Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Power Struggle

How do you know you are in a power struggle with a student?

When you find yourself going back and forth with a student who is arguing or protesting against your decision to discipline, you are in a power struggle. When you are actually trying to answer, convince, or defend yourself against his or her tirade, you are in a power struggle. When you have asked or directed the student to pick up a pencil or lift his head off the desk, and he just won't do it, you are in a power struggle.

What triggers power struggles? 

Kids who find it hard to accept criticism or correction often fight teachers to avoid the penalty for an infraction of a rule. Saving face in front of their peers, attention-seeking, work avoidance, and fear of consequences are all reasons kids object when they are corrected. Some have developed the habit of protesting or denying because it works for them at home. They can get what they want from parents by throwing a fit or pouting, so they expect that to work with other adults.

What do kids want from a power struggle in the short run?

They want the adult to back off or shrink away from holding them accountable. They want relief from being confronted. They want to appear "big and bad" in front of peers. They want to intimidate school staff from calling parents or following through with consequences. They may want to get out of the room. They may be trying to set up the adult to look incompetent or unfair. 

What do all kids want from adults in the long run? 

They want adults to hold them accountable without shaming them, to show them how to manage their emotions, to hold them to a standard that communicates we believe in them, to love them and stick with them even when they act ugly. Behavior Speaks. Educators must learn how to interpret the language of student behavior. 

When you have chronic kids, you have to expect power struggles. We know they are coming, but we don’t know from whom or when. In general, the best way to respond to a power struggle is to stop talking. Don't answer the student's attempt to bait you with allegations or threats. 

If you say nothing, students run out of ranting energy in about 30 seconds. How will you make it through a hostile diatribe that may include profanity, anger, name-calling, or threats?  Pretend the student has Tourette's and look at his outburst as a manifestation of a disability that he cannot help. When the ranting ends, simply repeat your expectation. Move slower. Talk quieter. This communicates that you are in control of your emotions.

Because we used a comprehensive behavior intervention model at our school, all the teacher had to say to an escalating student was, "I'll get you some help." The teacher called the office and said, "I need an escort in Room X."  An administrator, a counselor, or any free adult arrived at the classroom door within a moment to escort the student to the next seat in the behavior system. 

If you don't have this provision of building-wide support, simply repeat your request without emotion whenever the student stops objecting. After three repetitions, write the office referral and tell the student to please go to the office. Send the referral via your school's delivery system, or email, or trusted student.

You could also invite the student to the hallway, firmly: "Please come talk to me in the hall." Removing the student from the view of peers will help many students to behave more rationally.  You cannot expect a spiraling student to be able to speak calmly about the situation. They have to have a chance to calm down. Say to the student, "We will talk about what happened when we are calm. Can you go to Mr. Clark's room for the rest of the period?" (Of course, you will have asked for Mr. Clark's permission to send a student to his room in the case of a power struggle.) 

And, of course, you will take the time to speak with the student about the issue once he is calm, such as, at the beginning of the next class he comes to. "Mark, can you come speak to me for a second?" (privately at your desk or in the hallway). "Can you tell me what made you so angry yesterday?" Listen. Acknowledge any real or relevant concern. "Still, you reached step 3 in our behavior system, and that means you have a detention. Can you accept that consequence now?"

Here are the steps to respond effectively to a student's escalating behavior or when you find yourself in a power struggle with a combative student:

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