When Students Say, “No!”

frustrated face

Every adult, parent or teacher knows the feeling they get when a child says, “NO!” I was raised at a time when saying, “No” to any adult just wasn’t acceptable. Obviously there are times when children should say, “No” to keep themselves safe. But what should we do when a child says they won’t do something we have asked them to do in the classroom or at home? Instead of getting angry adults need to remember that sometimes children are just testing the waters to see how we will react. The boundaries will always be tested and we just need to be clear concise and fair.

One secret I learned many years ago, is don’t ask, tell. When we ask students to do something we are giving them the option of saying “No” right off the bat. We should always form our statements as an expectation not as a question. Passive language doesn’t belong in the classroom. Many adults follow a direction with a question like ” okay?” or “will you?” This gives the child the option of saying, “no” to them, then the adult is stuck. Instead we need to simply state what we need or expect in an “I” statement.

Even when using positive language children will say, “I don’t want to.” I then have to make it clear that I am not asking but instead telling them. I do try to avoid power struggles, if a child continues to say, “no” I always give them an option of doing it now or doing it later. Usually, the later is at a time when they would rather be doing something else like choice or outdoor recess. I have found that if we give children a simple choice and walk away removing ourselves from the power struggle, children will choose to do what we are asking. If not we need to follow-up and remember to hold them accountable by having them do it later.

Instead of saying what children shouldn’t do we should tell them what we expect and want them to do. As the attached video points out, often we put the ideas into children’s heads to do the wrong thing by telling them not to. Simple statements work best. “We will walk in the halls.” “I need you to stop, look and listen.”

There is nothing worse than not meaning what you say and saying what you mean. If it is important to you as an adult, then stick to it and be consistent. You will find you will have less and less incidents and less frequent power struggles.

Sometimes children will say they don’t want to when they really do want to. I have had several children over the years who merely delight in being contrarian. I allow them to sit it out, but also hold them accountable. If they say they didn’t want to do it, then they don’t get the chance at least not that day. Maybe the next day when they say, “Yes”.

Surprisingly enough, one group of students I had one year decided that their classroom rule was going to be, “We will say please, yes and thank you!” What an extremely powerful rule that was I could often remind, reinforce and redirect  them based on their own rule. I found it very useful in power struggles and when children were choosing not to play with other students.

Power is something we can share with children if we give them choices and options but sometimes there are things we need and want them to do to stay safe. Clear, specific, positive language works best. What strategies do you use when children say, “No!” to you?


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