Virginia Commonwealth University
May 10, 2010
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By Laura C. Peters, M.A.

Ms. Wright begins class with a routine journal prompt written on the board. She notices that Charlie has not started his assignment, so she says, “Charlie, you need to get out your journal now. The prompt is on the board.”

“I don’t need to do anything you tell me to do!” is Charlie’s reply, shouted back at Ms. Wright.

“Young man, you need to watch your tone with me. Now get started or else,” states Ms. Wright firmly as she stands up from her chair and walks toward Charlie.

“Why? You can’t make me. My dad told me you’re just an overpaid babysitter and I don’t have to listen to everything you say,” Charlie sneers back at Ms. Wright.

“That’s it Charlie, I’ve had enough! You can take that disrespectful mouth of yours right to the principal’s office and he can deal with you and your father!” Ms. Wright is red in the face and raising her voice as she makes this reply.

“Are you threatening my father? I’m going to tell! You’re really going to pay now!” Charlie yells as he leaves the room, knocking over his chair and slamming the door on his way out.

This back-and-forth exchange with a student that starts with a seemingly simple direction and escalates quickly into a heated squabble is called a power struggle. The bottom line with power struggles in the classroom is that nobody wins. 

What is a power struggle? 

In a power struggle, each participant is equally committed to winning (Tobin, 2000). In the example, Ms. Wright wants to “win” control of her classroom, meaning she wants her students to follow her directions. Charlie, on the other hand, is asserting his independence, possibly fueled by comments from his father. He is trying to “win” the choice of what to do or not to do. In order for the power struggle to continue, both parties need to stay involved in the struggle. Adults often stay involved in the struggle because the student’s behavior triggers an emotional reaction for them. Can you imagine Ms. Wright’s feelings that led to her red face and raised voice? Because of those feelings, Ms. Wright’s responses to Charlie were increasingly emotionally charged, keeping the conflict going.

Teacher using megaphone to talk to student.

Discussions between students and teachers that escalate into heated power struggles are detrimental to the classroom. Teachers should implement a variety of strategies to prevent and end power struggles.

What are some ways to avoid power struggles?

Because prevention is more successful than getting out of a power struggle once it has started, focus first on strategies to avoid conflict in the classroom. Teaching students the classroom rules and expectations is probably the simplest and most effective technique to prevent misbehavior (Chitiyo & Wheeler, 2009; Houchins, Jolivette, Wessendorf, McGlynn & Nelson 2005; Lassen et al., 2006). This can be done at the beginning of the year and any time during the year when the teacher notices that students need a refresher.  Additionally, by providing instruction that is differentiated to meet the needs of all learners, teachers can ensure student engagement and minimize problems in the classroom  (Lassen, Steele & Sailor, 2006; McIntosh, Chard, Boland & Horner, 2006; Sadler & Sugai, 2009).  Finally, teachers can ensure that the expectations are being followed and instruction is running smoothly by arranging the room thoughtfully and moving around the room during class to spot any problems and support students. These prevention techniques benefit every classroom.

When misbehavior does occur, teachers have many strategies at their fingertips to support students and change the dynamic. What supports could Ms. Wright have put in place for Charlie when he first refused to do his journal entry? She could have started by restating her expectation that all students are to complete journal entries at the beginning of class. She might have offered him a choice of a different topic, or she could have provided him an incentive, such as allowing him to lead the class’s next activity when he completed the assignment. Finally, she could have taken the time to understand what was behind Charlie’s reaction to her request. When teachers gather information about the behavior, they can better understand how to support it.

Teacher responses and treatment of students are critical to creating and maintaining a positive climate in the classroom. When students are struggling, the teacher’s response to their needs can mean the difference between successfully navigating the hurdle and a power struggle. If the teacher perceives either academic or behavioral challenges as a failure on her part, she may react to the student’s behavior as a threat (Shahbazian, Taglione & Paull, 2005). In doing so, the teacher is communicating disapproval to the student, and the student’s reaction may then perpetuate the power struggle (Fecser & Long, 2000).

Monitoring certain trigger words can help teachers avoid this cycle. When redirecting a student, it is helpful to avoid words such as “you,” “no,” and “don’t.” These words can make the exchange feel more threatening. For example, instead of telling Charlie, “You need to watch your tone,” Ms. Wright may have received a different response if she had stated, “I feel confused by your response.” This is an example of an “I statement” or “feeling statement” (Johnston, 2007; Rakos, 1991). “I Statements” use a pattern for stating feelings to change a blaming statement into one in which the speaker takes ownership of his or her feelings and provides an opening for ongoing dialogue.

Another trigger word is asking students “why” they did something; this implies blame.  Instead, a question like, “Can you help me understand what happened?” is much less threatening and puts the child in a different role.

Finally, teachers can expect students to reject what they perceive to be lecturing or nagging, especially if done in front of the student’s peers. Comments like, “I’ve told you this a thousand times,” or “If you don’t start putting your name on your paper, you’re going to end up failing all of your classes because your teachers will never know you’ve done your work. Do you really want to end up a failure?” are almost certain to cause a negative reaction in students. Teachers are likely to see more positive responses if they remember to praise in public and reprimand in private.

What should I do if I do get into a power struggle with a student?

Teachers who recognize that they are feeling drawn into a verbal battle with a student have a responsibility to take steps to end the power struggle. The following is a list of strategies and considerations that may help when tensions begin to rise (Fecser & Long, 2000; Russell, 2010; Schindler, 2002; Shahbazian et al., 2005; Walker, 1995; Wright, 2000).

