Oh, the power struggle. We all know that we shouldn’t engage in them, but somehow even the best, most senior teachers end up in them. If you don’t know what I mean, here’s an example:
Teacher: It’s time for writing! Take out your pencils and show me you’re ready.
Student: I don’t want to do writing.
Teacher: Well, it is writing time on our schedule so please take out your materials.
Power struggles most often occur because a teacher places a demand on a student and the student does not want to comply. Feeling like the student “should” listen to them, the teacher raises their voice. The student’s response? Usually somewhere between continued refusal to physical aggression. Unfortunately, we can all tell where this is going.
Luckily there’s good news– While power struggles can’t always be avoided, they can definitely be managed and stopped in their tracks. Here are five tips to manage power struggles in the classroom.
Tip 1: Build meaningful rapport.
Meaningful rapport is more than just knowing your students’ academic performance. Do preference assessments, have conversations with the students and their caregivers about what they like/dislike and observe the way each student maneuvers the classroom. More likely than not, you will be able to identify what motivates them, what discourages them and the language they are most responsive to.
While creating your beginning of the year routines with your students, work interests into the routine. For example, you notice that one kiddo who has trouble transitioning from recess. Make sure their favorite activity is ready for them in the classroom when they return. Before they go out for recess, let the kiddo know that they will have an opportunity with their favorite activity after recess. When you go to pick the class up, remind them again.
Tip 2: Create opportunities for choice in your classroom routine.
… AND let students be a part of making those choices! Whether you teach full class lessons or individual students, you can build choice into the schedule. Through a Limited Choice Procedure your students can have agency in choosing what they want to learn, when.
How this works: At the start of any (or all) academic blocks, give your students two choices. Have materials for both prepared so that students can actually work on the topics you present to them as choices. Utilize your support staff to help you run instructional centers. If a student refuses, redirect them by restating the original two choices. Stand firm on this and don’t ask them what they want to do (unless you are prepared to say yes to it.) Provide praise when a choice is made. Then provide them with a “first/then” statement for an activity that they are motivated by.
Teacher: “You can work on math or writing.”
Student: “I don’t want to do it.”
Teacher: “Your choices are math or writing.”
Student: “No writing.”
Teacher: “Math is a great choice. First math, then snack.”
Tip 3: Hide your frustrations.
I know this can be a tricky one. We’ve all had days where a kid has managed to push every button we possibly have. But don’t let them see that. Expressing emotions to teach empathy is one thing, but if you express your frustration by raising your voice, chances are the student will yell right back. Stay calm and keep your tone the same.
If you feel that you need to express your frustration, do it by naming it for your student. Model taking a deep breath and a moment to think. Use a “think-aloud” to allow your students to see and hear your process. In my classroom, we use the phrase “take a moment for my/your-self” to express this frustration.
Teacher: “My friend, I am going to take a moment for myself. I am feeling frustrated and I need to take some deep breaths. Can you take some deep breaths with me? *5 deep breaths* Wow, I feel so much better. I know that unkind words can make friends feel uncomfortable, so I kept them in my brain. Now, I feel ready to chat. Do you?”
Tip 4: Reinforce effort.
Especially for students who typically have difficulty following directions, providing reinforcement for the times that they do is really important. There are many different types of behavior supports that can be used to help you reinforce positive behavior. Remember, reinforcement must be meaningful for the student. Be sure to do a preference assessment to find out what is most reinforcing for that particular student.
When you reinforce positive behavior, you are communicating to the student that this is the expectation. By providing reinforcement, the child is able to build an association between emitting the teacher desired behavior with receiving their desired reinforcer.
Tip 5: Pick your battles
Trust yourself here. You will know when it is time to redirect and when it is time to let it go. It can be helpful to determine what the function of the student’s behavior is. Power struggles tend to fall under escape or attention, but you can always take ABC data to find out more specifically.
When power struggles begin, they are often maintained by teacher response. Without realizing, many teachers are actually providing negative reinforcement when they engage in a power struggle. Even though the student is receiving negative attention, it’s still attention. And because of the time that it takes to go back and forth, the student is escaping the activity that they don’t want to do.
So, with that being said, sometimes it is best to just let it go. A student refuses to do their math work but wants to read a book instead? Let them. They can do their math work while everyone else is reading. Ten minutes before dismissal and a student wants a specific toy? Give it to them. These are moments that could have potentially caused major issues, but instead you can just move on.