4 Steps to Deal with “Rebel” Students

Have you wondered why some kids just seem to follow the rules and some kids just…don’t? You know those kids that really avoid doing something, that even seem to spitefully disobey you. Don’t take it personally. It’s just their tendency, but you can work with it. Instead of getting frustrated with those kids that seem to do everything except please you, you can learn to harness their strengths.

A couple years ago, I started listening to the podcast Happier with Gretchen Rubin. On the podcast, Gretchen and her sister, Elizabeth, talk about concrete ways to be “happier, healthier, more creative, and more productive.” I really enjoyed the podcast and the tips that Gretchen would mention from her books, so I read Better than Before which is all about habit change – how to make and break habits. In the book, she mentions a personality framework called the Four Tendencies. This resonated so much with people that she wrote a whole book about it. The tendencies explain how people respond to expectations. We talk about expectations in a classroom so much, so I find this framework invaluable.

Here’s a quick overview in order of how common each tendency is. If you’re curious about your own tendency, you can take her quiz here.


will follow through on outer expectations, such as those imposed by a boss or society at large, but they have a hard time following through on inner expectations such as New Years Resolutions. When they become resentful, they will rebel against those outer expectations. I find it interesting that Obligers will often treat the people closest to them (spouse, family) like an inner expectation so that they will place work or volunteer obligations ahead of family obligations and family obligations ahead of personal health or self-care.


question all expectations and will only follow through on expectations that make sense to them. Essentially, they make everything an inner expectation. Questioners can have difficulty making decisions and sticking with routines. They also overlap with rebel and can rebel against rules or expectations that go against their reasoning or values. I am a questioner.


meet both outer and inner expectations. They are clearly rule followers and like others to do the same. Upholders might find it difficult to understand the dilemmas of others’ tendencies and can be prone to “tightening,” becoming overly rigid and unyielding.


resist both outer and inner expectations. They may decide not to do something just because they are told to do something; they also often have trouble making themselves do things even if they want to do it. Rebels, however, are driven by identity and will often do unexpected things that shake up society or go to great lengths to achieve goals they find important. 

You might be thinking of examples of students in each category. I know I immediately thought of students in my class as I was reading the book.

From the teacher’s perspective…

Obligers and Upholders are both easy to work with as a teacher. They’ll follow through on expectations and won’t need a lot of support to do so. Luckily, these groups combined will be the largest portion of the class.

Questioners will pose varying degrees of difficulty. All will need some justification for rules and why they should be followed, but some will accept that reasoning more readily than others. Some questioners might require more reasoning; don’t resist giving it to them or they will just rebel later and resent not getting the answer they desire. Questioners will hate the response, “Because I said so.” While respecting authority is important, where would the world be if there weren’t some people who questioned authority? It’s not necessarily a bad trait, so accept the way they are. Even a response such as, “That’s the school rule, and I want our class to be consistent with that rule for the fairness of everyone” might help a good deal. Also, if you really can’t come up with an explanation, you could offer, “What would you suggest instead?” If you as the teacher can’t come up with a good reason why they should be following a rule or meeting a requirement, maybe you actually don’t need to be requiring it. They might have a point behind their complaint! I know part of our student rights and responsibilities handbook is the right to petition. If they really disagree with something, they can make it known to a higher authority. Questioners might help you loosen up expectations you place on yourself, too. 

Rebels might cause more issues, particularly if you’re an upholder. If a rebel has a strong identity as a good student, someone who’s intelligent or good at a particular academic skill, it will be easier to appeal to that trait. Even so, keep in mind that everyone wants themselves to be smart, happy, and good people, even if they don’t feel like they are that way currently. If you can carve out a path of reasoning that shows how what you’re asking them to do could lead to feeling smart, happy, or successful/right/good, that could help them see the benefit of what you’re asking. While all students can benefit from choices (although Upholders especially might actually want clear directions “Just tell me what you want”), Rebels need choices, so try to provide them as much as possible. 

One structure that Gretchen Rubin explains is Information, Consequences, Choice.

information consequences choice

This is best done through one-on-one conference but a choice could be given quickly in a whole group setting if needed/appropriate. If an argument is starting, it’s much better to say, “We’ll talk about this in a moment,” and then move on and circle back to them. A mom of a rebel preschooler explains more how she changed her approach with her daughter in this post: https://gretchenrubin.com/2017/08/update-on-rebel-preschooler 

1. Information

You explain the information needed. This is where it is helpful to appeal to their identity in some way. The more you know about this student the easier this is going to be. Try to draw a connection between what you know about them and what they value and what you’re asking them to do. As I said above, tying it to a generic value can sometimes work, too. 

