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Getting Billy to Yes from No, No, NO!

Date: April 25th, 2013
By: Polly Bath

Five-year-old Billy is easy to spot. He is large for his age; his shock of black hair is tousled and dark circles sit beneath his eyes. His little blue plaid shirt is half untucked, and his black sneakers are worn. A bit of breakfast is stuck to his cheek. Billy is seated apart from the other kindergartners, all of whom are scrubbed and shiny looking. The classroom is calm and quiet except for the scratching of yellow pencils on paper.

Billy’s arm shoots up.

He’s waving it wildly in the still classroom, waiting for permission to speak.

“I hafta use the restroom!” he blurts.

The other children turn in their small orange seats to look at him, as if anticipating something awful.

Billy is the reason I am in this classroom as an outside behavior consultant. It’s December and his behavior has been getting worse since the fall, despite everything a well-meaning teacher and a caring principal and staff have done to help him.

“Billy really struggles,” his teacher, Mrs. Z, says when he is out of earshot, “and the other kids are actually a bit fearful of him.” Mrs. Z’s concern is genuine. “He has hurt kids on the playground. I hate to keep him apart from everybody here in the room, but I’m afraid he may have an outburst.”

“When does he have his outbursts?” I ask.

“It can be any time you ask him to do something,” Mrs. Z says quietly, deeply concerned.  I can tell she cares about kids. And she cares about Billy. But she cannot figure out how to help him.

Billy returns to his seat and looks idly out the window at snow-laden clouds. Mrs. Z walks over, leans over his desk, and hands him his pencil. “We’re still all doing our alphabet papers now, Billy. I see you are on R,” Mrs. Z says cheerfully. “Let’s get started.”

Billy puts the pencil down on his desk with a little smack and very loudly says, “No.”

In what seems like a single movement all the other little heads rise from their work and turn to look at Billy.

“It’s time to do your letter R, Billy.” Mrs. Z tries to remain unfazed. “Settle down and start using your pencil.”

“No, no, NO!”

Billy has had enough.

And so has Mrs. Z.

She gives Billy a time out in the far corner.

I have now witnessed a scene that has become a familiar one for Billy and Mrs. Z.

So this is where I come in.

What can we do to change Billy’s behavior? Not just manage it—CHANGE it. This is my goal.

With a child like Billy, two things always come to mind for me: either Billy can’t do the paper or Billy doesn’t want to do the paper. Either way, Billy has chosen the only social response he knows will work: “NO!” Since kids begin modeling social skills at the age of two, I know that I am witnessing a learned behavior. We don’t have any evidence at this point that Billy can’t do the work, so I’m going to tentatively assume he can.

Right now, however, the paper is less important than addressing the “NO.” In other words, I’m going to focus on teaching Billy some cooperation skills—those good old compliance skills that allow each one of us to at least give something a try. Like doing our letter R.

Don’t get me wrong—the paper is important, and we’ll get back to it. But for right now, it’s his social skills, not his academic skills that are getting in the way of his success.

I will tell you, this is a pattern I see all the time, from kindergarten to high school. Think about that the next time one of your students is getting in trouble with you—ask yourself, is it an academic skill they are missing, or a social skill? If it’s a social skill, teach them the social skill they need to use in order to complete the academic task. Believe me, they frequently go hand-in-hand.

At outdoor recess a peppy red-haired assistant in a bright yellow anorak takes everyone outside so Mrs. Z and I can talk. We come up with a plan for the afternoon. After recess, the children chatter to Mrs. Z as they return to the classroom. “Billy pushed me,” “Billy kicked me,” “Billy…” The assistant motions Billy to the front for a scold, but I don’t want Billy under the public spotlight anymore for his behavior if I can avoid it. So I intervene.

“Is it really getting cold out there?” I ask the children. “Look at your frosty cheeks!”

I make innocuous comments deliberately to distract their focus from Billy. The children respond to me. No one appears hurt, which is obviously key, and the reporting about Billy stops. Kids learn early on who the “bad” child is, and that can be a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy for kids who struggle. For now, I’m going to show the teacher how to start taking this particular kind of public heat off of Billy, while we work on generally turning things around for him.

The afternoon routine begins and the children start working on their art mobiles.

“Billy,” I say. “Let’s get working on your letter R paper so you can start your alphabet mobile.”

I know what response I’m going to get, and I get it. Billy says, “NO!”

Instead of even addressing his refusal, which is only going to lead to an escalation, I turn my attention from Billy to assist another child for a moment. Then I return to Billy.

“Billy, would you please pick out all the green crayons from the crayon box for fun time later?”

Billy stands up, walks over to the big candy cane-striped crayon box, and carefully picks out green crayons. All right! I think. We have a little compliance going here! And this is exactly what I am aiming for—a little experience of compliance for Billy.

A few minutes later, while happily gathering the right crayons, he knocks over a big aluminum tumbler holding paperclips.

He stops.

He looks at the class.

The other kids stop.

They look at Billy.

It’s as if all the children are holding their breath. They are waiting for the outcome.

The pattern has been there all day for us adults to see. And now we see it: Billy is the chosen scapegoat – and why not? He has poor social skills and gets much-needed attention when he misbehaves. In such a situation the adult must never contribute to the pattern, so I say nothing about the spilled paperclips.

“Wow, Billy, look at all those green crayons you found. You’ve got a good eye. Well done. Bring them over here, would you?”

Complying, Billy gathers all the green crayons up to his small chest and brings them to me.

“Thanks for getting the crayons for me, Billy,” I say. “I really needed them ready for later! If you didn’t get them, we wouldn’t be able to color at this table.” Billy’s dignity over the paperclips is preserved.

What’s a can of paperclips anyway? It is nothing. The crayons are the point. The cooperation is the point. Easing young Billy into skills that will better serve him is the point.

But, Billy still has to do his letter R paper.

“Anna, would you share your R paper with Billy?” I ask one of the children. “Show Billy how you do it and help him out.” For now, I’m more concerned with Billy interacting and complying than I am with making him do his paper by himself. After all, he’s only five.

Anna approaches Billy and I make sure it’s a friendly transition while Mrs. Z helps other children with their mobiles. Billy follows Anna’s lead. She seems to have a natural quality of caring for others. She plays “teacher.” Using Billy’s pencil, she begins writing on his paper. 

“These papers can be boring, but we just gotta do ‘em,” Anna says. You’d think I’d given the little girl her lines! Billy laughs. She traces a letter then tells Billy to do one. They take turns, and she reminds him to put his name on the paper, which he does.

Mrs. Z. moves Billy directly into the mobile art project and takes his R paper from his desk with a look of relief.

Mrs. Z and I stay after school to brainstorm ways to give Billy the experience of saying yes. We want to wean him from his knee-jerk no. We want to do it by teaching him the skill he doesn’t have, the yes skill. Meanwhile, it’s key that Billy not be scapegoated, so we brainstorm ways to bring him in to the classroom as an equal. And we discuss how to help with social skills out there on the playground. We can’t have him hitting and kicking.

It’s only a beginning. Billy’s going to take lots of work. When I’m back in the school next month, I’ll check in to see how Billy’s doing. He’s a little boy with a lot of cards stacked against him, but with a willing and committed teacher like Mrs. Z, Billy’s got a chance to head into First Grade with some new skills under his belt.


Polly Bath’s articles are about real people and real situations. Changes are made sufficient to protect everyone’s privacy. A veteran educator, she is a behavior consultant, trainer, author, and keynote speaker in the United States. Read more information on Polly Bath’s in-school workshops, consultations, summer institutes, and keynotes. And contact us to make arrangements for her to come to your school.