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Defusing Power Struggles: It's Not About Getting the Last Word

Dr. Allen Mendler

Author, speaker, educator
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Mrs. Nelson is teaching a lesson when she notices Mason's head on his desk with distracting noises coming from him. She cruises his way while still teaching, leans in as she nears him and quietly reminds him to sit up and stop making noises. As she walks away and resumes teaching, Mason mumbles an inappropriate epithet that contains denial of the deed and offensive language. Other students sitting nearby turn their attention away from the lesson, collectively showing a look along with a few "oohs" that unmistakably challenges their teacher with the question, "What are you going to do about it?" Mrs. Nelson stops the lesson, stares at Mason and in a scolding manner asks, "What did you say?" The power struggle is on!

Many power struggles start over issues of consequences, fairness, embarrassment and being told what to do. The typical power struggle occurs when the teacher makes a request and a student refuses to comply. Not wanting to look weak and ineffectual, the teacher responds to the non-compliance in a more adamant tone demanding compliance. Not wanting to look bad and back down in front of other kids, the student mutters something nasty. The race is on for the last word. Who is going to win? Since neither side wants to back down, things escalate to the point where the student is sent out. Sadly, winning becomes who is going to look less bad. There is a better way!

The Most Effective Word

When my daughter was a teenager, her last word during a disagreement was often a snooty "whatever." Although I would get annoyed at her insolence, I came to realize that almost always her "whatever" was followed by grudging compliance. I had actually won! She was doing what I asked, although not happily. The challenge for me was to stay focused on the outcome without getting trapped by my anger at her attitude. The same dynamic holds when working with difficult students.

The wisdom is for educators to be satisfied with "the most effective word," and this almost always comes next-to-last. When students disrupt, keep the focus on stopping the behavior quickly so that you can get back to teaching while keeping the offending student present -- if at all possible. Make it difficult for students to get kicked out. Deal more fully with the issue after class when you have more time. Most important is to let your students know that you will not always be stopping class to deal with an incident of misbehavior. Ideally, this is done at the beginning of the school year or semester when defining procedures and expectations. You need to phrase things in a manner that is comfortable for you, although you want to capture the essence of the examples that follow.

Great Expectations

  • "Some of you in this class this year may say rude, nasty, inappropriate, mean things. I just want to let you all know right now that, beginning today, I will not always be stopping the lesson to deal with it. It doesn't mean I didn't hear it, and it doesn't mean I'm not going to do anything about it. It just means I think teaching is more important in that moment. Is there anything you all don't understand?"
  • "There will be times this year in this class that I will be dropping by your desk with an individual message that is for your ears only. I just want to let you all know right now -- I will not be sharing this message with anyone else in this class. The individual message will be between that student and me and nobody else!"
  • "There will often be consequences given for disruptive behavior this year. However, the consequences will almost always be given privately, and I will almost never discuss one person's consequence with any other person in this class. As a result, although it may look as if I am ignoring inappropriate behavior, consequences are usually given later for two reasons: I am not going to give up our learning time, and I am not interested in embarrassing or being embarrassed by anyone in front of everyone else."

After class is the time to give a consequence or to more fully explore the behavior while seeking solutions with the student. For example: "Mason, I think I need to apologize to you. Making noises with your head slouched on your desk while I am teaching tells me that I am not doing a very good job getting you interested. I am going to work harder, and you can help by letting me know what you think I can do to be a better teacher for you. Now that you know what I am willing to do, I’d like to know what you are willing to do differently, because I can't let you disrupt the class. That makes me look bad, and it gets in the way of others who are trying to listen. Maybe even worse, it looks like you are giving up on yourself, and you are too good for that."

How do you resolve conflicts with your students? Please share in the comment section below.

Comments (21)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Mindy Keller- Kyriakides's picture
Mindy Keller- Kyriakides
High school english teacher and blogger.

What I really appreciate is that the teacher takes "some" of the responsibility for Mason's lack of engagement. When we do that, students are so much more apt to change their behavior willingly! My students and I discuss this at length in our book, too, that compliance isn't the goal: teaching students how to self-direct and self-redirect is the key to effective behavioral management. : >

Dr. Allen Mendler's picture
Dr. Allen Mendler
Author, speaker, educator

Thanks Mindy and Elana for your comments and to the many who have shared or tweeted. Elana, my only concern about a name on the board that you reference from Tom is that this can be viewed as embarrassing by the student and in some cases lead to further escalation or subterfuge by the student. If this is done, it should be made very clear in advance that it is for the purpose of reminding both the teacher and student that more contact is needed later, rather than to publicly embarrass the student.

