Dealing with Defiant Behaviour: ‘The Language of Choice’

In this post, I suggest one strategy for dealing with defiant behaviour effectively. To explain and illustrate this, I want to go back to Mr Blake’s classroom, the first time we visited is here. This time we’re going to meet someone new from his class*.


Mr Blake had just started his Year 4 Maths lesson; the focus was fluently adding three and four digits numbers using the column method. After a quick recap of yesterday’s learning, Mr Blake began to explain the focus of the lesson. The class was sat silently and listening attentively, as he had trained them to do. Just as Mr Blake was about to wrap up his input and move his class to the next phase of the lesson, Roxy began to swing on her chair. Mr Blake noticed. He tactfully ignored her and moved on, explaining the task to the class that was to be completed in pairs. Just before Mr Blake said go, Roxy said loud enough for everyone in the class to hear:

“Here we go again, I can’t be bothered with this, I’m too tired” and slouched down on the desk, displaying physically that she had decided not to do what she was told.

This was reasonably common behaviour for Roxy. Mr Blake had high expectations and good behaviour management, evidenced by how his class normally behaved. Roxy had repeatedly struggled to do as she was told in class. In fact, she had a history of not doing what her teachers told her to do ever since came to school in Reception.

Without a doubt, Roxy was a tricky character for Mr Blake to deal with; every teacher had found her challenging. The outburst she displayed in the scenario above was common for her. The ‘normal’ behaviour management techniques didn’t often have the desired effect for Mr Blake when working with Roxy. His PGCE and NQT left him unprepared for this sort of behaviour. He had to develop a different tact. Giving simple verbal sanctions often escalated very quickly and Roxy ended up being removed within minutes because she wouldn’t put down her pen. When prompted to get back on task or speed up her work she often slowed down or even, on occasion, ripped up her work.

Before we move on…what’s going on ‘inside’

Before we dive in with the ‘what could be done’ in this situation, let me take a quick step back to delve a bit deeper into what might be causing the sort of behaviour we’ve seen Roxy display. Children like Roxy often behave like this because of their resistance to allowing adults to take control in their lives.  Sometimes this might be because of the poor attachment relationships they have developed over the years with adults they thought they could trust. Because of these relationships and their need for control, children like Roxy cultivate a deep-set (and worrying) belief that adults are to be mistrusted and defied. This belief might then frames every interaction Roxy has with adults. In every way, it will colour her communications. Understanding the underpinning ‘view of the world’ that adults are to be mistrusted, resulting in a desire to control is key to taking next steps in situations like the one mentioned with Roxy. Questions Mr Blake ought to ask are:

What sort of experiences might Roxy had before coming to school?

 What experiences might she continue to have?

 What experiences might she be ‘re-living’, over and over again that happened a long time in the past?

It could well be that Roxy has been deceived, let down, neglected or abandoned by adults in her life. From her perspective, she is concerned about whether she should trust this adult (Mr Blake) who is ‘telling her what to do’. For Roxy, she might have viewed Mr Blake in the same way that she has viewed adults in other areas of her life: overly domineering, absent, untrustworthy – or all three.

Children do not arrive at primary school as emotionally blank slates. They often come with baggage; some more than others.

If Mr Blake knew that Roxy might have a negative view of adults as a whole and that she might mistrust him, it might help the way he approaches her in lesson time. He will feel more equipped to make sure that he understands Roxy’s view of adults. Most importantly though, he will hopefully be clearer about how he can maintain his high behavioural expectations and still keep Roxy learning in his lessons…especially if he uses the language of choice.

So, what am I claiming here? I’m claiming that not every child perceives teachers as adults who can be trusted, relied upon or submitted to. Some, through many difficult circumstances, might have learnt to distrust adults. This might result in them putting up a power struggle with their teachers, like the situation we have seen above. Their reaction is to be defiant to any instruction that might undermine their control. So, when Mr Blake, or any other teacher, told Roxy what to do and she refused, then it might well be because there is more going on inside. It is too simple to just think that ‘she needs to learn some discipline’ and proceed to bark at her every time she does something wrong. This is the right agenda but the wrong strategy.

Before I move on, please don’t misinterpret what I’m saying here. I am not advocating a child-centred approach that gives children who are defiant whatever they want – it is quite the opposite. I am, in this section, building a context for understanding how to set and maintain high behavioural expectations with the children who challenge teachers and their authority the most. The aim of this is to keep them in school – where they need to be. Now to the strategy I mentioned…

Working with children who are defiant: the language of choice

Instead of telling a child what to do directly and potentially causing confrontation in a situation like this, giving children who are defiant choices might give an element of control and ownership to the decisions that they can make. Now don’t jump to conclusions on this one. I’m not going to explain how teachers need to plan extra alternative choices for defiant children because of their behaviour, so that they remain engaged. Once again it’s the opposite. The language of choice, carefully considered, is an excellent tool in the behaviour management toolbox to keep children who display defiant behaviour in class, working hard. Here’s the two key features of using the language of choice:

Firstly, the choices given by the teacher must not undermine their authority. For example, if Mr Blake in the instance above was to give Roxy the choice not to do her work or that she can do something else, he would be suggesting to other children that being rude and not doing the work Mr Blake gives you is an okay behaviour. The message being communicated to Roxy through doing this is: ‘you can do whatever you want as long as you don’t kick up a fuss’. This is a very slippery slope. If Mr Blake allows this, it is only a matter of time before Roxy’s behaviour becomes even more challenging, due to what she has learned about what is permissible.

