How to Combat Classroom Power Struggles

Classroom power strugglesClassroom power struggles are common. They develop between the teacher and student from time to time in most classroom. I am confident of saying they occur in ALL classrooms. How do you stop classroom power struggles interfering with your teaching?

Classroom Power Struggles

The scenario goes something like this. The student plays up, the teacher gives the student a serve, the students returns with something disrespectful and the teacher reacts to the disrespectful statement. The interchange escalate into two-way abuse until either the student lashes out or the teacher calls an administrator to remove the student.

Familiar? Well, you are NOT alone!

The problems with classroom power struggles is that, in this encounter, someone has to lose; and lose big-time. The teacher and the student hope it is the other. In essence, both usually lose.

It is almost impossible to resume teaching effectively after classroom power struggles. Valuable learning time is always lost. The real losers are the kids in the class who want to learn.

It is unlikely that any resolution is created. Whatever the final consequence of classroom power struggles, the student and the teacher will meet in a future class.


Most classroom power struggles are unresolved.


Avoiding Classroom Power Struggles.

Let's learn from what happens outside of school. Most first responders (police, fire, army) who deal with power struggles have some “Rules of Engagement”. The rules set out under what circumstance direct action is warranted.

Police, for example, are called upon to use restraint even when fired upon. The first expectation of most first responders is to defuse the situation. They then reduce the danger and the likelihood of further or subsequent confrontation.

Teachers who arrive “locked and loaded” set up a dangerous precedence because they are looking for a battle and many students are prepared to oblige. We need some "Rules of Engagement."

We know most teachers don't, "shoot now and question later." Most of us prefer to avoid confrontations and maintain a sense of order and discipline in the classroom. Management before confrontations is a much better option than managing the disruption caused as a result.

Defuse, Distract and Disperse.

Power struggles invariably start as emotional sabotage. There is always heat and venom as aggressors spit and snarl. It is most certainly counter-productive for the teacher to also be spitting and snarling. There are always two dogs in a fight.

This goal initially is to DEFUSE the situation. Classroom power struggles are akin to two dogs fighting over a rag. Each pulling in opposite directions, snarling and foaming at the mouth but neither achieving much.

Some classroom power struggles are just like that. Power struggles between teachers and students seldom ends well.

An aggressive student is attuned to aggression from others. In fact they are prepared for it. Being met with calmness from the teacher is confronting to them and throws them off kilter.

Classroom power struggles with students are usually over something petty. Teachers should react to student aggression with calmness. It is not easy, because it is an emotional event, but it is essential if the teacher wants the situation to develop some order. Classroom power struggles are avoidable if only one party participates.

Power struggles invariably start as emotional sabotage.


Tactics to Avoid Classroom Power Struggles

These tactics will help DEFUSE most situations.

  • Slow down and BREATHE. Have you ever notice how ambulance officers approach the scene of an accident. They do so with precision. They never run, never show panic. Ambulance officers collect their gear and walk calmly to the crisis. While doing so they are mentally preparing for their task. They will be scanning the site for issues and developing an action plan. Outwards signs of distress would wash over anyone watching and escalate into shared panic. Their calm approach exudes am air of confidence which also washes over observes - and the patients.
  • In a classroom power struggles, teachers must do the same thing. Controlled breathing helps calm nervous teachers. Look and scan the whole situation so you can develop your action plan. Your calm approach will often defuse aggressors and remove some of the power base. Observers will defer authority to the most in control. Your behaviour often determines your emotional state. If you act calm, you feel calmer but so does everyone else. Breathe and act calm.
  • Make considered decisions not reactive ones. Do not become distracted by secondary behaviours and events.
  • Use lots of pauses.
  • Keep responses brief and to the point. Don't nag ("Why do you continually disrupt ...") or reprimand ("your behaviour is unacceptable and ..."). Use social courtesies like please and thank you.

Give anticipatory commands. "Thank you for

  • sitting on the ground".
  • returning to your seat."
  • listening to the directions."
  • being well mannered."

Classroom power struggles

Avoid lengthy exchanges because it accords more of your valuable time to the recalcitrant student. The more attention you provide, the more kudos received from the anti-social mates watching the encounter.

Respond to student's harassment with, "I hear what you are saying but you must ... sit on the seat, move behind the rope, go to your desk..." You do not need to respond to every student rant. If the comment is not important, ignore it. If some comment needs further investigation eg. "He hit me with a stick." respond with ," I will investigate that but you must sit on the seat, please."

