Teacher Professional Development: Dealing with Power Struggles

by | Apr 10, 2024 | Professional Development For Teachers | 0 comments

Here’s a great idea for some new ideas for teacher professional development:  dealing appropriately with power struggles between the students and the adults in charge.  What do you do when a student says something like “I don’t wanna, and you can’t make me?”  or “I don’t have to do that, my dad’s a lawyer and he says it’s against the constitution” or something like that. In this article we will give you four easy-to-remember steps to follow to avoid power struggles with students, but first, check out this short animation of an interaction with a lunch monitor and a student that didn’t go so well…

The ineffective way to handle power struggles

The Power Struggle Cycle

That didn’t go too well, did it. Here’s what happens in a power struggle:

  1. First, the student acts out, and refuses to cooperate.  
  2. The adult feels attacked or personally disrespected, and accepts the challenge.  
  3. The student “downshifts” to more primitive areas of his brain, and has an emotional response, and reacts with increased anger toward who he sees as a hostile adult. 
  4. The adult feels more threatened, they also downshift and have an emotional response, they get more angry and the struggle for power continues to escalate.

This is a viscous cycle that can escalate in just a few seconds. Let’s discuss the steps to defuse the power struggle before it gets more serious.

When dealing with a power struggle, the first order of business, as the adult in charge, is to stay calm, stay in control of ourselves and the situation, while still dealing with this angry student.  

Remain detached and calm and remember that you can’t really make a kid do anything. You may be able to shout louder than they can and get them to obey in the short term, but that is not the long term guiding toward a behavior change for which we are looking.

Remember what you can do:  You can teach, inspire, encourage, and model an alternative to anger, and you can stay calm, and stay in control of yourself and the situation.

Staying Calm

So how do you stay calm when you are dealing with a downshifted youngster?  Here are four suggestions:

  1. First of all, give yourself Permission to Pause. This is not a snappy answer contest, and you are not under any time constraints. You can stop, think about what the student said, and take your time to formulate a response.
  1. To help stay calm, try counting backwards from 5, slowly, while you continue to breathe deeply. It may seem like a very long pause to you, but to anyone looking on, it will only be a few seconds. 
  1. There is another technique called Break and Breath. If you find yourself getting angry, take a break, walk a few steps away, take a breath, then come back to the situation in a different spot. 
  1. You could even take a lap around the room, doing what is called 2X2X4 breathing.  Breath in for two steps, hold for 2 steps, then breath out for four steps: repeat. Give it a try!

Hopefully you will never, or rarely, get into a power struggle with a student. If you do, remember, it’s not about YOU. It’s about all of the junk that has happened to this kid in his lifetime, it’s about his anger at his situation, and his lack of adults in his life who can model appropriate displays of anger.  

He is just doing what he was taught to do.  Now you have the great opportunity to model a different kind of behavior for him.  You can be one of the first adults in his life that stays calm, doesn’t yell back, and still can still reinforce boundaries.  What a great opportunity. You could really plant a seed of change in a situation like this.  

What to do in a Power Struggle

Now that you  are calm, there are four techniques to try to diffuse a power struggle with a student.

These techniques are called Sidestep, Choices not Commands, Win Win and Reframe

  1. Sidestep 

If a child says, “I don’t wanna, you can’t make me” you listen and try to comprehend with your adult mind what the child is really saying. Maybe he is really expressing frustration that it’s a beautiful day and he doesn’t want to clean up, but wants to get outside to go to recess, where he is a very competent athlete and a leader.

You sidestep and don’t take the bait, and give a response like this: “Hey Billy, I understand you want to get outside. Let’s all clean up as fast as we can so we can go to recess. It’s a beautiful day.” 

That isn’t what Billy said, he may not have even known that he was frustrated because clean up was taking too long, but you, with your adult wisdom and life experience, can take an educated guess and sidestep with a response to the unspoken frustration behind the bait he was trying to hook you in with.