  1. Misbehavior or Mother Nature? – Is the behavior developmentally normal for this student?  If so, going head-to-head with a child for simply being a child will almost always cause conflict. For example, adolescents are likely to challenge authority and assert independence frequently. Getting angry about it will not solve the problem, but fair and consistent rules and consequences, delivered in a neutral tone, will help to shape behavior in the future.
  2. Later! – Choosing to walk away from a heated exchange allows both parties to cool down so that they can have a more reasonable conversation at a later time. Teachers can effectively redirect a student during a power struggle by restating an expectation and leaving the student to make a choice. After the fact, the teacher and student can discuss what happened and try to understand what was behind the behavior so that the teacher can better support the student in the future.
  3. The last word can be lethal. – Trying to get the last word can be a recipe for disaster.  As the teacher is shouting a comment to the student on his way out the door, there is nothing to stop the student from “topping” the teacher’s last comment. We can only be sure of our own behavior and responses, so gambling on how a student may respond to a parting comment is risky. His last word may be more than the teacher is prepared to handle. There is no benefit to upping the ante in a power struggle.
  4. Is anybody listening to me? – Teachers may feel the need to raise their voices during a power struggle to dominate the conversation. Raising your voice is nothing but an invitation for the student to do the same. A better approach is to speak to the student privately, out of the room if at all possible. The power struggle is less likely to escalate if it becomes a quiet and private conversation between adult and child.
  5. Sarcasm isn’t funny. – Often students do not understand the subtleties of sarcasm, either because it is developmentally beyond them or the comment sounds more like an insult than a “joke.” Teachers can avoid creating stressful situations by eliminating sarcasm from their language while in school. The misunderstanding can start or inflame a power struggle with a student.
  6. Save face. – Ultimately, this is the goal of both the student and the teacher in a power struggle. The best way to save face is to get out of the power struggle. The rest of the class is observing the exchange and sees what pushes the teacher’s buttons and recognizes the out-of-control behavior. In the long run, this can be damaging to the teacher’s credibility with the class.
  7. Don’t sweat the small stuff. – The scenario in Ms. Wright’s room is a good example of how getting overly involved in a relatively minor refusal can snowball into a much larger issue. Before making demands of students, teachers should ask themselves if it really matters that the student is standing behind his desk instead of sitting in his chair, or if he starts on the last part of the assignment first. If it won’t change the instructional outcome, there is probably not a good reason to insist on compliance.
  8. Set limits but avoid ultimatums. – There is a difference between telling a student, “I expect you to get started with your assignment,” and “You need to start your work right this minute or you will lose recess for the rest of the month!” The first allows the student to make the choice but the second sets up a direct challenge. If the child still refuses, is this a threat that most teachers are willing to follow through on? What would the consequences be for not following through? This is really a no-win situation.
  9. Take charge of yourself. – As stated earlier, most teachers continue power struggles because the student’s behavior has struck an emotional chord. If you realize that you are feeling angry at a student, take steps to calm down before continuing the dialogue. Managing your own emotions will help you approach each student in an impartial and supportive manner.

After a power struggle with a student, teachers may feel unsure of how to treat a student upon his or her return to the class. A few guiding principles will help to ease the transition back to a productive teacher-student relationship. Teachers should make sure to communicate to the student that he or she is welcome back to the classroom and that they are making a fresh start. This is not the time to revisit the incident from the previous class. It may be helpful to restate the expectations to the student and to offer the student an opportunity to discuss the situation with the teacher privately when he or she is ready to do so. By extending these supportive gestures to the student, teachers are more likely to get a positive response instead of a repeat of the earlier power struggle. If the student seems ready to re-engage in the conflict, however, the teacher now has the benefit of hindsight to know when and how to stop the struggle before it begins.

Chitiyo, M., & Wheeler, J. (2009). Challenges faced by school teachers in implementing positive behavior support in their school systems. Remedial and Special Education, 30(1), 58-63. doi: 10.1177/0741932508315049.

Fecser, F., & Long, N. (2000). Life space crisis intervention. Retrieved February 23, 2010 from

Houchins, D., Jolivette, K., Wessendorf, S., McGlynn, M. & Nelson, C. M. (2005). Stakeholders’ view of implementing positive behavioral support in a juvenile justice setting. Education and Treatment of Children, 28(4), 380-399.

Johnston, E. (2007). Feeling statements – Saying what you really mean. Borderline Personality. Retrieved on March 2, 2010 from

Lassen, S., Steele, M., & Sailor, W. (2006). The relationship of school-wide positive behavior support to academic achievement in an urban middle school. Psychology in the Schools, 43(6), 701-712. doi: 10.1002/pits.20177.

McIntosh, K., Chard, D., Boland, J., & Horner, R. (2006). Demonstration of combined efforts in school-wide academic and behavioral systems and incidence of reading and behavior challenges in early elementary grades. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 8(3), 146-154. doi: 10.1177/10983007060080030301.

Rakos, R. (1991). Assertive behavior: Theory, research and training. London: Routledge.

Russell, D. (2010). Say no to power struggles. Special Education.  Retrieved February 23, 2010 from

Sadler, C., & Sugai, G. (2009). Effective behavior and instructional support: A district model for early identification and prevention of reading and behavior problems. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 11(1), 35-46. doi: 10.1177/1098300708322444.

Schindler, J. (2002). Successfully negotiating a power struggle. (Unpublished handout from online course syllabus). Retrieved February 23, 2010 from

Shahbazian, M., Taglione, P., & Paull, L. (2005). The conflict cycle – it’s not just about the kids. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 14(1), 32-36.

Tobin, M. (2000). A ten-year power struggle. Retrieved February 28, 2010 from

Walker, H. (1995). The acting out child: Coping with classroom disruption. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

Wright, J. (2000). Dodging the power-struggle trap: Ideas for teachers. Intervention Central. Retrieved February 23, 2010 from



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