Balancing the power equation

Julia G Thompson

Julia-1 Power struggles between teachers and students are among the most common discipline issues that educators must learn to manage effectively. No matter how many years you have been a teacher or how mature and capable your students are, unless you are vigilant, attentive, and prepared, classroom power struggles can negatively dominate the discipline climate for both you and your students. In a classroom where students and teachers engage in continual struggles for power and influence, no one wins. Instead of a productive, effective, pleasant learning environment, an unpredictable and unpleasant atmosphere will make it difficult for you to teach and for your students to achieve academic and behavioural success.

One of the first steps that you can take to successfully manage this problem is to be aware of the various forms that classroom power struggles can assume. Although students who want to engage in power struggles with the adults in their lives can appear in many different guises, there are some ways that teachers can find easier to recognize than others.

  • The defiant student who is openly confrontational, oppositional, and rude.
  • The student who can do well in school, but who chooses not to.
  • The student who too frequently asks to leave the room.
  • The student who has perfected the fine art of eye rolling when you give directions.
  • The student who is consistently tardy to class.
  • The class clown who disrupts the flow of instruction with attention-grabbing comments.
  • The passively aggressive student who consistently “forgets” materials or completed work.
  • The disrespectful student who somehow manages to be rude but enough not to be referred to the office.
  • The student who says unkind things about you or about the class behind your back.
  • The student who complies with your directions but at a deliberately slow pace.

Don’t delay action when you suspect a power struggle
Sometimes the frustration, stress, and misery caused by a student who wants to engage you in a power struggle may make intervention appear not worth the trouble. After all, unlike some discipline problems, often power struggles build slowly and require long-term solutions. Many teachers find it easy to adopt defensive attitudes such as, “As long as he’s sleeping, he’s not bothering anyone”, and perhaps these:

  • I can’t change this student’s behaviour no matter what I do.
  • Only five more minutes of class left…
  • I can’t change her anyway. Why even try?
  • It’s near the end of the term. Soon this will be another teacher’s problem.
  • If the parents can’t do anything, why should I even try?

The long-term, heavy toll of a power struggle on students and their teachers makes thoughtful action imperative. If teachers don’t choose to act to resolve a power struggle, the results can be disastrous:

  • Stressed out teachers on the path to burnout.
  • An escalation of misbehaviour.
  • The loss of instructional time.
  • A tense and unpleasant learning environment for all students.
  • Unhappy and unproductive students (and teachers).

When should teachers intervene?
To avoid a power struggle with students, it is important to know when to intercede to keep a student’s misbehaviour as non-disruptive as possible. Focus on prevention as often as you can. It is far easier to prevent a student from misbehaving than to have to deal with a full-blown power struggle. One important component of this is to know when you should act. Try these guidelines:

If the behaviour is –

  • limited to one student, try to ignore as much as you can.
  • brief in duration, try to ignore it, also.
  • distracting other students, it’s time to act.

And, as always, keep in mind that any intervention that you attempt when a student misbehaves should be one that is appropriate, in accordance with school policy, and serves to protect the offending student’s dignity.

Julia-2 Mistakes to avoid
One of the unique features of a classroom power struggle is that it is very easy for even experienced teachers to make mistakes when trying to cope with this issue. One of the primary causes for this tendency is that our judgment can be clouded by negative emotions once the misbehaviour begins. To prevent this, try to avoid making these very common mistakes when dealing with a student who wants to engage in a power struggle.

  • Staying angry with a defiant student.
  • Not involving parents and other concerned adults soon enough.
  • Allowing your body language to show your emotions.
  • Losing your cool and otherwise showing your anger.
  • Losing sight of the student behind the behaviour.
  • Not adopting a problem-solving approach.
  • Not dealing with the stressful effect a defiant student can have on your day.
  • Ignoring the problem until it becomes difficult to manage.
  • Using an office referral as a solution instead of as a short-term relief.

Strategies that can help
There are many positive strategies that you can use to prevent or successfully manage potential power struggles in your classroom. Here are just a few that many veteran teachers have found to be successful.

  1. Simply refuse to engage in a power struggle. For example, when a student breaks a classroom rule, instead of arguing about it or holding a lengthy and often unproductive discussion, calmly enact the consequences that you have in place for that rule.
  2. Offer choices as often as you can. When students feel empowered about at least some of the decisions that need to be made in class they are less likely to misbehave. This will allow you and your students to resolve the issues in a win-win manner.
  3. Think before you act. Be deliberate and decisive when you make choices about the best way to resolve classroom issues. Avoid haste and anger when you are trying to make sound classroom management choices.
  4. Have reasonable class rules, procedures, and policies in place. Students will know what is expected and what the positive and negative results of their actions will be and can make sound choices for themselves.
  5. Turn negative student leaders into positive ones with a delicate touch. What they want to do and are already pretty good at doing is simple: leaders want to lead. A wise teacher will give them plenty of constructive opportunities to do so – luckily there are plenty of those opportunities in every class period. Here are just some of the small actions you can take which will allow leaders to be productive instead of destructive influences in your classroom. Class leaders can:
    • Monitor groups working on class assignments.
    • Serve as a liaison between you and the class.
    • Speak for their classmates at assemblies and other meetings.
    • Take class votes, collect monies, assume responsibility for issuing texts and passing out papers.
    • Consult with other students about choices in due dates, projects, and materials, and report to you.
    • Run errands, pick up supplies.
    • Manage debates or panel discussions.
    • Be the reporter for small group discussions.
    • Be the person who makes sure everyone knows what the homework assignment is.
    • Greet guests and be the helper when there is a substitute.
  6. Be as overwhelmingly positive. Never belittle them. You will only appear foolish as the rest of the class immediately takes sides sympathetically with their classmate.
  7. Reinforcing their positive behaviours is the best strategy. You’ll gain their cooperation as well as the approval of the entire class when you make it clear that you want everyone in the class to succeed.
  8. As a final suggestion for avoiding a power struggle, it’s important to maintain a level-headed approach to the problem. You won’t be able to win over every student despite your obvious sincerity and very best efforts. It is unrealistic to expect otherwise of yourself and of your students.

The author has been a teacher in the public schools of Virginia, Arizona, and North Carolina for more than 35 years. She currently teaches in Fairfax County, Virginia, where she is an active speaker and consultant. She also provides advice on a variety of subjects through her web site,; on her blog,; and on Twitter at Her online course, Survival Skills for New Teachers, will be available at

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