Using procedures to gain the cooperation of a passive-aggressive student

My teaching partner and I have a little girl in our grade one classroom this year who is very stubborn and actually downright defiant in a passive aggressive way.  Right from the beginning of the year she would deliberately do the opposite of whatever the teacher was asking or quietly not do anything at all. When everyone was asked to print certain letters on the chalkboard she would draw pictures. When asked to get out her calendar binder, she would get out something entirely different. Then just before the end of calendar time, she would quickly take out her book and finish up what was expected. When everyone else would stand to celebrate a classmate’s birthday by singing a few songs and finger plays, she would remain seated or would stand beside her desk when everyone else would stand behind as asked. In the morning, she would enter the coatroom but would refuse to take off her coat or hang up her backpack until everyone else had left. When it was time to go to assembly or gym class, she would drag her feet coming from her desk and not catch up with the lineup until we were halfway to the gym, etc. etc. etc!

Initially it was almost all day long––continuous operation on Level B. She didn’t really interfere with the others’ learning too much but she certainly interfered with her own. In the beginning, we tried many things to get her feeling more cooperative. Sometimes it would work but many times it would not. Eventually, we just started making a mental note of all the times in a morning when she was not cooperative and would not comply with the reasonable and simple requests of the teacher. Then when it came to a break time––snack or lunch play time––we would quietly ask her to stay behind when all the other kids were dismissed. With a few reflective questions (in response to her questions about why she was still in the room by herself,) we would ask, “Why do you think you’re still here?”  When she would respond, “But I did do all my work,” or “I did hang up my coat and come to my desk,” we simply asked if she did these things in the same way as all the other kids or “Did you do all these things when you were asked to do them?” or “Did you do these things without a fuss?” Eventually she would agree that she hadn’t.

Then we would explain that the job of a teacher is to make sure that everyone can learn in the room. Part of learning well is doing the simple things that the teacher asks you to do when the teacher asks you to do it. Then we would explain that we really wanted her to learn well.  We would help her by practicing all the things in the morning in a way that was cooperative, so that she could learn to be cooperative. We explained that in any learning some people simply need more practice than others.

Then we would actually go through all the things we did that morning. If she had stood around in the cloakroom and refused to get her shoes changed, coat hung up, etc., we would ask her to dress herself again, as if she had just arrived at school, with backpack, jacket etc. Then we’d have her go outside and “line up” at the classroom door all by herself.  Then the teacher would open the door and welcome all the “boys and girls” to school. If it was my teaching day I’d tell her we were pretending that everyone in the class was there. Then I’d have her come in and I’d greet her just as I do all the students every morning. Then we’d head to the coatroom and practice being cooperative.

After she’d hung everything up, we’d go to the desk area and I would do a quick run through of every lesson that we’d had. I’d ask her (as if I was trying to remember myself,) “When we did the printing lesson today and I asked you to get out your chalk and make the letters, were you cooperative?” If she had been cooperative in that particular activity, I would say, “Oh, good, that’s one thing we don’t need to practice!” Then we’d move on to the next lesson. I’d say, “When we did binder time, did you get your binder out at the same time as all the other kids?” Then she’d say “No,” and I’d say, “Oh, that’s something we’d better practice––Boys and girls, it’s binder time. Get out your binder and put your finger on number one.”  Then she’d get her binder out and we would count the days in school, count the calendar, do some more tallies, etc.

On we went––a quick recap of the entire morning!  I’d return to the front of the room and I’d say, “Okay boys and girls, now it’s time to come to the carpet for our work on the pocket chart.” By this time, she was starting to smile when I addressed her as if she was a whole group of kids! We actually have built quite a positive relationship in these times we spend together at lunch and recess because I’m bright and cheerful and she’s starting to see the humor in the situation of a teacher teaching one child as if there is a whole class present. She started to say things like, “I don’t know why I didn’t do this job this morning and then I could be outside now.” And I could agree and say that maybe tomorrow she could think of a better plan so that she could go outside and wouldn’t need anymore extra practice times. I’d say that I notice she’s getting smarter about this every single day!”

It’s been on and off like this for a few weeks now and every week it gets better. Mondays are the worst after a weekend away from school. She still comes in and stands around instead of doing her chores, but gradually she is starting to be more and more cooperative earlier in the day and for the following days. Our practice times are getting shorter and shorter and she’s getting happier and happier. When we first met her, she had a sour look on her face all the time and put most of her energy into thinking of negative behaviors. Now that she’s complying more and more, she’s more and more pleasant.

In our noon-hour practice sessions we often talk about this. We talk about how she’s becoming more grown up and becoming a better student because she’s focusing on doing what she’s asked to do in lesson time, instead of focusing on what will be something different than what everyone else is doing. As I said, these noonhour times with just the teacher and the student are actually helping us to build a solid working relationship, and so I’ve been very diligent in following through whenever she’s uncooperative. Once we even had to go over to the gym at recess and redo a bunch of fun relays. (Keep in mind she’s the only one running in the relays and I have a whistle and give all the directions just as I do for a whole class.) This persistence with discussions––that she will actually be happier when she learns to cooperate (comply) and that every day she’s getting smarter about doing her tasks right away––is really paying off!  For the most part she’s beginning to make choices that are leading her in a positive and copperative direction.  Through this experience I have truly learned what Dr. Marshall means when he explains that procedures can be used to handle discipline problems.