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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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.

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Comments (24) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Caltha Crowe's picture
Caltha Crowe
Responsive classroom consultant and author

You are so right, there's no winning a power struggle. I've worked with so many children who suck adults into those power struggles. Since that's what these conflicts are about - power - the most effective strategy, in my opinion, is for us to help them gain power in more appropriate ways. The child who chronically engages in power struggles can help other students, do errands for the teacher, check off books in the classroom library, you name it.
Of course, such strategies are most successful if we build a positive relationship with the student who initiates power struggles. Then they'll want to ally with us in shared power and control.
Let's not forget that we adults sometimes initiate those power struggles that leave everyone spinning their wheels.

Margaret Berry Wilson's picture
Margaret Berry Wilson
Responsive Classroom Consulting Teacher

Your post hit on so many important points. I especially appreciated the reminder of how quickly things can escalate. I think that often in our rush to seem in charge and on top of things, we act without thinking. It can be hard to do, but if in the moment of defiance, we can take a deep breath first and remind ourselves that even when a student's response feels personal, it is not. Most often, so many other needs or skill deficits are driving their behavior that their refusal to do certain tasks or even direct attacks on us have nothing to do with us. When we can take a minute to center and not take it personally, our responses can be much more effective.

Margaret Berry Wilson's picture
Margaret Berry Wilson
Responsive Classroom Consulting Teacher

Your post hit on so many important points. I especially appreciated the reminder of how quickly things can escalate. I think that often in our rush to seem in charge and on top of things, we act without thinking. It can be hard to do, but if in the moment of defiance, we can take a deep breath first and remind ourselves that even when a student's response feels personal, it is not. Most often, so many other needs or skill deficits are driving their behavior that their refusal to do certain tasks or even direct attacks on us have nothing to do with us. When we can take a minute to center and not take it personally, our responses can be much more effective.

Elly Faden's picture
Elly Faden
Technical Writer and English Teacher

it might be time for a Restorative Justice circle. These enable all students to participate and learn about classroom values, positive accomplishments, and more. I am so glad our District has embraced this methodology, and I hope more do, too. http://www.ousd.k12.ca.us/restorativejustice

Dave's picture
Dave
Satellite school SpEd

I liked the article. Too many times teachers concentrate on the words and overlook the actions. I believe that too many teachers think of an us v. them adversarial relationship, instead of how we-- can all arrive at the goal line together. Still, some students are a handful, to put it mildly, and focusing on winning the war and less on each little battle, seems like the area to focus on. Thanks everyone.

Raylean Allen's picture
Raylean Allen
Second Grade Teacher

I really like the points that you made in this blog. It is important to avoid power struggles at all cost. This year I entered a new school. I had the pleasure of having a class full of difficult students who had quite an unpleasant history at the school. Some of the things that you suggested were used and quite effective.

Heather Adams's picture
Heather Adams
High school emotional support mathematics teacher from Reading, Pennsylvani

I agree with Mrs. Brown. I have found that supplying my students with alternatives helps to eliminate power struggles in the classroom. I avoid using leaving the classroom as an alternative unless offering the student an opportunity to take a break. I have found that because my students are teenagers they tend to respond better when being empowered with choices.

eduterpsichore's picture

I wish I had seen this original post back in 2012, but it certainly came in handy today. I teach at the graduate level (and have decades of experience), and have a particularly annoying student who probably has a lot of other "needs and skill impairments," as Margaret Berry Wilson puts it in her comment, that feed his behavior; it has been hard not to take his supercilious attitude personally. He has been pushing back on an analytical writing assignment, claiming he is confused and frustrated (meaning: You, the teacher, are inadequate) and insisting that he "can't" write the way I am asking him to--i.e., to analyze content rather than summarize.

In reading over some of his answers to recent online class discussion prompts, I realized that, in formulating these answers, he had essentially fulfilled the essay assignment; so I sent him an email suggesting that rather than requiring him to make any more attempts to revise his essay, I would be willing to substitute his contributions to the online discussion, which I felt were very close to outstanding.

His email response was, "I have no objections to this."

While I sat with open mouth, semi-seething at what I perceived as a snitty tone, almost as if he were delivering it to a lowly underling who had just asked for an extra day's leave, it began to cross my mind that he didn't know how (because of his social impairments, perhaps) to acknowledge this offer with even a modicum of grace (I didn't need him to go overboard, but I thought a simple "thank you" might be in order). Then I Googled "students who need to have the last word" and found this discussion!

Dr. Mendler's mention of his daughter's saying, "Whatever," and then complying, made me spring to attention: I have just now, this very afternoon, had the last word without, strictly speaking, having the last word, other than to be the one to reply that I would go ahead and enter the grade; and, I suppose "proving" that the student was perfectly capable of producing good analytical writing, despite his protestations.. And I must remember that it's not about having the last word, anyway, right? :-)

Keeping one's ears open for the "whatever" is an extremely useful tactic, and one I will remember.

Thanks!

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Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Teacher/leader & techie at independent, alternative, therapeutic high school

eduterpsichore, that's such a great story! It sounds like you did right by this student. Sometimes i have to remind myself that a student showing gratitude is more about me than about them, and that their needs and learning comes first. So tough sometimes though! Thanks for sharing this success story!!

eduterpsichore's picture

Thank you, Alex! It's been a total revelation! I am feeling pretty good about this at the moment. Let's hope others can benefit from my experience; I surely have benefited from this discussion. Now to see how the rest of the semester plays out . . . .

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