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Study of Defiant Behaviour using Vygotsky’s Theory



Defiant behaviour in children can be very frustrating. However, as Vgotsky’s theory of child development states, defiant behaviour in children is normal in children as they grow up. However, it is important that children be monitored for their defiant behaviour because as Gale (2015) says, defiant behaviour in children may be an indication that later on in life the child will suffer from conduct disorder, a psychiatric problem that affects some children. According to Vgotsky’s theory, children exhibit different behaviours as they grow up and as their mind develop. His studies found out that during childhood, children experience four  developmental crises and these occur at the following ages, 1,3,7, and 13. During these ages, children exhibit negative behaviours. Vgotsky identified seven defiant behaviours that are exhibited by children and these include negativism, stubbornness, protest, devaluation, obstinacy, despotism and wilfulness. This study studies defiant behaviour in 3 year olds and 4 year olds as they play in a field in a bid to determine whether the children’s behaviour is consistent with Vgotsky’s theory and to determine how this information can be used. Specifically, the study focuses on negativism, stubbornness, protest and wilfulness.

Literature Review

According to Vygotsky’s theory, the development of children is a process that is affected by the social environment in which the child is. He recognised that children first grow due to the interactions with others and then due to challenging themselves. In his studies on child development, Vygotsky found that children go through four crisis stages and these stages are characterised by changes in the way in which children interact with others-their peers and adults. These stages are years 1, 3, 7, and 13. During these stages, children exhibit deviant behaviour which Vygotsky (1997, p. 191) described as “stormy, impetuous and sometimes catastrophic”. These defiant behaviour are an indication that the child is developing which is associated with critical changes and conflict. He was quick to caution people from interpreting this deviant behaviours as a disease as these behaviours help in the understanding of the inner life of children at these ages (Vygotsky, 1997). Of the above four crises periods, age three produces the most distinct deviant behaviour and children at this age prove to be difficult for early childhood teachers (van der Veer & Valsiner, 1994). Particularly, at this stage the problematic behaviour is seen in how the children relate to adults.

A number of deviant behaviours were described by Vygotsky (1997). These behaviours are indicative of the children’s desire to become independent and autonomous especially at the age of 3 and explains why 3 year olds keep on defying their parents (Keefer, 2011). As the children exhibit these deviant behaviours, they are able to grow and become independent and this ensures that the children develop. The following are some of the deviant behaviours that Vygotsky described. Negativism is one of the defiant behaviours exhibited during these crisis periods and is defined as when a child acts contrary to his/her desire in a defiant manner. Stubbornness is the other defiant behaviour and is characterised by a child insisting on something that he does not want but is demanding. Wilfulness on the other hand means the tendency to  refuse help in doing tasks, instead preferring to perform an action on their own. Protest as the last defiant behaviour refers to the act of the child contesting decisions and arguing against them which leads to conflicts.

The other years, for instance years 4,5,6,  are associated with stable characters with no stormy deviant behaviours. However, other studies have found a number of factors in these ages that lead to child deviant behaviours. For instance, a study by Gale (2000) showed that children can exhibit deviant behaviour depending on the parent they are interacting with. A child may show defiant behaviour when dealing with the mother but act well when dealing with the father. Miller (1999) also found that when a black mother uses negative control method on the child, the child is likely to develop defiant behaviour than if they were whites. This means that the parenting style of a parent also determines the development of defiant behaviour.


Data was collected from a pre-school centre. The  teacher in charge of the children was contacted and asked for permission to observe the children to which permission was granted. The children were observed as they played for 3 days. Data was collected on 3 year olds as they clearly exhibit defiant behaviour according to Vygotsky (1997). As the child enters year 4, the child should have stabilised in terms of behaviours.

The above data is the raw data collected. Children exhibited defiant behaviour toward the teacher, their peers and even the objects they were playing with. At the centre there were swings, balls, cars and bicycles for the children to play with.









Child 1 Adult f 3 XX XX X X   6 37.5%
  Sibling/peers     XX X XX X 16 6 37.5%
  Name the objects     X X X X  


4 25%
Child 2 Adult m 4 X X X XX   5 41.7%
  Sibling/peers     XX   XX   12 4 33.3%


  Name the objects     X   X X   3 25%
Child 3 Adult m 3 X XXX X     5 35.7%
  Sibling/peers     X X XX X 14 5 35.7%


  Name the objects     X X   XX   4 28.6%
Child 4 Adult f 4 X XX X X   5 33.3%
  Sibling/peers     X X X XX 15 5 33.3%
  Name the objects     XX   XX X   5 33.3%


Among the 3 year old participants, deviant behaviour was mostly directed towards adults, followed by peers and the least was directed towards objects.

Among the 4 year old participants, the findings were inconsistent with the female child directing deviant behaviour towards the three variables equally while the male child showed more deviant behaviour towards adult more, followed by peers and last to objects.

Overall, out of the 57 observations made,  28.1% were stubbornness, and gender and age were not found to be predictors of stubbornness.

22.8% observations were related to stubbornness with 3 year olds exhibiting more stubbornness than their 4-year old counterparts.