Second, the choices given must be narrated in a positive way.  So, if Mr Blake was to shout aggressively at Roxy in front of the class in the instance above using ‘the language of choice’, saying:

“Roxy, you can choose to do your work without fuss or rudeness or you will do it instead of having golden time”

It may well backfire. Roxy may choose to ‘lose her golden time’. This is because there is no guarantee that she will know what ‘the right choice’ is. More than this, presenting a choice in this way may reinforce some of Roxy’s already negative attitudes towards herself and school. She might think to herself: ‘I’m always losing my golden time anyway so I might as well lose it tomorrow.’ If defiant pupils already have low self-esteem, there is little incentive for them to do the right thing anyway.

In sum, the sort of language that needs to be used when giving choices must not undermine the teacher’s authority and mustn’t be presented in a negative way. Let’s go back to Mr Blake’s classroom to see what he did…


The language of choice: an example

Tactically ignoring the defiant answer Roxy gave, while all the other children were busily working, Mr Blake calmly and firmly talked to Roxy, down at her level, saying:

“Roxy, sit up please and listen to me. You have a choice in this lesson: you can do your work to a really good standard, like I know you can, or unfortunately, you will be choosing to do at lunchtime. I’ll let you decide.”

 Once he had said this Mr Blake moved away to work with another child in his class.

In this instance, Mr Blake ignored the rude comment that Roxy had made. The rest of the class was working productively and he made a real-time decision to choose which battle to fight with Roxy. He turned ‘work’ into a positive activity that Roxy cando, by affirming that he knows she can do it. Then, he put the choice of when Roxy could do her Maths work into Roxy’s hands, giving her the allusion of control, even though Mr Blake was still in charge of the consequences. This narrated something that was no different to the previous, more negative comment but gave Roxy the power and hopefully the motivation to do the right thing. Mr Blake’s authority remained intact. The choice was Roxy’s. The consequences of Roxy’s choice were still very much up to Mr Blake.

The next step in the language of choice is ‘thinking time’. This is different to ‘time out’, ‘detention’ or ‘reflection’. This is linked to the language of choice and gives students time to think about the decisions they would like to make in a non-confrontational manner. In my experience, I’ve noticed that some students who can be defiant tend to choose the choice that is least favourable for them as a sort of snap reaction to the situation. This is always sad. It reinforces their already low self-esteem. They fulfil the heart breaking view they have of themselves of ‘deserving of discipline’. More than this, it also ends up in them putting on a scene or being removed from the lesson. Neither of these two things are good for the teacher, class or the defiant student. As teachers we musn’t fool ourselves: the other children in our classes are watching what we do with children who can be defiant.

Instead, when the opportunity presents itself, Mr Blake ‘moved away’ to Roxy time to think about what she would like to do. This allowed Roxy to consider what the best solution is for her, again, giving her ‘control’. Once again though, Mr Blake holds the keys to the consequences.

Just as Mr Blake did above, when no one else in the class is listening and they are all busy with their work, getting down on the defiant students’ level and explaining the choices they can make is far more effective. Immediately after this, Mr Blake moved away and worked with another child. There are 30 in his class. He has a responsibility to provide an excellent education for them all. This showed Roxy that Mr Blake expects her to make a choice independently. It also shows Roxy she isn’t the centre of Mr Blake’s universe. She is one of 30. He expects her to behave excellently, like everyone else.  Once he’d done this, he went back in a minute’s time and asked her what she would like to do.

Here’s the next part of the story, when once again, Roxy is causing trouble:

Mr Blake was at the point in his Maths lesson mentioned above when his students were working independently and in silence. As he circulated around the room he whispered to individual pupils about how they might be able to improve their presentation of the column method. At the far end of the room, he noticed that Roxy had still not settled and was distracting Harriet. Mr Blake had taught long enough to know that what Roxy was whispering about had nothing to do with Maths. He gave Roxy a chance to rectify her behaviour by giving her ‘a look’ from across the room but she ignored it and carried on. Both Roxy and Harriet had wasted five precious minutes of learning time they would never get back.

Mr Blake proceeded to circulate around the rest of the room to look at other student work and made his way over to Roxy, who continued to whisper to Harriet. There was nothing in their books apart from the date and learning objective.

Mr Blake knelt down to their level and whispered:

“Look around Girls. Currently, everyone in this room is working brilliantly and I’m looking forward to seeing you do the same. When would you like to do your Maths work today? You can choose to do it now or at break time, I’ll leave that decision to you though, it’s your choice.” Smiling, Mr Blake walked away.

Mr Blake turned his back hoping they would begin to work and looked at another student’s work. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that they were both working, heads down. When he circulated later on in the lesson past Roxy and Harriet, he said:

”Good choice girls, well done.”


The language of choice is a powerful way to ensure that children who might be inclined to challenge authority and end up in detentions quickly remain in lessons, learning. This is not to be underestimated. This is important because they need excellent adult role-models in their lives after the experiences they might have had; because they must learn to behave properly in the classroom and because they deserve an excellent education too.




*As I’ve stated in previous posts, Mr Blake is not a real teacher. However, it would be dishonest to deny that I am drawing on my own experiences when discussing his classroom. To maintain a degree of detachment from the situations, I use him as a pseudonym, since the situations and the school children (James and Roxy) are entirely fictional and not based on reality.


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