Engineer rebellion

Behaviour Management

Engineer rebellion

a guide for classroom teachers and teacher aides

Teacher assistant supervising in a school hallway.

Children (particularly teenagers) feel a need to rebel in some way. They do this in various ways such as by wearing their hats inside or leaving rubbish on the floor. Some are ‘cool’ and don’t want to be seen as fully compliant – they want street ‘cred’ for being the tough guy. If we accept that students will rebel in some way, or at least a portion of the cohort will, why not give them something insignificant to rebel against? Logically, this seems to make sense. If we do follow this line of thought however, we then need to enforce rules that are stricter than usual knowing that students will push the boundaries and occasionally break the rules. In other words, teachers can allow students to rebel in predictable, acceptable and expected ways.

An example might help to explain this technique more clearly. In a class of 30, 2 students are well-known ‘trouble-makers’. They are not evil, the opposite in fact – they are very likeable, social and extroverted – charismatic even. Both students have a habit of entering the classroom in a very energetic fashion. They run around, throw their bags, bounce a ball or 2, wear their hats and so forth. The teacher has been trying to curtail this behaviour for a few weeks but has so far had little success. Part of the problem is attention- seeking but there is also an element of rebellion.

Hint: When students are boisterous and excited, teachers often assume it’s just another behavioural issue without giving a second through to the root cause. But what if the root cause was the fact that your class is the students’ favourite lesson and they simply can’t contain their excitement? How does that change the way you manage their behaviour?

You have read so far that identifying the root cause is necessary to select the technique best suited to combat the students’ real intentions. Sometimes however (as with this previous example), there are 3 or 4 possible root causes, each of equal influence. What are we to do then given that each root cause is managed in a different way and that addressing 1 still leaves 2 or 3 more in play? If 1 of the causes is rebellion, engineered rebellion may be used to address all root causes at the same time.

If we accept that students will rebel in some way, or at least a portion of the cohort will, why not give them something insignificant to rebel against?

Returning to the example at hand – the teacher sets very strict rules governing the procedure for entering and exiting the classroom – almost militaristic-like. This includes no hats, no bouncing of balls, ‘inside voice’ and walking. Students may be asked to wait outside until permission to enter is granted. How exactly will the target students rebel against these rules? Quite predictably in actual fact, and the teacher has planned and expected that they will do exactly that. They will undoubtedly come into class and break at least 1 rule – maybe 2. By breaking at least 1 rule however, they have fulfilled the need to rebel and may see no reason to break others as they had previously. They might bounce a ball, wear their hat (the most likely) or even inappropriately yell at the teacher from across the room (with the hidden motive of expressing their excitement and jubilation of being there, regardless of what they might actually say).

This behaviour may aggrieve inexperienced teachers – after all, these students are entering your room and breaking your rules – rules which have been clearly explained, perhaps only yesterday. However, experienced teachers tend to be more relaxed about these things as they generally know this type of behaviour is caused by teenagers’ natural inclination to rebel in some way, and that it is a gradual process. They also know they have ‘tricked’ the student into rebelling in an acceptable and predictable way (after all, wearing a hat inside never killed anyone or disrupted learning).

Diagram showing point of expected rebellion.

Figure: Rules set at level 3 result in some students rebelling at level 4. If rules were enforced at Level 4 (where the teacher would normally target their ‘class rules’, students must rebel at 5. To get students to behave at level 4 therefore, class rules must be set at level 3.

The problem is when teachers are overly relaxed about the rules. When this happens, students need to go to even more extremes to rebel or get the teacher’s attention (if that was their goal). In the case above, say the teacher doesn’t care if a student wears a hat inside, bounces a ball or runs into class like a drunk elephant. When all students in the class behave that way, how is the attention-seeking student going to get their fix of attention? How will they stand out from the crowd and build ‘street-cred’? How will they rebel? The only option is for the student to escalate his or her behaviour to a higher level.

This concept is the reason why you may see whole-of-school rules that seem draconian or overly pedantic, and why they are enforced with such ferocity and vigour (such as no wearing hats in any inside area). A small percentage of students will note this rule, rebel and be rewarded with the attention of the teacher and peers – goal achieved. Assume that rule didn’t exist. The same student would need to devise and employ more aggressive tactics to achieve the same desired outcome.

In other words, when you devise rules and procedures, consider how those rules will be broken (and by who and when) and whether you could engineer them in more strategic ways. Remember that systems are designed with the expectation that some will defy the system or will even try to operate outside the system altogether.

About the author

Image of the managing director of ITAC.


Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and a #1 best selling author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of ITAC, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.

Source: Behaviour Management Skills and Strategies for the Modern Classroom: 100+ research-based strategies for both novice and experienced practitioners.

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.


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