Denial blah-blah-blah Denial

Some of our students with behavioural issues are masters of agitating peers, being defiant, and avoiding work. They have a wide and well-practiced arsenal of tactics for weaseling out of responsibility: the Nomothetic Fallacy, denial, distraction, “forgetting”, dismissal of the importance of what they did, wanting a “fresh start”, trivializing events or redefining the significance of their actions, hollow apologies, feigning victimhood, or personal attacks.

Three different events (all with the same student) provide a number of examples. What’s notable here are several things. Firstly, the amount of denial-of-responsibility going on. Secondly, the argumentative quality and argumentative quantity (a form of work-avoidance). Lastly, the frequency of switching from one tactic to the next as I (or another staff member) ignore the baits and keep the conversation focused on what really happened and his responsibility.

I follow up on a student in his next classroom, in pursuit of a calculator. For some reason, he’d spent the last quarter-hour playing with the calculator, to the exclusion of doing actual assignment work.
“I don’t have it; I left it in the room,” he asserts.
I press on, “I didn’t see the calculator there. Where did you put it?”
More denial, as he answers, “On my desk, with the math book.”
“You’re supposed to put your materials away when you’re done with them. The calculator is not in the tray or on your desk. You need to give it back.”
A teacher joins me, “Well where did you put it, then? Is it in your pockets?”
After a few more rounds of this, the student checks his pockets and (amazingly!) pulls out the calculator. Oh my, he forgot he put it in his pocket! No wait, he didn’t mean to put it in his pocket – rather, he was just borrowing it! Oh, it doesn’t matter, it’s just a cheap calculator anyway. Blah, blah, blah. He shifts effortlessly from denial to excuses to trivialization.
“Oh well,” he asserts, “you have it back now, so we can just forget about all this,” (the “fresh start” tactic).
No, we can’t. It’s still stealing and lying, and he is still responsible for his actions.

“I’m sorry the ball hit you.”
Despite the words, this isn’t really a true apology; it’s just pro forma. The student is apologising on behalf of the ball. But the ball did not rise of its own accord and hit me; rather, he hit me with the ball. There’s even an undercurrent that the actual target of the ball may have been someone else. Here the student is denying responsibility by claiming the event was unintentional. In truth, the student threw the ball in an entirely wrong direction, towards the people who were clustered together by a wall, instead of toward the rest of the otherwise-empty gymnasium.
“It’s gym class; everyone gets hit by balls,” he protests, trying to redefine what issue is.
“No, you had been told twice before to throw or kick the ball in another direction away from people.”
“Oh, that’s just my defiance,” the student explains cheerful tone of voice, with a grin that is really more of a baring-of-teeth grimace. The happy tone and “smile” belie the emotion; this cheerless grin involves the mouth but not the eyes, and the message behind the words is about denial rather than sharing peaceful or positive things. This form of denial mingles with the Nomothetic Fallacy, where a person believes that naming the problem is equivalent to solving it. Merely being aware of and naming the problem doesn’t solve any of the causative factors.
I sigh. “Naming the problem doesn’t absolve you of responsibility.”
“What’s ‘absolve’?” he asks.
My bad; I tend to assume that high school students have high-school level vocabulary. “It means that you’re still responsible for what you did.”
“How come you use so many big words no one’s heard of?” He doesn’t really care; he’s just trying to sidetrack me with questions.
“No, the issue here is about what you did.”

“You give me no joy,” comes his complaint, as I bring him his unfinished third-hour assignment to complete during eighth hour. This earns nothing more than a raised eyebrow from me. After all, fun is something you make, not something that happens to you.
I stick with the facts of the situation, “You’re graded on how much work you complete, not how much time you sit in the classroom, or how long it takes you.”
Now he’s trying the victim gambit, “It’s not my fault you guys give me so much work. This is too confusing. No one ever explains it.”
“Two different staff members explained how to do this. You have done four problems already, and you did them correctly. The others are done the same way.”
“I can’t do this; I’m too tired. Besides, you brought the wrong calculator – you know I like the blue one.”
I’m not even going there; the calculator he’s holding has equally large buttons. “You need to open up your textbook and get started.”
He switches tactics, criticising my qualifications with contradictory statements, “If you have college degrees, then how come you’re just a para? You can’t even teach me how to do this stuff.”
“The student is responsible for their part of the learning. If you don’t have this down yet, then you need more practice.”

