Dealing with Students’ Defense Mechanisms

By Anthony M. Wanjohi:
Defense mechanisms constitute unconscious psychological strategies that are brought into play by various entities to cope with reality and to maintain self-image (Vaillant, 1977). In a school set up, when students do strange things, teachers should work with them to find if there are other places from which they are displacing their energy. This should be followed by dealing with the real reason, not the displaced reason. Students (teachers too) may use various forms of defense mechanisms. These include denial, displacement, rationalization, projection, regression, repression among others. This article examines how teachers should deal with the students’ defense mechanisms.

Giving ‘space’ to students

Students may try to treat emotionally difficult situations in cold and illogical ways simply because they are unable to handle the emotion at that time. Teachers may decide to give them space at the moment so that they can maintain their dignity, although they may also decide to challenge them in a more appropriate time and setting. This is mainly because when one tries to challenge a student who is intellectualizing or rationalizing, they may fight back or switch to other forms of defense mechanisms which may result to harm in a classroom setup.

Watching against rationalization

Both teachers and learners should learn how to watch their own rationalizations. If one can be honest with themselves and with other people, they can gain esteem for their courage and integrity. In persuasion, teachers should offer learners with logical reasons that people can use to rationalize their compliance with their arguments. Sometimes people disagree simply because they do not want to agree with you, such as with students and teachers, teenagers and parents or perhaps do not like to feel persuaded. Thus students should be given reasons to focus on the substance rather than the persuader.

Dealing with regressive symptoms

If the student is showing regressive symptoms, the teacher can respond to their child state in several ways, including taking a parent position of authority (nurturing or controlling) or join them in their child place (thus building alignment).


Teachers should concentrate more on helping those students who tend to cause problems to themselves and others instead of punishing them. They should make them to be aware of the boundary activities where sublimated energy may switch back into unwanted or anti-social actions or other, less positive coping mechanisms.

Examining students’ repressions

When a student is being defensive in some way, teachers should think about the repressions that may be at the root of their problem. They should also listen for speech errors and other signals from the subconscious. They can even start a conversation about recent weird dreams and then listen for further symbols, though one should be cautious with this, since dreams can be very symbolic. Teachers should help a student to recover from the discomfort and dysfunction that repression brings by digging out the original memory. If one has caused another to have stress and they feel unable to respond, one may find that they act as if nothing had taken place. This is a rather common characteristic of persuasive conditions.


Dealing with defense mechanisms in a classroom situation can be tricky since it does not only involve students but teachers too. Although teachers have a wider responsibility in dealing with students’ defense mechanisms, they can also be victims of the same. Therefore, high level of maturity is required from the teachers in order to adequately deal with the students’ defense mechanisms.


Vaillant, G.E. (1977). Adaptation to life. Boston: Little, Brown.