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"No! You can't make me!" Working with Children Who are Extra Determined not to Listen!

Updated: Jan 30

I remember my first born, at 1.5 years, laid her eyes on an opened can of soda-pop. Her eyes grew large and she immediately navigated toward it with lightening speed. I scooped the can up, put it in the fridge, and told her "No. No pop." For the next 30 minutes, this tenacious youngster was completely focused on getting that beverage. I continued to put one obstacle after another in her way, distracting her in every way possible! Despite my best efforts, she continued to persist. This is because, after all, persistence was one of her stable and consistent temperament traits from birth. That girl did not (and still does not) give up.

Yes, temperament has been found to be stable over time and across situations. But, gratefully, there are ways to work with any temperament trait makeup, no matter how challenging, to help all children thrive.

To learn more about working with children with high persistence, read on or watch this video. You will quickly discover common challenging behaviors that arise from this trait, fuel that drives power struggles, and top strategies to help work with children who are relentlessly persistent and help build the positive side of the trait.

What does a child with high persistence act like?

  • Have difficulty stopping something and moving on to something

  • May resist or refuse to cooperate during transitions

  • Might “take over” or “bull-doze” others to get their own way

  • Need to control their pace so resists quick or adult-directed transitions

  • Lock in to power struggles and won't give up easily

  • Asks for something over and over and in many different ways.

  • Escalate behavior to get what they want (whine, then cry, scream, and eventually even sneaking the item.)

  • Express a strong desire to finish an activity before transitioning to next one

  • Determined to get something despite obstacles, sticking to tasks even when frustration is taking over.

If you have seen these behaviors, consistently over time, you are likely working with a child who has the trait "high persistence".

When working with difficult temperament traits such as high persistence, it helps to consider the positives sides of the trait. Remember, every trait is not inherently good or bad. Each has its own gifts! And, what might be challenging today may be of value tomorrow.

Though this trait can bring a lot of frustration to adult caregivers when children are young, these qualities also serve them well into adulthood. These children stick to their goals and won't give up despite setbacks and barriers in their way. They tend to be committed, decisive, assertive, and persuasive - a true leader!

This means, when they are learning new skills and the going gets tough, their determined spirit keep them trying. They remain committed to their goals, despite setbacks. They are known to be problem-solvers and can come up with creative solutions!

So, if persistence is so great, when does the trait tend to lead to a problem?

It can also be particularly challenging when the child's goal is different from our own (remember the pop can?) Many issues occur when the child wants something that is inappropriate or off-limits. It is frustrating for both when a child needs to finish a project in order to feel successful but it is time to go to snack (and you have a lot to do!) Admittedly, while living with adults, these youngsters are asked to move on for reasons beyond their control. They may resist a transition because, after all,

"Why should I stop playing with this elaborate train track setup I am working on to eat? I am not even hungry!" It is naturally more challenging for a child with a strong resolve to follow others or a group activity rather than what they want to do just based on the way they are uniquely wired to respond to the world.

Adults can reduce power struggles and the dreaded refusals if they avoid the "triggers" that set off the negative side of the trait. Part of successfully navigating difficult temperament traits includes considering what is painful or difficult for that person (based on their own unique temperament). For a child with high persistence, being asked to stop when super engaged in a high-interest activity is excruciating. So, a good fit includes making sure to prepare the child for how much time they have and what is coming next.

"We are going to stop playing in 10 minutes. How will you spend your last minutes playing with the train set?" Now, there are five minutes left. I can't wait to share snack together!"

Helping the child transition from the activity to what comes next will result in a smoother transition for all and avoid potential meltdowns.

Check out other common triggers and the top tip that matches.

One other trigger to consider is actually a persistent adult. Adults who tend to lock in themselves can also set off power struggles. After all, "It takes two to Tango" as my mother used to say. A child does not go to battle for power alone. So, if you are like me and have your own strong determination and resolve, remember to:

Work to "Find the yes within the no". In this video, you will discover a wonderful strategy for working with all young children. But, it works particularly well with those who are super persistent. It helps you avoid the "no" in the first place!

  • Pick your battles. Decide early on, is this really an important thing to lock in over? If it is, you must stay consistent to the end no matter the level of resistance. With persistent children, this takes a lot of effort. So, make sure it is worth it. You can often avoid challenges in the first place by avoiding saying "no" altogether when it is not truly important (and save yourself some stress!)

  • Help the child recognize to "final no". when there is no negotiation and it is your "final no" and move on. You might even continue to calmly repeat "No. This is my final no." until the child relents.

In our training on this topic, we ask the question, what does the child need to learn? After all, the child with high persistence needs to learn skills to truly thrive. Take the time to teach the child how to break a project down into manageable steps. Encourage the child to take a break when frustration is building. Help identify other times to resume what they were doing (maybe leaving that train set with a "Do not Disturb" sign to they can come back to it. When you have the opportunity, take the time to problem-solve what they can do next time.

Working with a child with a tendency to lock in is not easy. But, with the right tools and a plan to work with the child, give warning, limit and reduce transitions, and give the child choices when possible, it will help reduce power struggles and increase positive outcomes for the child. What you do will make a difference!

Thank you for reading this blog! We truly are more together!

Raelene Ostberg, Early Childhood Specialist and Lifelong Learner

To view a list of currently offered live webinars and self-paced learning opportunities with Raelene, visit

Transitions resources to help children with high persistence to change activities:


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