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

| Dr. Allen Mendler

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)

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High school emotional support mathematics teacher from Reading, Pennsylvani

I agree with Mrs. Brown. I

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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.

Second Grade Teacher

Power Struggles

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+1

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.

Satellite school SpEd

I liked the article. Too

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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.

Technical Writer and English Teacher

Excellent Points, and...

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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

Author, speaker, educator

Exactly!!! Thanks for

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Exactly!!! Thanks for emphasizing this point.

Responsive Classroom Consulting Teacher

Breathing first

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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.

Responsive Classroom Consulting Teacher

Breathing first

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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.

Responsive classroom consultant and author

No winning a power struggle

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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.

Grades 3-5 Special Education Teacher

As a teacher of students with

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As a teacher of students with emotional impairments, I know how important it is to avoid a power struggle. Teachers have to know their true limitations and not get into a battle that they will most likely lose. I have found that providing students with clear, consistent, and specific directions is what works best. I often given my students directives along with a choice and that usually is all that is needed. Students don't feel like I'm telling them what to do and when I give them a choice they feel as though they have some same in the matter.

Letting go of the last word

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Being a new teacher I have had the feeling of needing the last word many times. I have also found that if I can contain myself and find a different approach to dealing with a student who is being disruptive or defiant, I still maintain my respect from the other students and defuse the situation quicker than allowing an argument to escalate. Its almost like being the bigger person and being calm and collective. The key is to not get emotionally involved if at all possible; thus, keeping your cool and order of the classroom. It is harder said than done until you actually utilize the techniques a few times. Great blog.

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