How To Deal With Challenging Students, Part II: Resistance Is Their Job

“It’s the student’s job,” a wise teacher once told me, “to resist you!”

It's their job to resist!? What a paradigm change for me!

When children misbehave, often it is not because they are trying to be naughty. They are merely resisting.

Pushing against wall

Resistance is normal

Rather than being frustrated, I began to accept that this is a normal part of a child’s cognitive development. They must push back in order to find out what works, and what does not. They need healthy adults in their lives to define healthy boundaries. Like sonar, they are sending out a “ping” and need to be “pinged” back, so that they can navigate their world.

The reason they push back is that they are developing their sense of self-control, and expanding what they are capable of doing. But they haven’t had the life experience to push in a graceful or socially acceptable way. They must be shown how to do that.

They need to see a healthy constructive responses to their resistance. It is vital to their growth and development. Understanding resistance as a natural learning process for a child helps us to be much more patient, much more empathetic to their view of the world.

Three types of resistance

Resistance behavior can come in many guises, some of which are not easy to recognize. Here are three of the most common forms of resistance I’ve encountered:

  1. Chattiness
  2. Arguing
  3. Silliness

Let’s take them each in turn.


Some students like the sound of their own voice. They would rather talk than listen. They could spend the whole lesson telling you about the music, rather than actually playing the music!

Other students like to ask a lot of questions. They are naturally curious, and can’t tell the difference between a good, relevant question and a merely distracting one.

We must have a method for dealing with chattiness and too many questions, or these students will literally take over the process! They will use their skill with words to avoid something they are afraid of: looking incompetent, not sounding good, being embarrassed around their friends, etc.

More playing, less talking

“More playing, less talking” is a phrase I use often (also good for argumentative students, see below). Another effective thing to say is: “You’re job is to listen and not talk right now.”

Being blunt with chatty students is necessary to stop their interruptive pattern. However, it is also a good idea to remind them that we appreciate them and their verbal expression. It just isn’t appropriate to talk when we really should be listening or playing. It is also disrespectful to others who are trying to speak.

Post in front of your classroom or group space

Post in front of your classroom or group space

The Five Q Break

When teaching in a classroom setting, I use a technique called the “5 Question Break”. During this 5-minute break I will give a classroom or large group a chance to ask any question. But they only get five! They learn not to waste one of the five questions on something silly. They also learn to control the impulse to shout out a question during class.

Immediately following the break they will get one minute of talking time. (This is also time I can use to re-tune an instrument or two.)

This technique addresses both the burning need to ask questions and the need to chat. I’ve found that it gives me back a remarkable amount of control over the class. But it must be strictly enforced. You can’t cave in and start answering questions at other times.

You can also ask them for specific additional questions beyond the 5 Q break whenever you need to. You also have the privilege to ask them anything you want, any time. Quiz them on what they remember, engage them in what you are saying with questions of your own. This will redirect their focus back to the topic at hand.

I recommend making a sign and posting it in front. Simply write “5 Q Break” on a piece of paper and tape it up. Then you can point to it whenever someone forgets and shouts a question. I recently did this in an after school program to very good results.

I have saved myself enormous amounts of energy using this one technique!


Along with chattiness, silliness is a normal behavior among children. As with chattiness, silliness is a way for a student to feel safe, to retreat to something they know, when being asked to go out of their comfort zone. Being silly allows them to distract the issue away from feeling incompetent or embarrassed.

It is hard for many kids not to be silly. Some students feel like they must “hold it all inside” in order to behave, be still, and be quiet. After a full day of school, my stepson explodes with silly energy. It is as though steam is trapped in a kettle and comes roaring out.

When parents ensure that there is silly time at home, students have a much better chance of paying attention at school or lessons. If students are over-scheduled they can't ever act out the silliness. When kids have had plenty of silly time, they give less resistance to you when you ask them not to be silly.

In a classroom or private lesson, children must learn when to stop the silliness. Learning to self-regulate is important to their development, and controlling the silly impulse will help them find that self-regulation.

Silliness feels to some students like a solution to boredom, which they greatly fear! The more deeply engaged they are in the learning, the less silliness you’ll get. As they mature they will learn to let go of the resistance to boredom.

A return-to-me plan

“I like to have fun and be silly,” I tell students, “But I need to know that I can get you back! So let’s develop a signal."

For violin students I have them put their bow on their head. That prevents them from making sound on their instrument and it becomes obvious quickly who is not following or paying attention!

Clapping in rhythm and expecting a response is another technique. You can even assign a student helper to assist with this.

Holding up a peace sign, raising both hands, or whatever other signal you may decide on, is a great way not to have to compete with student noise and silly behavior.

Teaching techniques that feel silly

If it feels silly to them, they give less resistance. Here are some techniques I’ve used to give students a feeling of being silly while accomplishing a teaching point:

  • Turn your violin upside down and play
  • Stand on one foot and play
  • Fix the teacher (who gets into a horrible posture or wrong position)
  • Sing a goofy song or rhyme
  • Making silly faces
  • How bad can you make it sound? (Gets students over the fear of sounding bad.)

One-Minute Meditation

When the energy of a class is especially silly, I will have a one-minute meditation. There are pre-recorded meditations of that kind available, here is one:

Here are some things I say in a one-minute-meditation:

  • Close your eyes
  • Focus on your breathing
  • Let go of everything you were just doing
  • Allow your body to be still
  • Picture standing in a beautiful landscape, like a beach or mountain
  • Float up into the sky in a big colorful balloon

And so on. There are many possible ways to do this! Be inventive, and you can help the students attain a mindful presence before you start the lesson. Don’t worry if students can’t do it perfectly or that they don’t close their eyes the whole time. DO discipline disrespectful behavior during this meditation by asking a disruptive student to leave the room.

I suggest assigning a specific time for meditation. I have an after-school program that begins at 5:00 p.m., and students know that at 5:05 p.m. sharp, the door closes for a meditation time. All tuning and other activity has to stop during that quiet beginning. The effect of this practice on the quality of the class has been profound.


Some children are talented at being verbal, opinionated, and stubborn. This is good because it will protect them against many things. But this skill set can also be used to derail our efforts as parents and teachers.

Children use arguing because they know it gets results. If they can change your behavior with it, they will return to the behavior in the future. But if they cannot change your behavior, arguing becomes less attractive.

Here are some quick-fix phrases I will use to arrest arguing patterns:

  1. “More playing, less talking.”
  2. “Who is the teacher here?”
  3. “You know a lot about that, I bet you will become a teacher someday.”
  4. “I need to stop talking about this so we can do something else now.”

Acting without talking is another great way around argumentativeness. For music teachers this is easy! Just start playing, right over the top of them. Or turn on a recording or video. They will have to stop arguing, as they find themselves drawn to whatever you show them.

The techniques described above for chattiness and silliness will also work wonders for argumentative students. Use them in combination to "turn off" the arguing loop. For example, do a meditation exercise and tell the student all their comments will have to wait for the 5Q break.

Redirected energy

With these techniques you continue to pay attention to them, while maneuvering them into a position of alignment with you. The key is to give them the attention they are craving AND a sense of control over what they are doing.

Whether chatty, silly, or argumentative, keep in mind that it is all just energy that needs to be redirected. Chronic behavior needs to be dealt with differently (we will return to this topic in future posts) but most resistance is just that: a natural pushing energy that helps children develop.

Give kids a way to handle their own resistance, and you'll see a remarkably pleasing thing happen: students learning with you and enjoying every minute!