Amy Usry's picture
Amy Usry
5th grade teacher from North Carolina

Thank you for this. I am working in a school with a very tough population. I came from the reservation in the west, and never dealt with this type of behavior. Finally, after 10 weeks of school, I am learning. My class was out of control. I got help from a fellow teacher, and so far (first day...) things are much better. I am focusing on three or four areas, and using a point system. I was introduced to classdojo- the kids love it! It has specific behaviors you can apply, and you can print reports, too. Instead of trying to find consequences for bad behavior, students are earning the right to speak during lunch, and earning a piece of chocolate at dismissal. All students who maintain high points get a treasure box dive on Friday. So far, so good.

Ian's picture

Once more the teacher is being asked to play amateur psychologist. Once again the burden falls to the teacher to be all things in all situations. There are no private conservations in the classroom. Any little desk "fly-by" is hardly a private moment between teacher and student. And just how much time can a teacher invest in every disciplary situation?

Having said that, I look back on my teaching career and admit I am guilty of wanting to have the last word more times than I can count. I wish I had some do-overs. But in the heat of the moment, it seemed to me I had to "win." Young teachers should be taught how to handle tough or incidental disciplinary situations. I don't recall getting much help in that department.

Jason Castaldo's picture

[quote]Once more the teacher is being asked to play amateur psychologist. Once again the burden falls to the teacher to be all things in all situations..[/quote]

I don't think this is saying the teacher needs to play amateur psychologist. It is providing a suggestion that if followed should make the experience better for all involved. The teacher does have to take some responsibility in the classroom and this is part of it.

I love the example Allen uses regarding his daughter. It shows this is not limited to the classroom and applies to many situations, including those dealing with young people.

Lessia Bonn's picture
Lessia Bonn
co-founder I am Bullyproof Music

I find rooms full of teenagers a lot of fun. They respect humor. They respect logic. They hate heavy lectures but honestly, so don't you and I? I just pretend they're all French and give them more attitude back than they give me. Works like a charm.

I loved this article, especially your last paragraph. And hello, of course a teacher needs to understand human nature. It's written into the job.

and ps. Too funny. We have a song called "Whatever". Daughters sing it to moms and I hear moms sing it back.

Ian's picture

Leesia, what does that mean "pretend they're all French and give them more atttiude back..."? Are you saying that all French people have an attitude ( a bad attitude, I assume you mean)? Works like a charm,eh? Have you tried that approach in Paris? They teach this stuff in teacher's college or did you make this strategy up all by yourself? More than a bit bizarre, if you ask me.

Colleen McCloskey's picture
Colleen McCloskey
Pre-Service Teacher attending Juniata College

Thanks so much for sharing this. I'm going to save for future reference. Student teachers need to be able to create a caring and compassionate sense of order in their classroom while still being able to maintain their role as leader and mentor. It is a difficult balance, but I like your advice to sometimes hold comment till cooler heads prevail. Trying to not criticize in public is important to student self esteem and classroom management. Thanks again. Colleen

Shermae's picture
5th grade Exceptional Educator (Specfic Learning Disabilities)

EDucating students who have been labeled with a disability often in turns means dealing with behavioral issues all in one. ALot of my students are confrontational and don't back down from an argument. They seek attention and at that moment from the teacher an their peers. One of my strategies is to first let the student know that their behavior is not acceptable and next to assist the other students in gaining their attention back to the lesson and ignore the negative behavioral. I don't brush the behavior under the table but in my beginning teacher years I've learned that students often use this to avoid doing work and to display them being defiant. Becoming confrontational with a student to get the least word often leads you stooping down to their level at that moment and instead of gaining power you lose their respect.

ECEreflections's picture

I am an Early Childhood professional who no longer works directly with children, but I do work on encouraging professional development for our ECE providers, and this is an issue that comes up frequently even with people who work with infants. I hear "But it I let him get away with it, he won't respect me", and then they have a hour long power struggle with a one year old! I always remind those professionals that I work with that this is not about our egos, not my coaching of them or their care of young children. It is about the other person. That is hard lesson to understand in a society that values relationships based on power, but an important one in becoming an effective educator.

However, I am not writing just about that, but as a parent who is dealing with this very issue with my 9 year old son's 4th grade teacher. His school is very much about authoritarian punishment, and we keep going around and around these issues. As a professional in the field of education, it is particularly difficult to watch less than ideal practices being used with my own child! While we finally had a good meeting recently where I actually felt heard, I still know they do not get the whole this is not about your ego thing. I appreciate this blog and will share it with my son's school, along with some other resources I have such as Prevent, Teach, and Reinforce.

Having observed classrooms for the past 7 years, I have watched the crestfallen, beaten faces of little ones who are being humiliated, beaten down with words and consequences while often not even understanding what they have done. This leads only to a vicious cycle as the child tries to gain some sort of recognition and attention. So thank you to all of you teachers out there who get it! You are building the next generation up so they will be empowered, thoughtful, and involved citizens!

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