These are the sorts of students that I find the most fatiguing to deal with. After three semesters I have become much more adept at spotting these tactics and dealing with them. Fortunately the students switch rooms every 45 minutes, which helps the staff from getting excessively worn down by any one student.

When you’re faced with such situations, here are some measures you can take:

  • Don’t get distracted by arguments about what the rules are, who sets them, the importance of rules, or anyone’s qualifications to enforce the rules. Keep focused on what actually happened.
  • Don’t argue about anyone’s “intentions” – intentions are covert (unseen). Focus on what the individual did, and what they are responsible for.
  • Don’t get distracted with someone else’s deeds, motivations or punishments. Stick to the facts: what this person said and did, and what the results were of those actions.
  • Don’t debate past events or possible events; stick to what the person needs to do now. This last part, “stick to what the person needs to do now” is important, especially for those who avoid work by endlessly debating about definitions and loopholes and perceived injustices and what other people ought to do.

This cartoon is “Pearls Before Swine”, (C) 2007 by Stephen Pastis, United Features Syndicate:

(Description: a three-panel cartoon with Pig and Rat standing by kitchen counters.

In the first panel, Pig points to shards of a broken cup that are laying on the floor, and asks Rat, “Hey, Rat … did you break my coffee mug?” and Rat (who is holding his own mug) replies, “No … I just bumped it with my elbow.” In the second panel is a close-up drawing of Rat, who is pointing to the countertop, and explains, “While the force of my elbow did indeed move it from its position of rest and toward the edge of the counter, it was gravity that took over at that point and sucked it toward the surface of the earth.” In the last panel, Pig responds, “Sorry for blaming you.” Rat turns to leave the scene (and the cup shards still laying on the floor), answering, “No problemo.”)


  1. Melissa Sorrells said,

    4 September 2008 at 16:37

    Hello Andrea,

    I requested a Google search on Nomothetic Fallacies and

    found your article “Denial-blah-blah-blah-Denial”. While

    you specifically reference your thoughts toward education

    and students, I could not help but relate these same

    responses and behaviours to those of my husband. I am

    desperately trying to “understand him” and his “unique

    personaility”. I’ve finally identified some of his traits

    through my research on nomothetic fallacis and am

    wondering if you have any comments on how the similar

    situtions you’ve elaborated on can arise in


    Thanks for an eye-opening article!

  2. qw88nb88 said,

    13 May 2007 at 23:52

    These are very good points, Astrid. I agree with you.

    What I am meaning is not that intentions don’t matter, but rather that what we need to focus upon is what the students actually do, rather than what we think their intentions might be. Because they are covert, the student can argue (until the cows come home) about what their intentions were, but that doesn’t change what the student actually did.

    And yes, we do have students who have specific learning difficulties and are slow to learn things or to do specific things. There’s also a big difference in how even this particular student behaves when slowly completing assignments and accepting assistance, and when he’s just messing around and making up excuses. Being slow to acquire skills and complete things certainly makes one frustrated, too. We work to help students by reducing their assignment loads, giving them extra time to complete work, scribing for them, and so on, as described here:
    and here:
    I deal with some of these issues myself:

    That does not however, give a student just cause to cuss at, threaten, make sexually inappropriate remarks to, or hit staff members or their peers, or to steal equipment or personal possessions.

  3. 13 May 2007 at 21:49

    I do not know this student so will assume your description of him is correct, but please beware of too much generalization here. Especially the part where you say intentions don’t matter, makes me think: sometimes, really, inability can look like unwillingness. That doesn’t make unacceptable behavior resulting from it any more acceptable, but it does require a somewhat different approach. Perhaps the student IS truly very slow with class assignments, for whatever reason. Telling him that it doesn’t matter how long he’s taking to complete his work, is invalidating his effort. I’m not saying you can’t tell apart inability and unwillingness, it’s just that I’m speaking from the perspective of someone whose motives are pretty often questioned when I face a genuine difficulty.

  4. 13 May 2007 at 11:40

    The lad criticising your qualifications doesn’t know how bloody lucky he is! Had you been a typically-trained school or clinical psychologist, the intentions would have been paramount in how you’d have been taught to do your job; you show a better way of working here, and the lad should be made aware of that, to be honest.

    I was given the typically-trained lot and they basically made a total bollocks of things.

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