In a pupil referral unit, point blank refusal from a child is such a regular event that staff are not even consciously aware of the variety of tools they use to tackle it. Generally, the children I teach refuse to do something because it’s a change of plan and they were really enjoying what they were doing and don’t want it to stop, or they are scared of what they are being asked to do (although they will never admit this!) At other times it is because they are emotionally escalated and unable to behave flexibly and in these instances, it’s important to let the child calm down before attempting to get them to comply. In a mainstream school, complete refusal is a rarer event but it occasionally happens. And at home, well, it depends on the parent/carer, the child and what they are being asked to do.
After years of dealing with refusal I have concluded that, although there are several approaches, the most effective way of dealing with a refusal is certainly to completely avoid locking horns with it. It’s best not to give it any energy. This also happens to be a low-stress way of dealing with it. Your response can be a calm statement noting the behaviour and what a child might be struggling with, speculating about the reasons why a child might not want to do what is being asked of them and some reassurance, explaining reasons for why it is being asked of them, repeating the request a couple of times and stating that they can do what you have asked of them, ‘when they are ready.’ You then disengage with the child other than to occasionally ask them if they are ready to do what they have been asked to do. Most children will want the adult to re-engage and will eventually work out that compliance is the only way for this to happen – if you stick to your guns each time.
So to break those responses down further, here are the stages:
- A statement noting the behaviour and what a child might be struggling with
A) I see you are struggling to tidy up the mess you just made.
B) I see that you don’t want to come in.
- speculating about the reasons why a child might not want to do what is being asked of them and some reassurance
A) Tidying up is never as fun as making the mess in the first place, I can see why you don’t want to do it. It really won’t take long. I can help you when you get started.
B) I can see you don’t want to come in. I am wondering if you were having so much fun, you don’t want it to end. We will go out and play again soon.
- explaining reasons for why it is being asked of them
A) We need to learn to tidy things away after we have used them, otherwise the grown ups won’t feel like doing that activity again if they always had to tidy up all the messes.
B) I need you to come in because you need to come and eat your tea and I need to close the door or it will get cold inside.
- repeating the request a couple of times
A) I need you to tidy up the mess you have made.
B) I need you to come in.
- Stating, ‘when you are ready’ and then disengaging.
A) I need you to tidy up the mess. Let me know when you’re ready to do so.
B) I need you to come in. If you’re not coming in right now, I will shut the door and you can come in when you’re ready.
Sometimes a child needs a ‘break’ from the stalemate they have created because they have dug their heels in so hard, they almost need a distraction to get themselves out of the ‘defiance trance’. This can sometimes be done by offering a drink or chatting briefly about something else before a reminder of what they need to do before you disengage again. This also reminds your child that you are not angry with them, you just want them to do what has been asked of them.
This is an article I wrote for the magazine Teach Primary on the topic of refusal in the classroom. It's a different situation but it shares some points.