How To Handle Students Who Lie And Deny

Students Who Lie And DenyWhile observing your class gather materials for a science experiment, you notice a student kicking the heels of the boy in front of them.

But because you’re in the good habit of letting misbehavior play out, you decide to watch a bit longer before jumping in.

You see the boy turn and ask the student to stop.

After a brief pause, however, the student resumes the practice. You mentally record every move, and as soon as they sit down, you approach.

The student sees you coming and before you can even get all the words out (“I saw you kicking Darren and—”), they begin aggressively denying.

“That’s not true! I didn’t do anything. Oh my gosh! I wasn’t kicking anyone.”

Your first inclination is to refute the student’s claims, to prove that you’re right and they’re wrong.

“Yes, you were. I saw you with my own eyes from across the room. Now stop lying and take responsibility for your actions.”

But doing so would draw you into an argument. It would put you on equal footing with the student. It would turn into a your-word-against-theirs battle royal.

This is a common situation, one so many teachers find themselves stuck in every day. It’s frustrating. It’s stressful. It puts you at odds with your students and turns you into the ogre you never wanted to be.

The good news is that it’s entirely avoidable. All of it—the lying, the denying, the arguing, and the stress—it’s all avoidable using the following three steps:

 1. Know the truth.

You should only approach a student to give a consequence when you know the truth. This underscores the importance of letting misbehavior play out, of eliminating any plausible deniability, of leaving no doubt who is responsible and what rule was broken.

If you’re unsure, then get to the bottom of it first before confronting the student. This step alone will save you a mountain of headaches. Still, like the teacher above, it isn’t always enough to avoid a confrontation. The next two steps are crucial.

 2. Enforce.

With the truth on your side, there is no reason for debate. There is no reason to ask why. There is no reason to allow the student to lie to you or deny their involvement. Simply approach and say, “You have a warning (or time-out) because you broke rule number three.”

Most often, that’s all you need to say. However, if you’re uncertain they know what misbehavior you’re referring to, then you can add, “You were kicking Darren while getting science materials.”

 3. Move on.

After delivering your consequence, turn on your heel and walk away. Nothing else needs to be said, and waiting for a response is an invitation to argue. Because you’ve taught, modeled, and practiced your classroom management plan thoroughly, the student knows exactly what this means.

They know you have them dead to rights. They know that in your classroom, rules that protect learning and enjoyment are sacred and nonnegotiable. They know that arguing, denying, or complaining is fruitless.

The only thing left for them to do is take responsibility.

Avoidance Is The Key

Many teachers contact us wanting to know how to respond when students lie, yell, throw tantrums, refuse to go to time-out, or engage in other aggressively willful behaviors, and we gladly cover these topics.

But the trick is to avoid them from happening to begin with. The three-step strategy above is a perfect example.

By calmly—even matter-of-factly—delivering your consequences with truth on your side, and then walking away, you avoid the behaviors students have used since time immemorial to sidestep accountability.

You avoid the arguments and protestations. You avoid the deceptions and shocked faces. You avoid the manipulations that have worked with so many other adults in their life, including teachers.

And here’s the thing:

When you do what you say you will, when you handle accountability fairly and consistently, when you show your students how much you care by safeguarding their right to learn and enjoy school without interference, chaos, or drama . . .

They’ll love and respect of you because of it.

Note: We’ll be taking next week off to celebrate Thanksgiving, but will be back with a new article December 6th.

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17 Responses to How To Handle Students Who Lie And Deny

  1. GReece March 29, 2015 at 10:51 am #

    What do you do when you have followed the above suggestions but the parent believes the child rather than the teacher and interferes with the consequences you issue?

    • Michael Linsin March 29, 2015 at 4:42 pm #

      Hi GReece,

      How the parent feels about it isn’t your concern. If they confront you, just give the facts and move on. For more on how to speak to parents, click here. As for interfering with your consequences, you shouldn’t leave any room or possibility for that to happen.


  2. Emily April 2, 2015 at 11:24 am #

    At what point should one seek further treatment of repeat offenders? I’ve one student (2nd grader) who lies about his work once or twice a week. His work is passed out to him, he stuffs it into his chair pocket, and busies himself with something else. The stuffing away of the blank worksheet is something I personally witness. When I use your techniques to confront him and administer a consequence, he meets with me later with the insistence he did the work but “offers to do it again”. This work that is at his level, so I don’t believe difficulty is the problem.

    I’ve given him opportunities to “find” the work he swears he turns in. I’m keeping the parents informed. As of yet, this kid still staunchly tells everyone he did the work.

    Consequences are being given and his “repeat work” is getting done, but it’s a headache. I’m not sure whether to or even how to kick this up to the next level, whether a counselor should get involved, or what.

    What would be the signs that more intervention is needed?