  1.  Choices, not Commands. 

You’re not supposed to have favorites, but this one is my favorite.  You just acknowledge that he said what he said and give him a choice, not a command. For example, a kid says “I don’t wanna, you can’t make me” you respond.  “I can’t make you?  You’re probably right.  Would you rather not clean up and miss recess or clean up and go?  Sure! Let’s all clean up as fast as we can so we can go outside.”

How old is this kid, 8 or 9?  10-12?  He is a kid, you  are an adult. Don’t take the bait.  You are in charge. Rise above the pettiness of playground taunts.  Are these words so upsetting to you that you can’t control  yourself? Nah, he’s 10 years old. He’s not going to win, you are in charge, and this starts with you staying in charge of your feelings, rising above and modeling calm and respectful behavior.

  1. Win Win

If the student is still trying to engage you in a power struggle, it’s not important to prove to him that he is wrong, and will lose this argument if it continues, because after all, you are the adult in charge. That is a foregone conclusion.  Instead, try to find a way that you can both win. If a student taunts you with some version of  “I don’t wanna you can’t make me” you can calmly respond with something like, “You know, you’re probably right, but we can’t go outside until this is cleaned up, so…How about if we all clean up as fast as we can so we can go outside.

You get a clean table, he gets to go outside. 

  1. Reframing  

Reframing means you acknowledge what he told you, and reframe it as something positive.

For example, if he jabs you with some version of “I don’t want to and you can’t make me”.  You can reframe his taunt into something positive. You might say something like “Billy, you’re right I can’t make you. and that is a great thing to say if someone is hurting you or offering you drugs, but that doesn’t really help in this situation, so let’s clean up so we can all go outside” (This brilliant tip comes from Dr. Allen Mendler, author of Discipline with Dignity).

Now let’s watch another animation that shows these techniques in action.

That went much better.  You can see how the lunch monitor remained calm and in control, and  did not take the students’ bait to get into an argument.  This is not easy to do, and it’s ok to give yourself permission to pause and think of a response, just like she did in the animation. 

If you are looking for new ideas for teacher professional development, consider 212 CreativEd.com.  We do teacher professional development for an hour up to multiple days, and have an innovative product based on the principles of andragogy and micro learning to drip pd content out to teachers every week for the entire year.  Here are some reviews from recent teacher professional development trainings:

“This was hands down the best PD I have been to in almost 30 years as an educator. It gave teachers what they needed: practical strategies, that WORK, about things we do all day long. I honestly got a sore hand taking notes, there were so many good ideas. Hanging on your every word, can’t wait until you come back to give us more!”
John, High School Teacher

“Your presentation was the most engaging PD I have ever been to. Thank you for providing actual examples on how to use your strategies, and not just give us theory and an overview. I really enjoyed your presentation and can’t wait to use your ideas.”
-Armanda, Elementary Teacher

“I loved the helpful, easy to incorporate strategies you gave us throughout the day. It didn’t make me feel like what I am doing was wrong or bad, just suggests to better myself and add depth to my teaching. You explained the reasoning behind the strategies and ideas you gave us (I loved the research based info!).”
Mariah, Elementary Teacher

“It was very engaging! Loved the music and being able to move around. Great classroom management tips. Very helpful day, and filled with ideas and tips I will actually use. I teach ESL and still felt like all of these strategies and ideas applied to me.”
Heather, Elementary ESL teacher

“Thank you. Because of the engaging and fun way you taught us, all of the lessons are imprinted on my brain. Than you for taking time to share your knowledge with us. You are approachable, so knowledgeable, easy to listen to and the funniest presenter we’ve ever had!”
Kris, P.E. Teacher

“You were so engaging! I will be using all of the fun brain breaks and so many of the other ideas you gave us. Everything was great. I hope you can come back and work with us again.”
-Lark, 4th Grade Teacher

Check us out at 212CreativEd.com for all of your teacher professional development needs for all groups, including teachers, principals and support staff.