Behaviour management: how to take on the rebels

Rebellious students are the bane of a teacher’s day, but despite the stereotype, they are rarely without a cause. In fact, there are many reasons why young people engage in such behaviour – and it’s not just to make your life difficult, as Dan Worth discovers
13th March 2020, 12:05am
How To Take On A Rebel


Behaviour management: how to take on the rebels

There’s a scene from The Simpsons in which Lisa, usually a model pupil, has become disillusioned with school and is rude to her teacher.

“Lisa, what are you rebelling against?” asks Principal Skinner.

“Whaddya got,” she replies.

This image of a rebel without a cause, lashing out against the system “just because”, has long been a cliché of youth, as Professor Matthew Gingo, from Wheaton College, Massachusetts, US, notes: “Storm and strife as a defining characteristic of adolescence has existed for many years.”

Indeed, Lisa Simpson’s line references the Marlon Brando film The Wild One, which was made in 1953, an era when the concept of teenagers was still somewhat novel. Nearly seven decades on from that film, and 28 years since that episode of The Simpsons, rebellious youth is no less infuriating in schools.

But why do children rebel and what is the best way of tackling that in schools?

Most teachers will pinpoint a number of reasons why a child might rebel, but usually it’s simply down to it being a natural thing for young people to do, says Judith Smetana a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, New York, US: “Children are trying to develop autonomy … to establish the boundaries of what they should have control over,” she says.

Gingo adds that a child who never seemed to show resistance would be more concerning than one who did: “As much as it’s inconvenient for parents or teachers … if you didn’t see any resistance, I would be concerned about how are they going to stand up for themselves [in the future]? Will they be able to express agency elsewhere?”

Rather than a constant raging against the machine, though, rebellion is actually more nuanced. The periods of natural rebellion, for example, tend to be linked to key phases of development.

Railing against authority

“It’s important to remember that no one is born preprogrammed to defer to authority,” explains Dr Simon Brownhill, a lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Bristol. “That’s why you see very rebellious behaviour during developmental phases as early as the terrible twos, in situations where children want something and act out because they can’t regulate their emotions when they can’t have it.

“In general, kids are [then] actually quite compliant during primary ages. But when you get to about 9 or 10, children start to question authority as they start to recognise its limitations.”

Smetana explains that from this point onwards, children enter a period where they are caught between wanting to express their own autonomy - and sometimes being encouraged to do so by authority figures - and at the same time still being expected to follow rules unquestioningly.

“Children enter adolescence with a lot of their lives regulated by adults, but by the end of it they are expected to be autonomous in many realms and make decisions for themselves - and that can be a bumpy process,” she adds.

It’s not just this natural boundary pushing that is going on, though. Sometimes rebellion can stem from other causes.

Often, as Brownhill explains, a child’s behaviour may be due to the same kinds of factors that affect us all - they are feeling grumpy, annoyed or even hangry, which manifests itself as appearing rebellious.

“It could be they are too hot or cold, they didn’t get a good night’s sleep, someone said something nasty on social media, they may even just be hungry,” he says. “There are a whole suite of reasons that might cause a child to act in a manner that seems rebellious.”

In extreme cases, rebellion may come from things happening in a young person’s life. If a child has an outright resistance to everything, all the time (“ambient resistance” as Gingo terms it) the cause is not usually a natural developmental phase, nor is the individual behaving that way just because they feel like it - it’s down to trauma.

“It could be that their parents are getting divorced, or there’s been a death in the family, or some other disruptive event,” says Smetana. “Teachers need to identify if there is a pattern of behaviour that may suggest something is going on that needs addressing.”

Appetite for disruption

If there is a known issue, schools tend to be very good at supporting individuals. But in cases where there is not, consistent rebellion can be interpreted as wilful defiance. This means the way a school deals with it may not be conducive to stifling the rebellion.

Indeed, schools often approach rebellion in a very straightforward way - holding back the tide of defiance with the levees of a firm, uncompromising boundary. But the academics say a better understanding of why school can be such a flashpoint would be useful for teachers.

In the teenage years in particular, school can be a key battleground because at the same time as the young person’s autonomy and personal choice is growing at home, their agency in school often remains limited, including within areas they see as personal.

Separate studies undertaken by Smetana and Gingo have shown that children usually acknowledge parents and teachers have a right to set rules around moral and prudential rules - ie, to keep them safe and create a “fair” environment within the family or school. But it is matters they deem to be personal that create issues.

“Children can wear what they want at home and don’t have to ask to go to the bathroom or be told where to sit, for example, but at school they are assigned seating and have to ask permission [to go to the bathroom] and so that is a form of restriction to their autonomy they don’t respond well to,” says Gingo.

Some teachers will argue that schools have to set rules like this to ensure there is a structured learning environment. If this is the case, though, academics believe what is needed is a degree of student participation in the forming of those rules and an explanation as to why they exist. Smetana, for example, argues that to avoid creating longer-term conflict, explaining why rules exist - even if students don’t agree with the reasons - is beneficial as it lets young people feel heard at a time of life when that is important to them.

“I think we take it for granted that we know what is best, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen to someone or acknowledge there may be some legitimacy to what they say,” she says. “We have sometimes brought families into the lab and had them discuss conflicts, and one amazing thing we find a lot of is that parents often say they have never had discussions where they heard what their children thought. They were amazed to hear their kids’ perspectives [on their rule].”

Resistance is futile

In school, this can take time and some may fear that a child challenging a rule could potentially undermine it - many are sceptical about co-creation of rules, too. But, as Gingo explains, engaging in this type of conversation can help to avoid the encouragement of perpetual rebellion that becomes genuinely problematic as children start to become defiant of any request.

“A child sometimes gets stuck in a cycle where they push back over something legitimate but then that spills over into other areas and they just push back for the sake of it because they lost a battle they think they should have won, so they move the fight to a new front,” he explains.

As such, he and Smetana agree that engaging children in discussions about why rules are there is an important way to hopefully curb a rebellious streak so that it stays within the more typical ranges.

What can help make these discussions easier, says Gingo, is teachers not taking their pupils’ rebellion personally - because it rarely is personal. “One thing about resistance is that children in an educational setting are not usually so much resisting you [the teacher] but the rule or directive itself,” he says.

If we do all these things - identify a cause, explain rules to children and not take things personally - can we really stifle rebellion and get compliant classes? Not always. But take comfort in the knowledge that the Hollywood image of a teenage rebel without a cause is perhaps not as true to life as we are led to believe, and that Lisa did, of course, learn to love school again.

Dan Worth is deputy commissioning editor at Tes

This article originally appeared in the 13 March 2020 issue under the headline “Tes focus on…How to take on a rebel”

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