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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

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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