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Power Struggles

Instruction

Have you ever felt angry, frustrated, or even a little afraid when interacting with a student? Has a student ever responded to instructions with bargaining, refusal, or the infamous statement, “you can't make me”? You have likely encountered a power struggle! Every teacher faces power struggles, especially during transitions between activities. “Young people sometimes confuse their yearning for personal power with a desire for interpersonal power...Teachers have to learn how to sidestep the power struggles and help students exercise legitimate personal power.” (Albert)

There are several effective steps to avoid and defuse power-seeking confrontations. The first is to focus on the behavior the student is exhibiting, not the student, and to correct the behavior that is happening in the present, rather than referencing past behavior. This is a part of practicing growth mindset, the belief that students' learning and behavior is not fixed and can always grow when given the opportunity. Next, when responding to a power struggle, it's vital to maintain a firm yet warm tone. Contrary to popular belief, being strict and being kind are not mutually exclusive, in fact they complement one another. Even during a short week at IslandWood, the firm yet warm approach, as described in Teach Like a Champion, demonstrates that you are enforcing boundaries because you care about your students. Another way we can show this caring is by keeping our emotions level in the moment, and not allowing ourselves to lose control. When we model positive, non-aggressive behavior in the face of a power struggle, we show students that they do not have power over us, we are totally in control of the situation, and that their efforts to rankle us are useless against our calm.

Once you've successfully avoided escalating the situation using these strategies, you can discuss the behavior with the student once emotions, yours and theirs, have settled. Ideally this discussion will take place away from the rest of the group, since many power struggles lose potency once the audience is removed. Again, it's important when having this discussion to focus only on the behavior, not the student, and only on the behavior shown in the situation at hand. During instruction, de-escalating a confrontation and kindly reminding students that compliance is not a choice but a requirement, is often enough to defuse a power struggle. This can be done by acknowledging that the student does indeed have power (“I know I can't make you do it”), tabling the matter until a more appropriate moment (as determined by you), responding cheerfully or even agreeably, or changing the subject completely.

The upshot of these difficult situations is that many students who engage in power-seeking behavior are assertive, independent thinkers, and often become leaders among their peers. When we encounter power struggles during our teaching, we can choose to view them as an opportunity to help students to develop their talents and social skills in a healthy and productive way.

It's easy to take power struggles personally, but it's important to keep in mind that these and other behavior problems we might encounter during instruction are not about you. Students coming to IslandWood may have a lot going on that we just cannot perceive. During the short time we have with students, the best we can do is meet students where they are and approach each one with compassion.

References:

-Albert, L. (1989). A teacher's guide to cooperative discipline: How to manage your classroom and promote self-esteem. Circle Pines, MN: American Guidance Service.

-Lemov, D. (2010). Teach like a champion: 49 techniques that put students on the path to college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Have you ever felt angry, frustrated, or even a little afraid when interacting with a student? Has a student ever responded to instructions with bargaining, refusal, or the infamous statement, “you can't make me”? You have likely encountered a power struggle! Every teacher faces power struggles, especially during transitions between activities. “Young people sometimes confuse their yearning for personal power with a desire for interpersonal power...Teachers have to learn how to sidestep the power struggles and help students exercise legitimate personal power.” (Albert)

There are several effective steps to avoid and defuse power-seeking confrontations. The first is to focus on the behavior the student is exhibiting, not the student, and to correct the behavior that is happening in the present, rather than referencing past behavior. This is a part of practicing growth mindset, the belief that students' learning and behavior is not fixed and can always grow when given the opportunity. Next, when responding to a power struggle, it's vital to maintain a firm yet warm tone. Contrary to popular belief, being strict and being kind are not mutually exclusive, in fact they complement one another. Even during a short week at IslandWood, the firm yet warm approach, as described in Teach Like a Champion, demonstrates that you are enforcing boundaries because you care about your students. Another way we can show this caring is by keeping our emotions level in the moment, and not allowing ourselves to lose control. When we model positive, non-aggressive behavior in the face of a power struggle, we show students that they do not have power over us, we are totally in control of the situation, and that their efforts to rankle us are useless against our calm.

Once you've successfully avoided escalating the situation using these strategies, you can discuss the behavior with the student once emotions, yours and theirs, have settled. Ideally this discussion will take place away from the rest of the group, since many power struggles lose potency once the audience is removed. Again, it's important when having this discussion to focus only on the behavior, not the student, and only on the behavior shown in the situation at hand. During instruction, de-escalating a confrontation and kindly reminding students that compliance is not a choice but a requirement, is often enough to defuse a power struggle. This can be done by acknowledging that the student does indeed have power (“I know I can't make you do it”), tabling the matter until a more appropriate moment (as determined by you), responding cheerfully or even agreeably, or changing the subject completely.

The upshot of these difficult situations is that many students who engage in power-seeking behavior are assertive, independent thinkers, and often become leaders among their peers. When we encounter power struggles during our teaching, we can choose to view them as an opportunity to help students to develop their talents and social skills in a healthy and productive way.

It's easy to take power struggles personally, but it's important to keep in mind that these and other behavior problems we might encounter during instruction are not about you. Students coming to IslandWood may have a lot going on that we just cannot perceive. During the short time we have with students, the best we can do is meet students where they are and approach each one with compassion.

References:

-Albert, L. (1989). A teacher's guide to cooperative discipline: How to manage your classroom and promote self-esteem. Circle Pines, MN: American Guidance Service.

-Lemov, D. (2010). Teach like a champion: 49 techniques that put students on the path to college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

About the Author
Margaret Cummings

After graduating from the University of CA, Santa Cruz and working at a marine mammal research lab, I moved up to Seattle to pursue a position at the Seattle Aquarium. I've worked closely with a variety of marine mammals, fish, invertebrates, birds, as well as with domestic dogs. I was drawn to the IslandWood Education for Environment and Community program because it integrates my scientific curiosity, my passion for environmental sustainability, and my love of sharing knowledge and community. I love teaching about animals and ecosystems, and I feel inspired when my students discover a new passion or overcome a challenge. I love to climb, sing, and read, and I'm a huge biophile!