    • Michael Linsin April 3, 2015 at 7:36 am #

      Hi Emily,

      If I understand you clearly, this is a situation that is best handled in class. I’ve written about this topic in different places in the past, but I’ll be sure to cover it more specifically in the future.


  3. Ilene July 14, 2015 at 7:36 am #

    This is great advice although I can easily see my students approach me after class and try to present their case still. I’m which case I’m stuck having to listen to their excuses. My students are in middle school and from China where lying to save face is the norm. They have no problem lying to the teacher because they don’t see it as wrong as long as they don’t get their consequence. Here’s where I feel in a bind. Do I simply ignore them if they approach me?

    • Michael Linsin July 14, 2015 at 4:06 pm #

      Hi Ilene,

      You can politely tell them that it’s over and thus no reason to discuss it.


  4. Victoria August 1, 2015 at 6:29 pm #

    Hi Michael,

    This is great advice, and what I do when I see a student misbehaving. However, I will regularly have one student tell me that another student did something (kicked him under the desk, for instance) that I didn’t see. What do you do in that situation? Ask for witnesses, make a judgment about which student is more trustworthy, say that if the teacher didn’t see it, there’s no punishment? I teach middle school, if it makes a difference. Thanks for your advice!

  5. Emily Young August 19, 2015 at 11:06 am #

    We are in a discipline professional development meeting, and I was curious to hear how you would handle the following scenario as far as consequences, parent contact, what to do if you determined that it was actually a forgery, etc.

    Hypothetical scenario:

    “While collecting progress reports, you notice Dora’s parent signature looks a lot like her handwriting. When you ask her about it, she tells you that her parents are out of town and so her grandmother signed it. Dora doesn’t have a history of not telling the truth, yet this has happened.”

  6. Ibidunni September 17, 2015 at 6:16 am #

    This is an eye opener. Thanks for sharing.

    • Michael Linsin September 17, 2015 at 6:49 am #

      You’re welcome, Ibidunni.


  7. Jill December 7, 2015 at 5:57 pm #

    What if the student refused to look at you or even acknowledge that you have said anything. The student I have in mind is on the radar for a psych assessment for behavioural issues ( possible ODD or on the spectrum). When approached for similar situations or at anytime when he is not doing what is expected he flees the room, or hides under his desk. My strategies so far are to not approach him and wait for him to come around. Talking to him never gets anywhere. Am I doing the right thing?

    • Michael Linsin December 8, 2015 at 7:48 am #

      Hi Jill,

      There is no requirement for the student to say anything or make any acknowledgement. As for refusing a consequence, this is a topic we’ve written extensively about in the past. Please refer to the Time-Out category of the archive.


  8. Michelle in Philadelphia December 10, 2015 at 5:06 pm #

    I teach children with autism in a self-contained setting at a neighborhood school in a large city on the east coast. I have snack time at the end of the day when I provide students with a snack. The snack is contingent on satisfactory behavior. I have a clear non-negotiable list of rules about what will cause a student to lose snack. Behaviors that will cause a student to lose snack include aggressive behavior and lying.

    I have one student who usually gets snack, but has anger issues and at times will lose snack. He is also a habitual lier. In order to deal with the lying, I made that an automatic way to lose snack. If I sense that a child is lying, I will give him one chance to tell the truth. If he sticks with the lie, I take away the snack. Well this boy (3rd grader) will throw an aggressive tantrum and topple furniture, try to punch me, chase other students in anger, and so forth when he doesn’t get his snack. I will take out my cell phone and tell him I will call his mother. That usually works, but one day it did not. So what I did was I gave him 3 warnings to straighten up, namely, stop throwing the tantrum and pick up the furniture and the mess he made. I told him if he did not do it within the 3 warnings, I would take away snack for the next day. He did not straighten up and I followed through and took away his snack the next day. And that worked.

    It seemed a little cruel that he already had a strike for the next day, but I had to do what I had to do. And the fact that I put my foot down by taking the next day’s snack has kept him in line ever since when he has lost his snack.

  9. Meg Sumner May 11, 2016 at 9:19 pm #

    I have a question, similar to the original situation presented. I’m dealing with middle-schoolers all day, many of whom have some special needs or untreated ADHD. It is typical for them to throw pens, then fully deny it when I tell them I saw it happen. At other times I see them reach over and punch-squeeze-or grab another student in full view. When approached, after I’ve confirmed what happened, I get, “Are you serious?” and complete denial. “Are you serious?” is something I hear about 100 times per day. Any attempt at control is met with shock that they are being called out.

    I am not the class teacher but a permanent instructional aide.

    • Michael Linsin May 12, 2016 at 6:58 am #

      Hi Meg,

      What they say in response is irrelevant. Your job is to hold them accountable when they break a class rule.