Your Step-by-Step Behaviour Management Guide for Dealing with a Student who Just Won’t Follow Instructions

Molly Potter
ADDED: 24th April 2020

“Repeat this instruction as many times as needed – be that irritating dog with a bone”

Your Step-by-Step Behaviour Management Guide for Dealing with a Student who Just Won’t Follow Instructions

“No, I won’t.”

It’s the stuff of teachers’ anxiety nightmares. You’ve arrived in the classroom, nothing is planned, the books have gone missing, the pupils are jumping from desk to desk and you awake in an emotional frenzy, sweat on your brow, just after the naughty kid looks up at you and point blank refuses to do what you ask.

As you stir from your dream, you feel a wave of relief. But what of the point blank refusal? Fortunately it’s rare but it does happen and dealing with it needs careful navigation.

Imagine that you’ve set the class off on a task. Most get straight down to it. A few need little verbal nudges to get focused, but then you notice that Sky is swinging on her chair and starting to disrupt others.

You walk over to her and suggest she stops rocking and gets on with her work. She looks you in the eye, still swinging on her chair, and says a firm, ‘No.’ How would you respond? There are three potential options.

Don’t panic

Firstly, you might try backing off and letting her be. You know she craves attention, so why reward her behaviour with what she wants? She’ll soon get bored with nobody feeding her need.

Well, that is until she ups the ante, her behaviour escalates and she starts to involve others. She’s determined to get that reaction.

Secondly, you might go authoritarian, stand in front of her and metaphorically bare your alpha primate force. The more she digs her heels in and refuses to comply, the more you take a stance of determination, despite the fact Sky hasn’t backed down in the slightest.

You’ve played right into her need and she’s smiling.

There is a third option, with an increased chance of success, and the first rule is to not panic.

Yes, this is a fundamental challenge to one of the crucial skills teachers need to do their job properly: getting children to comply, and refusal can make you feel a bit helpless, stir up fearful emotions and can be an affront to the ego.

But fret not – this does not need to be sorted out right this instant.

Take a deep breath and take your time. Try to stay calm (or at least appear to), even if inside your head you are wondering whether you’ll ever get classroom control again.

Keep it simple

Decide on one instruction that you want Sky to follow. Keep it simple. Sky is probably not in a great state emotionally, so her ability to receive directions will be diminished.

It might be, ‘All four chair legs on the floor, thank you,’ or ‘You need to go and sit in that corner.’

The direction does not have to be the same instruction as the one she is currently flouting – in fact, a change of direction can help when behaviour has really escalated. You are just looking to get Sky to comply at this point.

Repeat this instruction as many times as needed. Be that irritating dog with a bone.

Each time Sky ignores you, continue to remain calm. State aloud, ‘I can see you’re not ready to follow my instruction, but when you are, we can see if we can work out what help you need’ or ‘We can help you get started on your work so you don’t have to miss breaktime catching up with it.’

Sky does need to know she is still going to have to do her work, but if the situation is really escalating, this might need to be brought up only when she is calm.

If Sky takes her time to comply, reduce the interaction to the effective quick hit of ‘Still not ready?’ You can also throw in something like, ‘This is getting really boring.’

Better still, look bored. Keep the rest of the class onside by explaining what is happening. You might say something like, ‘Sky is really struggling at the moment to make the right choice.’

Praise the class for their excellent ignoring. In fact, go overboard with your praise of the rest of the class. Show Sky that’s how she will actually get lots of attention.

Broken record

Intermittently persist like a broken record with the one simple instruction until Sky complies – even if this takes you into breaktime.

The inconvenient persistence now will benefit you in the long term. When Sky eventually complies, ignore any secondary behaviours like grumbling or knocking pencils on the floor. After all, she has had to back down.

When Sky complies, thank her for doing so and then show concern for her upset. Use the tool of ‘wondering’. You know Sky, and you probably know that her difficulty with writing triggered the behaviour you just saw.

If Sky settles enough for you to do this out of earshot of others, try, ‘I am wondering if the reason we are seeing this behaviour is because you are worried about what you have been asked to do. I know you struggle with writing, but I am here to help.’

When Sky is in a better place, you need to tell her that she still needs to get on with her work. You could give her the choice of doing it now or at lunchtime. Hopefully she will chose now.

Next time you’re in bed having that age-old nightmare about defiant pupils, hopefully Sky will turn round, smile, and say, ‘I’ve done all my work.’

Four more ways to tackle non-compliance

  1. State you care
    Bother defiant pupils with declarations about how much you care. Tell them that you understand that their behaviour is probably their way of saying they’re unhappy about something and that you want to help them with this because you care. A good response when a child says ‘I don’t care’ is to say ‘But I do. I really do.’ The pupil may pretend to be irritated by your caring, but it will have registered.

  2. Good cop, bad cop
    After a period of non-compliance from a pupil, ask a ‘good cop’ (such as a TA) to have a go. This person still needs to deliver the same instruction, but can do so more gently. As this adult was not the one who was the original target of the refusal, it can give the child a chance to back down without losing face.

  3. Sensory distraction
    Sometimes, surprisingly, a complete change of topic and a sensory distraction will suddenly make a defiant child like a puppy at your side. Try something along the lines of, ‘I am a bit thirsty. Are you? Would you like some water?’

  4. The carrot
    In times of non-compliance, it is really useful to have a ‘carrot’: that thing you know they really value. It could be something as simple as breaktime, a choice that needs making or a job they like doing. It’s preferable if it’s something the child was going to do anyway or something you can pretend was already lined up for them. This can be used to entice them to complete the work they are avoiding. Say, ‘When you’ve done your work, you can choose the game the class will play.’

Molly Potter is an author, trainer and part-time teacher at a PRU. Find out more at