Insights, Ideas and Strategies for Educators and for Parents

Tips for Teachers

Young Children’s Defiance = Their Developmental Job: Strategies That Encourage Cooperation

Defiant Children

Teachers get very concerned when young children exhibit defiance or general non-compliance with directions, requests, or classroom norms and routines. Sometimes they worry that the child may be emotionally disturbed, or the teacher may simply feel aggravated, frustrated, and/or resentful at times.

While it is uncomfortable to have one’s authority questioned by a lack of cooperation, it is important and helpful to remember that part of young children’s developmental job during the preschool years is to explore their world and figure out how much control they can have within it. Pushing limits, stepping over boundaries, and questioning adult authority are ways children check to see whether they can be in charge of more of their lives. They know that they are small and meek (like Dorothy, in the Wizard of Oz), compared to the adults around them. Yet they long to be big and powerful. This is a natural part of the developmental journey, to gradually acquire more control and autonomy.

Recognizing these kinds of behaviors as typical of preschool (and later) child development can help teachers feel less threatened and resentful and find creative strategies to engage cooperation. One way to do this is to grant a child’s wish in fantasy when one cannot do it in reality. For example, a child refuses to clean up and says, “You do it!” Instead of lecturing the child on the need for cooperation or threatening the child with consequences if he/she does not comply, a teacher can respond, “What a great idea! If I were an octopus and had eight arms, I could do all the clean up myself! But sadly I only have two and I need some help! If you help me with these blocks, then there will be four hands working together, and if we invite two friends to join us, then we will have eight arms, just like an octopus and we’ll get these blocks put away in one minute!” Often, a bit of humor can go a long way towards engaging cooperation.

Another strategy that is tremendously helpful is for the teacher to validate the child’s feelings while not necessarily allowing the behavior. For example, a child says “I’m not coming to lunch today because I hate fish sticks!” Instead of reminding the child that if he/she doesn’t come to lunch he/she will be hungry later or that if she doesn’t come to lunch she will have to go sit by herself somewhere, the teacher can instead respond, “It is hard to come to lunch when you don’t like the main course! Not everyone likes fish sticks, I really get it. But you know what? We’re also having apples and carrots today, and I know you like those. How about if your lunch today is mostly apples and carrots, and you just ignore the fish sticks? We’ll keep them at the other end of the table, not even close to you. I’d miss you if you weren’t with us at the table.” In that way, the teacher demonstrates acceptance and understanding of the child’s feelings, while also encouraging the child to find an alternative, more acceptable behavior without threatening a consequence.

Using humor and validating feelings are two powerful tools in engaging cooperation with young children. If teachers remember that children’s defiance is part of their developmental job, they will be less likely to respond in a negative way.

Tips for Parents

Young Children’s Defiance = Their Developmental Job: Strategies That Encourage Cooperation

The same principles apply for parents in facing their young children’s opposition and defiance. Remembering that young children have a drive to explore the boundaries to their power and control and try to push the limits to give them more autonomy can help parents feel less aggravated and frustrated when their children repeatedly test them. Just as it is the child’s developmental job to test those limits at times, it is the parents’ developmental job to give their children freedom and room to explore within safe boundaries. Providing those boundaries and limits are equally important to offering the freedom to explore.

Sometimes parents fear that setting limits for their children will harm their self-esteem, but in fact children who are allowed to “rule the roost” at home are actually frightened deep inside by the lack of boundaries. Though they will fight them tooth and nail at times, having parents provide boundaries and limits helps children feel and be safe.

At the same time, setting limits and creating boundaries do not have be done in a hostile or demeaning way. Using humor and validating children’s feelings goes a long way towards engaging cooperation. Sometimes, parents can avoid power struggles altogether simply by being more actively involved in managing a situation. For example, instead of asking a preschool child to get his/her coat on when it’s time to leave a friend’s house where the child was playing, the parent can simply go and get the child’s coat, bring it over to the child, put the coat around the child’s shoulders and explain, “Time to go home, sweetie, dinner needs to be made!” It’s fine to give the child a few minutes beforehand to wrap up the play, but when the time comes, actively starting the transition by bringing the coat over in a friendly way helps reduce the possibility of resistance. That’s called “planning ahead for success instead of reacting to failure.” Very helpful!

Something that parents do with their children sometimes is ask a question when the child doesn’t really have a choice. This is confusing. “Do you want to get in the car?” is not a helpful way to get a young child to enter the car. Instead, try opening the door of the car and saying something funny like, “Hop in, my bunny!” or “Your dog hasn’t seen you all day and is wagging his tail for you right now...enter the car and I will take you to him immediately!”

When children say “No!” to specific requests, using the strategies described above for teachers to grant their wishes in fantasy or validate their feelings while holding out the expectation of appropriate behavior will go a long way towards reducing confrontations.

Questions or comments? call Nancy Bruski at (847) 475-1828 or post them on our contact form.