Be alert to students who attempt to bait you. They will try to draw you in to the power struggle with comments like, "You hate me. You always pick on me in class..." You can ignore these comments or take a breath and respond with "... I hear what you are saying but you must ..."

Ensure your responses do not allow the student to participate and control any part of the interaction. Never ask questions or provide inflammatory remarks. Avoid responding to statements like, "You always disrupt my lessons ..." as they will initiate a defensive response.

Once the situation is defused and some heat has been removed from the situation, you must set about dispersing those students who are no involved in the situation. This is dealt with in more depth in Crisis Management for the Classroom.

Preventing Classroom Power Struggles

As you get to know your students you are able to take preemptive strikes so that classroom power struggles don't even get started. The best preemptive strikes take the form of positive redirections.

Suppose you recognise that a student has completed what they are able and is starting to disengage from the classroom task. They may be initiating disruptive behaviours to other students. As the teacher you could redirect the student to another less demanding task. Removing the student briefly from the setting prevents power struggles from developing.




I have used the antiseptic bounce strategy in this situation. Give the student a note to take to the office or a buddy teacher. It could be

  • a positive reward (eg. "Johnny really made an effort in maths and completed his work. Please congratulate him.") or
  • it may be just a task sheet (eg. "Please remember morning tea on Friday.") or
  • nothing consequential (eg. please tick and return)

Students usually return from this antiseptic bounce in a more positive frame of mind and are more likely to resume work.

The antiseptic bounce is not without its critics who see it as a cop out. I see it as a management tool useful in preventing classroom power struggles. Not all classroom motives need to be punitive.

Traffic lights on student desks can be used as predictors of escalating problems. Students should go to a time out area when they move to amber. They can do passive individual work without distractions at these time out areas. Keep their time in these areas to a minimum. They should flip an egg timer when they arrive and return to their desk when the egg timer is exhausted.

Rephrase all statements to be more positive. Consider how this statement, "I won't talk to you until you return to your chair" sounds when it is restated as, "I will be happy to help you as soon as you return to your desk." Negative statements often generate negative and defensive student reactions.

Classroom power struggles can be avoided if the student believes they are being heard. The best strategy is to paraphrase student statements with,

  • "Are you saying ....,"
  • "Are you tell me that ...."
  • "It sounds like you believe ..."

You don't have to support the student's statements. Once the student acknowledges the issue you could state something like,

  • "That may be the case but you have to ... sit down, move to the corner, put your pencil down..."
  • "You might believe ... but right now, you must ..."

These strategies initiate productive conversations that move away from creating classroom power struggles.

Suggesting students write down their complaints also take a lot of heat out of the situation. The teacher will still have to engage with the student but clarifying the written statement is a good way of reducing classroom power struggles. The conversation becomes professional and purposeful rather that aggressive.

I don't ask questions during power struggles. That comes much later in the investigation stage. And I never ask why.

De-escalating Classroom Power Struggles

Some kids have difficulty moving away from their aggressive stance. The experienced teacher will reduce the emotional heat during interactions. Calming students down is not a cop out. Consequences for misbehaviour may need to be applied. But for now, the goal is to deescalate classroom power struggles. Consequences will be applied when the student is more rational and can understand the reasons for decisions.

Strategies to reduce aggression include

  • Using positive instead of negatives. (See above)
  • Using non-verbal signals. Body Language experts will tell you that to control a persons emotions by having them mimic your non verbals. If you sit down to discuss a situation, the student normally sits. If the teacher takes long pauses, the student will often do the same. If the teacher maintains eye contact, so will the student.
  • Recognise that the student is making their own behavioural choices. Some classroom power struggles are to show autonomy. Acknowledging the student's independence takes that stance out of the equation.
  • Provide the students a facing-saving option. When students get into classroom power struggles, they frequently don't know how to step back. The teacher could offer advice, "How about you take this sheet and sit down and complete it quietly. We'll take about what happened later." An alternate approach is to ask the student how he/she would like to solve the problem. That works well for the older students. Which ever option is chosen, the student must face the consequences of a debrief.

Solving the fall out from classroom power struggles invariably requires some form of recompense. Holding students accountable for their actions is still a necessary component of successful classroom interactions.

The negative impact of classroom power struggles can still be reduced if managed effectively.