Student "Pushback"

Educators talk about effective behavior management practices

For Middle Level

All educators prefer to have their days run smoothly, without interruption, and as free of stressors as possible. They also tend to be realists, recognizing that such a teaching nirvana resides, now and forever, outside the realm of possibility! As such, educators are confronted with questions like "What should I say and do when a student simply refuses to follow the rules?" From the first minute of the first day of the school year, it can (and does) happen.

Throughout this article, we refer to these myriad forms of student resistance as "pushback." Though something of an organic term, we deem pushback to be behaviors, both active and passive, that reveal student defiance of class-wrought rules. Be it an episode of eye-rolling silence or a loud exclaimed "No," we categorize all student actions that seek to subvert teacher authority as pushback behaviors.

Common pushback scenarios

  1. You begin a lesson by telling students to open their books to page 124. It appears to you that everyone does, and you begin the lesson. Soon, however, you see a student just sitting, doing nothing. His unopened book rests on top of his desk. You tell him to join in the learning by turning to page 124. He refuses. You tell him to take a break so he can think about it for a minute in your "chill chair." Again, he refuses.
  2. You're just about to begin a brief energizing activity. A student who tends to struggle for power with you and has deflated the enthusiasm of others before, says, "No way, man, I'm not going to play that game because it's stupid."


What do you say or do when confronted with scenarios like these? This article presents concrete practices that two principals have used to deescalate, diffuse power struggles, and help rule-breakers get back on track. We also hope that by considering actions you can take before confrontations show up, you can better navigate through such classroom problems if and when they arise.

Pushback in practice
Nell Sears, Middle School Academic Head at Paul Cuffey Charter School in Providence, RI, and a former middle school teacher, offers her experience to educators dealing with persistent disruptions and problem behaviors:

Generally we try not to say much right at the problematic moment, because we want to reinforce the notion that one reminder should be enough, and to sidestep any brewing power struggles. We use a buddy classroom (student is escorted to a nearby classroom and takes a quiet break there); or "behavior backup" (student is escorted to a quiet, student-less space) and have the student reflect on his or her behavior and plan for a successful return to class by doing a written "fixit plan." Teachers follow up later on with a quick one-to- one conference with the student.

Sometimes a particular type of behavior redirection doesn't work for a student. For example, every once in a while we have students who have difficulty using the Refocus Spot (the school's name for where students go when they take a break). In that case, during the one-to-one conference, the teacher works with the student to find a type of redirection that might work better. For example, a teacher might say the following to a student who has broken a rule outlined in the Social Contract:

We agreed not to side-talk during class. I notice you're having difficulty responding appropriately when I remind you by sending you to the Refocus Spot. Is there another way I can remind you that might work better for you?"

Often, students and teachers come up with a private, nonverbal cue the teacher will use to redirect or remind that particular student. If a particular redirection strategy isn't working, we often take it off the table for a time, use a different redirection, and let students know that refocus and other nonverbal reminders are a privilege, not a punishment. If redirection doesn't work, they will lose a privilege and/or have to make amends for something they have done. Under no circumstance will the infraction be overlooked.

Jit Kundan, Principal at New City School in Minneapolis and former middle school teacher, shares his thoughts on pushback:

To minimize the amount of pushback I get, I always mix the types of redirects I use, the same way that a good pitcher mixes up his pitches. My students never know ahead of time if I will send them to a break or whether they'll get another type of loss of privilege when rules are broken. Of course, I tell them about this at the beginning of the year, and explain why I do it this way. I tell them the mixing of the redirect tools keeps them alert and aware. They never get into a rut this way; they can't wear a path to the take a break (TAB) spot and start feeling like, "Okay, here we go again, I'll just go through the motions again." I tell them that whatever I do, it will be fair. It may not be the same, or equal, but it will be fair.

They know beforehand that I'll be redirecting them for small things- I'll be jumping in before they get in trouble-and that they must understand that they're not being punished in any way when I take away a privilege for a few moments. Punishment means that I want them to suffer-I don't; I just want them to change their behavior so our rules are preserved.

Early in the school year, I usually have several mantras which I repeat over and over. One of them is: You see I am here to help you meet your needs.

I tell them they all will be sent to TAB sooner or later, and they will all experience another form of loss of privilege (LOP) sooner or later, depending on the situation and what I know of the students individually. Usually middle schoolers will push back against take a break if that is the only form of LOP being used (perhaps overused) by a teacher. The students soon start to identify TAB and other forms of LOP not as punishment, but as me helping them. They usually realize this pretty quickly.

I try to connect trust with everything I do. Through trust, they start taking positive risks. The first time they respond positively to a redirect they may be doing something very risky because their peers are watching. I talk with them about trust early in the year-how trust is developed and that redirections are a constructive process, not a punitive one-and do consistent check-ins to help them stay grounded in that idea. If we trust each other, we'll grow, and we'll take risks.

One other reason why students may not take a break is they want to save face-avoid embarrassment-even if there are trust and relationship in the room. So we need to know who our students are. Some respond best with subtle nonverbal communications; some take redirection best with a note or a tap on their shoulder. Others need clear, direct verbal information, while still others respond to eye contact.

However, someone will eventually say, "I will not take a break." At that point, I may send that student straight out of the room, or I might give him one more chance to do the right thing. It depends on the offense. Effective redirection is born of a flexible, creative process.

In future look for more about effective techniques for dealing with pushback.

Nell Sears is the Middle School Academic Head at Paul Cuffey Charter School in Providence, RI, and a former middle school teacher

Jit Kundan is the Principal at New City School in Minneapolis and former middle school teacher.