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Oppositional Defiance Can Be a Teaching Moment

As a school psychologist, the type of behavior that brings up the most emotion for me is working with oppositional defiant kids. Having worked in this job for over 24 years, I’ve had my fair share of opportunities to work with oppositional children. Having helped many teachers deal with these types of behaviors, I know my reaction is not uncommon. When faced with a child refusing to do even the simplest of requests, it can bring up various emotions. In my opinion, the biggest one for all of us educators is the fear of losing control of the situation. Imagine that you are in front of an entire classroom, a lesson is being taught, and you have your hands full. You have a half dozen balls in the air, and you are trying frantically not to drop one. Then one student refuses to go along with the game plan. They never do so in a small quiet way; it’s big and usually loud and takes your attention off all the balls you are juggling. This moment is where things quickly go to shit. This is the time I usually get called in. “The expert.” I’m supposed to make it all better, to magically make the kid do what they are supposed to do. Ugh. It rarely works that way. I have lots of training and more than a few tools in my toolbox to help “Difficult Kids.” However, if I am not in a good headspace or start overthinking, emotions start to pop up. I may begin to make the situation about me; I might think things like, “If I were a real school psychologist, I’d be able to handle this” (imposter syndrome), or “The teacher is going to think I’m not any good at my job,” (fear of not being good enough). If this happens, I’m in no place to help the student who is having a difficult time.

So imagine my frustration when I end up with a horse with a stubborn streak a mile wide. A couple of days ago, I was bragging to the gals in my herd, telling them how well Seek is doing. I told them how he was letting me pick up his feet easily; he was walking through gates, turning, and then waiting patiently as I closed the gate behind us, all things he had been stubborn as a mule about doing. “We’re making progress,” I said. The next day, Seek, and I headed back to the paddock after a walk and short grazing session. We were in the middle of the outdoor area, which has a gate to get back in his paddock. Seek stopped dead in his tracks. He was not going to take another step forward. I tapped his butt with the buggy whip I carry like a crop for situations like this. He started to go backward! I tried every tool in my arsenal, all to no avail. What are you trying to tell me, I asked Seek. He sent me a clear answer, “I’m not ready to go back in. I want to graze.” I let him know I had had things I had to do. I had to get going. He didn’t like that answer. I decided to stand there and pay attention to the emotions that were coming up. I realized that Seek was teaching me an important lesson. I was making this situation about me. It wasn’t about me; it was about Seek and what he wanted.

Just like when I get frustrated with a student who is being stubborn, I was getting caught up in the narrative in my head, “people say you can’t let a horse get away with something, or they will keep doing it. I’m going to ruin my horse. Seek doesn’t have any respect for me.” And on and on. I noticed I was up in my head, I dropped my awareness to my heart, and I connected with Seek. While we were connected, I told him that I would be back later, we could take another walk, and I would let him graze longer. (For those of you who don’t know, I’m an intuitive who talks to animals.) It took some finagling, but I got him back in the paddock. I did come back later in the day, and we took a walk, and he got to graze, and when we got back to the arena, I shut the gate, let him loose, and walked away. He went and explored, and I went and fed the other horses and got his feed ready. When I got to the gate to let him in, he met me there and walked right through the gate. He stopped and turned around and waited while I closed the gate, and he walked politely with me to his grain bin.

My point here is this; even when things get messy, we need to keep our heads in check and follow our hearts. Do what we know is correct at that moment. I didn’t break my horse. We still have a strong bond. He follows me around when I’m in the paddock. He checks in with me to make sure I’m ok. And most of all, every day, he reminds me to follow my heart.

In Gratitude,


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