Avoiding Power Struggles in the Classroom

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by Dr. Kelly Gfroerer and Dr. Jane Nelsen
 
 
 
One of the most difficult classroom management challenges is avoiding power struggles. Remember, it takes two to engage in a power struggle. The Mistaken Goal Chart shows us that your feelings are the best clue to the students’ mistaken goal. If you feel challenged or find yourself thinking something like “he/she is not going to win this”, we encourage you to stop, take a deep breath, and consider the student’s coded message. 
 
The iceberg provides a graphic illustration for understanding the mistaken goal of power. For Misguided Power, the belief is “I belong only when I’m the boss; or, at least, I don’t let you boss me.” The coded message that provides clues for encouragement is “Let me help. Give me choices.” The coded message provides two examples for guiding students to use their power in useful ways. There are several other examples in the last column of the Mistaken Goal Chart
 
 
As a classroom teacher I noticed how sometimes the same behavior would invite different feelings and then I would know there was a different purpose (depending on the student or circumstances). The feeling(s) I had when the challenging behavior occurred helped me understand the purpose of the misbehavior. This understanding provided a guide to which Positive Discipline tool might be most effective. For example, in one class a student tapping a pencil during class annoyed and irritated me. This was my clue that the student’s goal was undue attention. However, in another class when a different student did the same pencil tapping behavior, I felt challenged and found myself thinking, “I have to make him stop”.  
 

Here are some tips for when you feel challenged and your student(s) mistaken goal is misguided power

 
1. For children under the age of four, focus on limited choices to engage the child in helping.
 
2. For older children, try any of the following:
 
“I need your help. What ideas do you have to fix this problem?”
“I think we are in a power struggle. Let’s take some time to calm down and then try again.”
“What is your understanding of our agreement?”
“What would help us the most right now, putting this on the class meeting agenda or brainstorming for a solution that works for both of us?”
 
2. Use the Mistaken Goal Detective Clue Form to practice becoming more familiar with the mistaken goal of Misguided Power.
 
3. Try connecting and validating the feelings of the student. You may also wish to share your perspective.