The only person who can control you is you. I hope you make a good decision for yourself."

Students who ask, “What are you going to do about it?" are not so much interested in our answer as they are in trying to prove how incapable we are of controlling their behavior. A good response to this statement would be, “You are trying to decide if it’s worth it for you. That lets me know that you are in control and are choosing whether or not to behave. That means you’re also choosing to accept whatever the consequences are." I rarely, if ever, tell the student what the consequences will be. First, it generally doesn’t make a difference to them, and second, nebulous consequences can serve to keep them emotionally off balance. Students who are oppositional don’t like uncertainty, and they are often more likely to make a decision to control their behavior if they don’t know what will happen. You might say, “Because you are telling me you’re in control, and it sounds like you’re just trying to see what will happen, is it worth it for you to misbehave just to see what the consequences will be?"

General Cautions

Although the tendency is to move the troublemaker in closer proximity to the staff member, this type of student generally does better away from staff. Usually, increased proximity backfires: The more the authority figure is around, the more the oppositional behavior escalates.

Time limits
Many times staff members give students time limits in which to make a good decision. Students who are oppositional generally push the time right to the limit. If given 5 minutes, for example, they frequently take 4 minutes 59 seconds, so keep time limits short.

Behavior management systems
Students who are oppositional have difficulty with teacher-evaluated behavior management systems. They function much better under systems in which they are given the opportunity to self-evaluate, because it gives them a feeling of being in control. One of the participants who attended a Nature and Needs workshop implemented some of the suggestions made for dealing with students who are oppositional. Her challenge was a student who refused to comply with whatever she told him to do. Before the workshop, she had tried moving his desk closer to her, and his behavior got worse. She had escalated disciplinary consequences, and he said he didn’t care. When she went back to her room after the workshop, she moved his seat away from her, and she started making a conscious effort to ask him what he needed to be doing, rather than telling him. She related the following story:

One day I asked him in the morning what he needed to do before he could have recess. He said, “Clean my desk." I nodded and went about teaching the morning activities. About an hour later he came up to me and said, “I’m almost done." “Almost done with what?" I asked. “Cleaning my desk," he replied.

The teacher went on to say that she was just flabbergasted; she had forgotten all about the desk cleaning, but he hadn’t. Until that point she had fought with him about desk cleaning; he hadn’t done a thing she’d told him to do all year. Just changing from “demanding" to “asking" made all the difference. “I wish I’d known this back in September," she told me. “He’s like a changed boy as long as I remember to ask rather than tell."

This feature: Hewitt, M. B. (1999). The Control Game: Exploring Oppositional Behaviour. Reclaiming Children and Youth. Vol.8 No.1. pp 30-33

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