21.1% of the observations were related to wilfulness with no particular pattern being observed based on age and gender. Most of the children showed a high level of wilfulness.

22.8% of the behaviours exhibited was negativism with almost all children showing negativism equally.

Question 3

The study findings are in line with Vgotsky’s observations that children who are three year old mostly tend to exhibit deviant behaviour towards adults as they try to establish their independence. From the study results, the highest percentage of defiant behaviour in 3 year olds were directed towards adults. However, these findings fail to support Vgotsky’s observations that age 3 is more tumultuous in terms behaviour compared to age 4. Based on the study, most of the children exhibit more of object-oriented behaviour than other behaviours.

The study findings are also contrary to findings by Keefer (2005). According to the findings by Keefar (2005), three year olds exhibit defiance mostly to adults, followed by objects and lastly to peers. This is not the case in this study where 3 year old children direct their deviant behaviour towards adults, followed by peers and lastly to objects. Most children had about the same level of possessiveness towards objects regardless of their age and gender just as Keefar’s (2005) study found. Overall, 3 year olds showed a higher level of deviance towards their peers compared to 4 year olds. This is in contrast to the findings by  Keefar’s (2005) who found that children during a crisis periods, 3 year olds in this case, are less likely to show peer-oriented violence compared to children who are not experiencing the crisis period.

This difference in observations of Vgotsky and Keefar could be due to other factors that are related to the development of the child such as the gender of the teacher. Being a female teacher, this may have influenced the attitude of the children. Moreover, how the children have been brought up including how a child interacts with the parents may also have contributed to different results.

Question 4

These results have implications. They are not consistent with the findings by Vygotsky and Keefar, especially for the four year olds. This calls for more observations of the children to ensure that they are normal because behaviour is expected to stabilise once a child enters the age of 4. In as much as Vygotsky (1997) says that these defiant behaviours are no cause for alarm as they are a normal way of children development, they need to be monitored.  Gale (2015) says, defiant behaviour in children may be an indication that later on in life the child will suffer from conduct disorder, a psychiatric problem that affects some children. As Gabel (1997) says, behavioural problems among children has become a major problem of late. Nowadays children are commonly being diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder which is characterised by among other things the tendency to be argumentative, being non-compliant, common loss of temper and negativity (Stiefel and Renner, 2004). The results also help to further understanding on children development in the childcare setting. The results also help to further understanding on child development. The results confirm that children express different forms of deviance-object, adult and peer related deviance.


Deviant behaviours in children are ‘normal’ according to Vygotsky as they are just an indication that the child is developing cognitively and mentally. Unfortunately, deviant behaviour in children has also been associated with conduct disorders. As such, there is a need for children to be observed and their behaviour determine whether it is just a part of growing up or an indication of a more serious problem. In this study, the four year olds largely  exhibit deviant behaviour in a manner similar with the three year olds. Based on Vygtosky, this should not be the case as the age of four is not characterised by a developmental crisis. This calls for further investigation of the children.

Reflection Questions

  1. a) To determine if Vygotsky’s findings on child development are still applicable in today’s childcare settings. This can help to diagnose ‘abnormal’ deviant behaviours and take action early to prevent the child from developing conduct problems later on in life
  2. b) Yes. This study has managed to find results that are consistent with Vygotsky’s findings and Kapeer’s findings. The results have also found results that differ from the findings of these two scholars and these call for further investigations to determine if they are indicative of a more serious problem.
  3. c) The strongest aspect of this work is use of primary data. Primary data is data that has been collected by a researcher for use in a given study. It is not usually used in any other study. The primary data used in this study helps to ensure that the perspective seen is original and that it brings new information to the field.

d)One area that needs reworking is the sample size. For conclusions to be made from 4 children it is a serious shortcoming. There is a possibility that individual factors may be at play which can affect the final results.




















Gabel, S. (1997). The grade school child: Development and syndromes. New York: Wiley.

Gale (2015). Difficult behavior in young children may point to later problems. Mental Health        Weekly Digest, 26 Jan.

Gale. (2000). 5-year-old acts defiant with mother. Contemporary Paediatrics, 17(11), p.34.

Keefer, L. (2011). The Utility of Vygotskian Behavioral Criteria in the Early Childhood    Classroom: Learning from Non-compliance. Journal of Educational and Development Psychology, 1(1), 184-192

Keefer, R. (2005). A defiant behavior in two and three year olds: A Vygotskian approach. Early Childhood Educational Journal, 33(2), 105-111

Miller, D.W. (1999). Harsh discipline fails to ward off misbehavior. The Chronicle of Higher        Education, 45(32), A22.

Stiefel, I. and Renner, P. (2004). Beyond behaviour-the importance of communication and           connection in parenting ‘defiant’ children: pilot study and program. Australian & New      Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 25(2), 84-93.

Van der Veer, R., & Valsiner, J. (1994). The Vygotsky reader. Oxford: Blackwell.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1997). Analysis of higher mental functions. In R.W. Rieber (Ed.), The history of             the development of higher mental functions, Vol. 4. Collected works (pp. 65-82). New           York: Plenum.