Imagine some dark, suspenseful Alfred Hitchcock music right now. A scary and lonely place to be, the dreaded power struggle between a teacher and a student can be difficult to manage. The back and forth nature of an escalating power struggle is never a good thing. So how can you avoid it? Try these seven proven techniques…
1. Offer Choices
When I go to an ice cream shop, I know I am going to get ice cream, but I want to be able to choose which kind I want. It is the same sort of thing with your students. They want a chance to make a choice and to feel empowered. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t get what you need from your students.
For example, as teacher of autistic students I have had to brush some students’ teeth at school every day. For some students, this was a struggle. They just didn’t want to do it and used avoidance tactics to the max! But then I thought about choices. So I offered the students the choice of which colored toothbrush or which type of toothpaste they each wanted to use, and everything changed.
The simple act of offering a choice allowed the students to feel in control. Yet at the same time, I accomplished what I needed them to do. So, get creative and come up with ways to offer choices and still get the activity completed. Think outside of the box, such as allowing students to choose from a variety of flexible seating arrangements.
2. Consistency and Consequences
Students need to know that you mean business. All children respond well to choices but also to a teacher setting consistent boundaries and sticking with them. However, students may engage in a power struggle if they think you will eventually budge on the consequence.
So set boundaries, make them clear, reinforce them to your students, and follow through with your consequences. Of course, make all consequences an appropriate reaction to the student’s behavior and used them only after you have tried all these other tips beforehand.
I’m talking when they zig, you zag, and when they zag, you zig. Total redirection… Sometimes, all a student needs to snap out of the early stages of a power struggle is to be redirected.
Ever stub your toe and try to distract yourself from the pain by thinking about something else, or have you even gone so far as to pinch yourself just to distract yourself from your throbbing toe? I know I have. It’s similar with a student starting into a power struggle.
Can you think of something that the student really likes, enjoys, or loves to talk about? Use that. It may be just what you need to distract a student from whatever it is that started the power struggle in the first place. You can always process the situation later with your student once they have calmed down.
4. Pick Your Battles
Decide on what is important for a student to be doing at any given time. Ask yourself, “what is the goal of this activity?” Time is too precious to spend it on things that are unachievable at that moment or that sacrifice the learning experience of others.
Every activity you give your students should have an objective in mind. That means you should know what the main goal is and exactly how students must cooperate towards that end. Knowing the general desired result will help you decide on whether or not this is a battle you want to engage in here and now.
5. Stay Calm and Don’t Fuel the Fire
Probably one of the hardest things to do when a student is in your face is to stay calm. If you falter and raise your tone to match theirs, however, you are only escalating the situation. So, keep a cool head. Do your best to remain calm in order to keep the energy of the situation down and to avoid a full-blown power struggle.
6. Put Yourself in the Student’s Shoes
Acknowledge each student’s feelings or concerns. Getting upset or denying the way that they feel will only make things worse. Take a minute to get mentally outside of the situation, and consider where the student is at emotionally or mentally at that moment. Maybe they just need to vent. Maybe they want you to understand where they are coming from. Maybe they just want you there until they calm down.
Try to mentally “remove” yourself from the beginnings of a power struggle by analyzing what this student wants out of the situation. What is the message that they are trying to get across? Do your best to decipher what they need in that moment so you can diffuse the power struggle before it starts.
7. Wait it Out
Some students just need a break. Yet they may not have the coping skills necessary to appropriately ask for a break. If you see your student escalating, kindly ask them if they need a break.
If you don’t want to call attention to them in front of the other students, teach them visual cues that indicate that they want to take a break. Before a power struggle happens, offer the student a chance to calm down on their own. If the student is not being disruptive, they can take a break right in their chair. Just let them hang out with their head down or whatever it is that helps calm them. Wait it out, and process with them at a later time.
Power struggles happen. The best thing you can do is try to prevent them. Work together with colleagues and IEP team members to keep lines of communication open. Try these techniques and be open to the process. In my experience, these classroom management tips are universal and will work in a variety of classroom settings. These methods have worked with students on the autism spectrum from mild to severe and with a wide range of grades from kindergarten to high school. So try them out, and let me know how it goes!
Trisha Katkin is a special education teacher in New Hampshire. She has her Master’s in Education and currently holds certificates in General Special Education, Learning Disabilities, and Emotional/Behavioral Disabilities.She is a crusader for students with autism and fights to spread awareness for teachers, parents, and advocates who need help.She has been a guest speaker at the University of New Hampshire Institute on Disability and has been featured on Autism Talk Now , The American Autism Association, as well as on Kerry Magro’s site .
Visit Trisha’s blog where her posts consist of actionable advice and tips that can be implemented immediately. Also download her free online course for teachers of students with autism, as well as more information on the free download, Avoiding the Power Struggle.