Control, Anxiety, and Oppositional Behaviour at Home and School.

All children have a tendency to display oppositional behavior at times. After 13 years working with children with Autism, ADHD, ODD and other needs I have seen a range of reasons for opposition. With my own children I can identify factors that can lead to oppositional behaviour. This doesn’t make it easier to deal with, and often my parental patience levels are lower than my work patience levels!

Why are they being oppositional?

Often this type of behaviour is described as defiant, argumentative or rude. It is a behaviour that can really push our buttons and gains a strong reaction from adults. This can lead to an oversimplification of the cause. They are doing it “For a reaction” is not usually the reason. Yes they gain a reaction usually negative but this is not the driver behind the behaviour. I will often use a QABF (Questions about behaviour function) assessment when we are truly stuck in working out the function of a behaviour. I am a reformed functionalist, I used to think that this would supply an answer to the question “why are they behaving like this?”. Too often the root of the oppositional behaviour is too complex and the function changes depending on context and often one behaviour serves multiple functions with multiple drivers.

Conflicting Desires

Autistic children rarely undertake an activity or action because you tell them too, especially if they don’t enjoy it or see the purpose. Sometimes the child actually enjoys the thing they are being asked to do but you have failed to notice they are in the middle of something else. In schools timetables and internal routines can be at odds and a source of conflict. A high arousal, multi-interaction environment can lead to oppositional behaviour. Often this is purely an attempt to create a sense of certainty.

Sometimes everything is set up and in place, carefully planned, the mood is right but an element is missing. Examples of this may be a symbol is missing from a visual schedule. Their friend is still at the table or has gone to the toilet and they are waiting for them to come back as they always go together and this social cue is more powerful that it being “time to go”. So whilst technically this is “non-compliance” or being oppositional in reality it is purely that the adult’s request is secondary to the other concern. Situations such as this can then go one of two ways and control of that outcome sits firmly with the adult.

Control, Flexibility and Compliance

If the adult is willing to be flexible and listen or evaluate the situation then there will be no escalation as a resolution can be found. If the adult demands compliance there may be an escalation in “challenging behaviour” linked to frustration, sitting on the ground, extreme agitation etc. There is another possible outcome that is potentially the root of deeper issues for the child. They may comply, whether through fear, fear of sanctions or routine. However, this can contribute to a build-up of stress.

This is particularly true with autistic pupils who may mask their emotions and stress. In turn, this stress can become the setting event or trigger for a meltdown or difficulties later on. For many, this happens at home after school and can begin the cycle of school refusal. Sometimes this may be referred to as a “setting event” or a situation that leads to other incidents.


In behaviour training, I say we do not ever want compliance due to fear. Because it is abuse and I am going to say that it serves only to establish an ethos of power and vulnerability. We need to develop an effective intrinsic motivation to follow the rules for each child. To do that we start with looking at the rules themselves. We have to allow the child to take control of as much of their day as possible. In doing this the likelihood of oppositional behaviour is reduced. We as the holders of the power have to put ego aside.

Our primary purpose is to educate the child as to the purpose of rules. Easy right? Of course, anyone working with or parenting children knows that this is a long process. The younger the child or more complex the need the more we need to plan and overtly teach this process. With deference to their communication needs – this should always be the primary factor in how we approach education.

  • Explain the point of the rule/request many people are immediately oppositional if they don’t see the point.
  • Provide a choice and let the child make the decision. This is effective for coats etc. Let the child realise it is cold and they need a coat outside rather than demanding it is put on in a hot room. It might be inconvenient to you to have to put it on outside but some learning takes place.
  • Model – sometimes as simple as sitting down if you want the child to sit down.
  • Watch how the child completes a task in their own time. i.e do they watch a whole youtube clip before moving on. If so make it clear the next thing starts after that clip don’t expect them to respond in the middle of a clip.

Rules and Responses

We need to share the expectation of behaviour. For some children this expectation itself can lead to opposition as it represents a loss of control. Where possible we should explain why this rule exists. Why is this important? I have worked with many children who need to experience the natural consequence for themselves. This often leads to a duty of care issue for school staff.

nconsistencies in our rules that can lead to oppositional behaviour. These tend to highlight the power imbalance in the relationship and demonstrate the child's lack of control.

Of course some things aren’t important and humans are great at building a bank of rules that don’t make any sense. They have forgotten origins, they exist only in your head etc etc. Us adults are very good at presuming children know things that we have never told them. I am sure everyone can think of a time they have had to say the most obscure rules “We do not fill shoes with lego. ” We don’t put skittles in the toaster”. Both serve a purpose sure but before the act occurred we hadn’t taught them them, so by doing them the child is not being oppositional. Do the following rules make sense?

“Put your coat on before you go outside”

“Eat your sandwich first”

Then there are the inconsistencies in our rules that can lead to oppositional behaviour. These tend to highlight the power imbalance in the relationship and demonstrate the child’s lack of control.

“You are not going out to play until you finish your work.”

“Put that away we are going outside.”

Fear and Predictability

Anxiety and fear of uncertainty often drives oppositional behaviour. Autistic children are driven to attempt control all aspects of their lives. It can be the only way to make sense of an illogical and unpredictable world that doesn’t understand their method of processing it. Every interaction and activity is a potential source of stress. Exercising control makes the world more consistent, and predictable. The outcome of this is they feel safer and are more able to manage the demands of life.

Often the least predictable aspect of life is other people. What are they going to want? When will they start talking? How will they talk, are they going to be too high pitched, loud etc? In schools it is primarily going to be the child’s reactions and responses to interactions that are going to be labelled as wrong. I think it needs to be said more but – The best special needs staff are those that are able to reflect on their interaction style. When something has gone wrong it is the strongest who own their errors and put it right. It is the weakest who seek retribution and sanctions.

If you can if your child is being particularly oppositional or their behaviour has changed have a think about what is happening around them. The more confusing and chaotic their life the more control they will attempt to regain. Being a child this will be by using unsophisticated methods – Challenging behaviour.

Oppositional behaviour  strategies

13 Suggested Strategies to reduce the frequency of oppositional behaviour

  1. Reduce Chaos – the calmer and more predictable the child’s environment the better.
  2. Schedules and timetables presented visually and with elements of choice and flexibility
  3. Preferred activities should come to a natural end where possible i.e watch a film not TV for 1 hour.
  4. Honour your side of any agreement.
  5. Be flexible, compromise is not the enemy of compliance.
  6. Pick your battles, introduce one expected rule at a time to reduce constant negative interactions.
  7. Keep activities short and low demand.
  8. Reduce language to clear directions and allow processing time.
  9. Ignore secondary behaviours if you have a good understanding of the pattern of the behaviour.
  10. If you get stressed move away from the situation and reinforce any motivating activity.
  11. Do not give rewards if they haven’t been earned and are conditional on something being done.
  12. Stay consistent reinforcing what needs to be done.
  13. Talking is for when all is calm, silence and support is for high-stress situations.

7 thoughts on “Control, Anxiety, and Oppositional Behaviour at Home and School.”

  1. I am a parent to a non verbal autistic boy who is on higher spectrum of autism. Your blog is pure gold. My son gets very agitated when he is opposed and things become very chaotic. Reading your blog has really helped me. Will surely put the tips in use. Would love to reblog it.

  2. Pingback: The Essentials of SEND Education - Special Education and Inclusive Learning

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