Harry Wong
Dec 2017
Vol 14 No 4

Counterwill: The most Misunderstood, Misinterpreted Dynamic in Teacher-Student Relationships.

By Dr. Marvin Marshall

“Counterwill” is the name for the natural human resistance to being controlled.

Although adults experience this phenomenon, we seem to be surprised when we encounter it in young people. Counterwill is the most misunderstood and misinterpreted dynamic in teacher-student relationships.

This instinctive resistance can take many forms—refusal to do what is asked, resistance when told, disobedience or defiance, and lack of motivation. Counterwill can manifest itself in procrastination or in doing the opposite of what is expected. It can be expressed as passivity, negativity, or argumentativeness and is such a universal phenomenon at certain stages of development that it has given rise to the term “rebellious teens.”

Consider the rebellious teenager. I believe most theories about the stresses and strains of adolescence overlook the main issue. Reasons for adversarial relationships have focused on physical changes, emerging sexuality, new social demands, struggles between being a child and becoming an adult, delayed development of the neocortex of the brain, and other such suggestions. It is true that teenagers, by virtue of their hormonal changes, are prone to be emotionally volatile, unpredictable, self-absorbed, and hypersensitive. However, upon a closer observation, we can conclude that a major factor in this period of life—which is difficult for both adolescents and teachers—has its foundation in power struggles.

Despite the myriad of manifestations, the underlying dynamic is deceptively simple: a defensive reaction to felt coercion. On a side note, the totally noncoercive (but not permissive) Discipline Without Stress Teaching Model totally bypasses any feeling of counterwill. The reason is that students never refer to or have compunction to defend their behavior because a level of development is referred to—not the student’s behavior directly. See the teaching model:

Counterwill is normal in toddlers, preschoolers, and students of all ages—as well as in adults. This phenomenon explains the reason that some youth are preoccupied with taboos and why they sometimes do the opposite of what is expected. Adults and teachers misinterpret counterwill in a young person as a manifestation of being strong willed, as being manipulative, as trying to get one’s way, or as intentionally pushing the adult’s buttons. Trying to deal with this dynamic by using traditional coercive techniques is a recipe for disaster because no one likes being pushed—including young people.

The antidote to counterwill is to avoid prompting feelings of being coerced. The key is to focus on influence—rather than on obedience. The art of influence is to induce people to influence themselves. Teachers who aim at influencing—rather than dominating—have more success, less stress, and greater joy in their relationships with their students.

The practice of telling students to do something is often perceived as being coercive. The inference is that what they are doing is not good enough and that they need to change. The key to avoid prompting feelings of coercion and counterwill is to prompt students to reflect—thereby redirecting their attention and thinking. Here are three magic questions to memorize and have at tongue-tip for various situations when you believe counterwill is involved:

1. Would you be willing to try something different if it benefits you?
2. What would an extraordinary person do in this situation?
3. Are you angry with me or with the situation?

For the student who often acts irresponsibly, here is a set of four questions that reduces any feelings of counterwill and lead to more responsible behavior:

1. What do you want?
2. Is what you are doing getting what you want? (This question prompts reflection.)
3. If what you are choosing to do is not getting you want, then what is your plan?
4. What is your procedure to implement the plan? (Without a procedure, the plan has little chance of being implemented.)

Successful teachers understand that relationships are critical for motivating students. They avoid anything that prompts counterwill in the form of negativity or that aims at obedience. Instead they aim at promoting responsibility and collaboration.


More about Marvin Marshall’s totally noncoercive (but not permissive) approach to promote responsibility and increase learning is at http:/ where you can also subscribe to the monthly newsletter “Promoting Responsibility and Learning.”

About the Author

Dr.MMarshall lrgrDr. Marvin Marshall teaches how to undo the stress and punishment culture prevalent in so many schools, homes, and work relationships. He shows how to use authority without coercion so relationships are not adversely affected. His Discipline Without Stress is the only system hat is totally noncoercive—but never permissive.

He is the author of Discipline without Stress®: How Teachers and Parents Promote Responsibility & Learning. This landmark publication is used around the world. The book shows how to handle every discipline problem, promote responsible behavior, and reduce apathy toward learning.

He is an international trainer who has presented in 25 countries on five continents and in 44 of the United States.

His website is a storehouse of free information. He also has an online course at

(More is at



Comment on this article...

Next Article...
This entry was posted on Friday, December 11th, 2015 and is filed under December 2015 January 2016, Marvin Marshall. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
Teachers.Net Gazette Vol.12 No.12 Dec 15-Jan 16
Cover Story by Sarah Powley
Under Discussion: Fishbowl
More Teacher Articles...
»Three Ways to Provide Support and Scaffolding to Struggling LearnersBarbara Blackburn
»Counterwill: The most Misunderstood, Misinterpreted Dynamic in Teacher-Student Relationships.Dr. Marvin Marshall
»Effective Teaching, Classroom Management Articles by Harry & Rosemary WongHarry K. & Rosemary Wong
»Disengaged: 10 Conversation Starters When Students are BoredJennifer Davis Bowman Ed.D.
»Mid-Year Reorganization Strategies- Help Students to be SuccessfulDede Rittman
»12 Surefire Ways for Both Co-Teachers to Actively Participate in the ClassroomSusan Fitzell
»The "Senior" Book ProjectTodd R. Nelson
»Coaching the Urban Educator: My Teachers Aren't Being Adequately PreparedDré Cleveland
»New Book: Welcome to the Symphony: A Musical Exploration of the Orchestra Using Beethoven's Symphony by Carolyn Sloan and James Williamson
»The Five Pillars of Islam: Lesson PlanInternet Scout Report
»Harvard Writing ProjectInternet Scout Report
»Apple Seeds - Quotes for Educators

By State
AL   AK   AZ   AR   CA   CO   CT   DE   DC   FL   GA   HI   ID   IL   IN   IA   KS   KY   LA    ME   MD   MA   MI   MN   MS   MO   MT   NE   NV   NH   NJ   NM   NY   NC   ND   OH   OK   OR   PA   RI   SC   SD   TN   TX   UT   VT     VA   WA   WV   WI   WY