Say NO to Power Struggles

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You know the circumstance all too well, a child disrupts you or the class or doesn't want to adhere to rules, routines or your instructions. You reprimand the child who then becomes defiant and refuses your request outright. Before you know it, you're engaged in a power struggle. In no time you send the student to the office or have somebody from the office come to collect the student.

What have you gained? The term for this is 'Short term relief but long term grief'. There are no winners in a power struggle.

Do what the great teachers do - avoid power struggles. Unfortunately, the classroom is the place where power struggles can occur on a frequent basis because teachers are always wanting our students to comply with things they would prefer not to do. However, think of your strategy as getting commitment rather than compliance.

Here are some of the tricks that will help you to avoid power struggles:

Remain Calm, Do Not Become Defiant

Don't over-react. You are always modeling appropriate behaviors in all that you do. Do not show your anger or frustration, believe me, I know this can be difficult but it is a must. A power struggle requires 2 people, so you cannot engage. You do not want to escalate the student's behavior. Remain calm and composed.

Save Face

Don't center the student out in front of their peers, this is very important to the child. It is never good to humiliate the child in front of their peers and you won't build positive relationships if you do. When you respond with an "I've had enough of you speaking out, off to the office with you" or "If you don't stop that, I'll.........." you'll gain nothing. These kinds of statements often escalate a situation in a negative way. You need to think of the end result and statements like this in front of the child's peers will make him more confrontational and a power struggle is more likely to occur. Instead, get the rest of the class working to enable you to have a one to one conversation with the disruptive student just outside the classroom door or quietly at the child's desk. Do not engage with anger, frustration, power or anything that may intimidate the student, it is more likely to escalate the disruptive behavior. Try to validate the student's need, 'I can see why you are angry about....but if you work with me, we'll talk about his later...... After all, your goal is to calm the student, so model the calmness.


Do not engage the student. When you model confrontation you will naturally end up in a power struggle. Regardless of how stressed you are - don't let it show. Don't engage, after all, the disruptive student is usually seeking attention and if you give the attention, you've given the student a reward for acting negatively. Ignore minor behaviors, if the student is acting in such a way that a response is required, simply use a matter of fact comment (Jade, your comment isn't appropriate, let's talk about it later and carry on. If it's more severe: "Jade those comments you made surprise me, you're a capable student and can do better. Do you need me to call the office? At least this way, they make the choice."

Deflect the Student's Attention

Sometimes you can re-focus the student by ignoring what was said and ask if the specific assignment is done or if the student has something that needs finishing. A little later you might have a one to one with the student suggesting that you didn't appreciate the interruption earlier that disrupted the rest of the class but that you're happy to see him/her working productively again. Always re-focus on what matters. Ask the student how the problem can be resolved, make the student part of the solution.

Chillax Time

Sometimes it is important to allow the child a chilling out time. Quietly ask the child if a quiet time elsewhere is needed. A buddy classroom or study carrel might just be enough. You may wish to tell him to take some chillaxing time and remind him/her that you'll talk when they're feeling up to it.

Wait Time

Allow some time for the child to calm down before determining what the consequence will be. This helps to de-escalate the anger the child may be feeling.

If you can use humor in the de-escalation process, all the better and it will help you out of a power struggle. Remember the golden rule: Up, down and up again. For instance "Jade, you've had such a terrific day, I've been so proud of you. I don't understand why you are choosing not to follow instructions now. Perhaps I'll give you 5 minutes to think about it and you'll be that terrific person I know you to be.' Up, down, up. Use common sense and know when to be flexible enough to compromise.

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Your Citation
Watson, Sue. "Say NO to Power Struggles." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Watson, Sue. (2020, August 27). Say NO to Power Struggles. Retrieved from Watson, Sue. "Say NO to Power Struggles." ThoughtCo. (accessed September 23, 2021).