  • Not wearing a coat at recess even though they have one? Explain how bare skin reacts to cold weather.
  • Not being careful with classroom supplies? Explain what happens if they don’t take care.
  • Rude to a classmate? Be blunt about friendship and how others interpret actions.
  • Not getting their work done? Explain the effect on their grade. Look at their gradebook with them. Ask them what grade they think they deserve based on blank spots, missing work, zeros, etc.
  • Work not up to par? Ask them to compare their work to work that’s meeting standards. Ask what they think of it.
  • Give them data. I saw you write ____ amount in ____time. I saw you move 3 times in 5 minutes. I noticed you talking ____ number of times in ____minutes. You said ____ times in ___minutes. How much work do you think that accomplishes? (Note: I got a kid to stop saying an annoying phrase just by tallying how many times he said it on a post-it note on his desk. It was something like 10 times in the first 30 minutes of the day. All I did was put tallies on the paper and he asked what it was for. I explained. He never said it again.)

2. Consequences

Then, you explain the consequences of doing something or not doing something. This might have been part of the information given. It is often answered by them with the question, “How is that working for you? How much work did you accomplish? What do you think of that?” If they don’t respond much or at all, though, you can fill this in.

3. Choice

Then, you give the choice. Make sure you are okay with either choice. Do not give them a choice that you’re unwilling to accept because then you’ll be resentful and angry at the student, and that’s not helpful for anyone. 

For instance, some choices I’ve given include:

  • You can do it now, or you can do it in 5 minutes. 
  • You can do it at the start of class or at the end of class. 
  • You can redo this assignment for a better grade or you can keep the grade you have.
  • You can try to improve it by yourself or you can work with me on it.
  • You can come in during lunch to finish up with work or you can keep the grade/take a 0.
  • You can work over here or you can work over there. 
  • You can choose to skip ahead to this part of the assignment and work alone or you can work with others on this part. 
  • You can start working with the class or you can take a break and work alone in so-and-so’s classroom. 
  • You can work on it now and get it done or we can call your parents now.
  • I can write an email home saying how much you got done or I can write an email that you have homework to catch up on.

4. Walk Away

A final step that Gretchen doesn’t explicitly state that I find helpful is to walk away. I will often ask, “What do you choose?” or “What is your choice?” at the end of this conversation. If they can tell me, fantastic. They’re likely to follow through on that choice. If they did not follow through on that choice they told you, you might need to work more on relationship building with that student if they’re more willing to lie to you. If they shrug their shoulders or can’t tell me, I will say, “Well, it’s your choice. I’ll come back in a minute to check in on what you decide.” Then I walk away. Often, the student just gets started on whatever you wanted them to do anyway. I will check in and follow through no matter what, though, even if it’s not in a minute. I might comment, “I see you’ve chosen ___.” If they’re not doing anything, I’ll ask what the choice was. If they still can’t tell me, it’s time for new choices. I might tell them they can either make a choice or have that choice taken away with a consequence. 

With choices, the most important thing is to be okay with either choice and not begrudge one decision over another. You need to let them choose. If you’ve explained the consequences of the actions before the choice, they’ve chosen and you can let it go.

I have used this structure so many times successfully that I couldn’t list all the ways, but I’ll give one example that stood out for me. I had a conversation with a difficult student who was being mean to me and other students. He made a couple of rude comments that hurt feelings. I was upset and angry on behalf of other students, and I had tried so many other explanations before. Finally, at recess I explained to him, “When you are saying/doing […] it makes people think you’re mean – that you’re a mean kid who doesn’t care about other people. Is that how you want to be seen? Do you want to be known as someone who doesn’t care about others?” He responded “no”. I actually was surprised he responded because he often was silent. It caught me off guard, and I calmed down. I explained, “Okay. Well, then you can either keep acting the way you are and have others hold that opinion of you or you can change. You can change the opinion of other people. You can decide that you want to be a different way. I believe that you can be a caring person. I’ve seen it, and I know you can choose to act differently. Ultimately, it’s your choice.” It was a long road with this student and this one conversation didn’t change everything, but I will tell you it truly shifted things. This was a turning point for him, but I didn’t see it in the moment.  

When I use this with particular students over and over again, they will often approach me with a choice asking if they can do something. It’s usually perfectly acceptable because it’s something I’ve offered in the past. I try to say yes to as many choices as possible for kids; they’re usually not deal breakers. Once you can embrace the reality of the rebel, I find these are some of the most fun kids to teach. They’re insightful, funny, and creative. They see things in totally different ways from other kids and often give me ideas for how I can change things in the classroom. They can pose difficulties, but they are often the most rewarding. Nearly every rebel I’ve taught has a very special place in my heart! 


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