Derek is in the hallway during class time and is wearing his hat (a violation of the dress code policy). Mr. Smith sees Derek from a far hall. Although he’s never had Derek in class, he has frequently addressed Derek’s insistence on wearing a hat. As Derek passes by two other adults, Mr. Smith calls out to him, demanding that he take the hat off immediately. Derek ignores him and keeps walking. Mr. Smith calls out again, this time louder, and includes a threat (“You’ll go to the office…”). Derek stops and proceeds to challenge Mr. Smith about how “He’s the only person who ever says anything”, “My teacher lets me”, etc. Mr. Smith now physically moves in front of Derek. Their verbal exchange becomes increasingly heated and culminates in Mr. Smith demanding that Derek go to the office and writes him up for defiance.
(Photo Credit: Lindsey Lachanche)
This is a typical scenario that occurs in schools every day. If you were Mr. Smith’s supervisor, you could perceive it as a simple disciplinary referral for violating the dress code or you could see it as a power struggle that negatively contributes to your school culture. These brief interactions between adults and children matter in how adults effectively communicate and enforce rules to the students. It’s in these fleeting moments that school culture is reinforced and the authority of adults is either respected and affirmed or resented. In this situation, the adult has contributed to a school atmosphere based on power struggles—not a culture of personal responsibility and dignity.
In schools, our conversations about bullying and social justice often focus on student behavior but the focus should also be on how adults treat each other and the students. The most effective leaders reflect on how they react to these challenges, improve their responses, and then guide other adults how to transform potential power struggles between students and adults into positive interactions. One common way student and adult dignity is compromised is through power struggles like the hat scenario above.
That leads us to what to do about it? Essential to your success is to coach your team and your students about power struggles. It’s important that both groups see your commitment to eliminating power struggles by helping everyone learn better options.
Leading the Learning: Supporting Adults and Students as they Learn to Eliminate Power Struggles
Part One of this article is a lesson designed for your entire school team because every adult who has contact with students, either positively or negatively, shapes the learning environment and school experience. If at all possible, include bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria staff, and your school’s resource officer. Part Two of this article is a tool you can use to address power struggles with your students.
Part One: Leading the Learning with Your School Team – Understanding the Adult Role in the Power Struggle
As the leader and person in authority, coaching the staff is essential. It’s more effective to address the topic in small groups (departments, PLCs, etc) but certainly if your only opportunity is to address the whole school team please do so. Note that I use the following terms in our lesson plan template: Opener, Pre-assessment, Learning, Practice, Formative assessment. You would change my language to match the language used by your team in their instructional plans. This is your opportunity to model those same expectations you’ve set for your team.
Opener/Setting the Stage
First and foremost, it is critical to remind your school team that it takes two for a power struggle to occur. The student cannot have a power struggle on his/her own. When someone engages in a power struggle it is because they want to prove they have authority or that another person doesn’t have power over them in front of others. Both participants want the other person to back down and a power struggle becomes a battle when someone says, “I won. He/she backed off.” It often has less to do with the content of the conflict than the dynamics between the people.
In addition, both participants quickly become aware of any audience – other students and faculty members who witness the situation. Once the power struggle begins, and an audience is present, the problem expands to “saving face” in front of others. Both participants may try to pull others into the conflict in an effort to intimidate the other person to acquiesce, which further heightens the likelihood that the situation will quickly escalate.
It’s likely that you have team members who believe that their title alone and/or the fact that they are adults should be enough to demand young people’s immediate acknowledgment and agreement to follow any direction or command. In my experience, adults with this mindset are the most volatile and are more likely to contribute to a negative school culture. Their need to “teach” the student to respect adults in the moment overpowers any sense of self-control. In this scenario, the adult will likely use a loud voice, an intimidating posture, and escalate the situation. If the adult finds him/herself engaging in a power struggle for the purpose of exhibiting control, then no one wins. If the adult finds him/herself engaging in a power struggle because he/she is frustrated with repeatedly addressing the same issue over and over again, then no one wins. If the adult finds him/herself engaging in a power struggle because he/she is the adult and kids should listen, then no one wins. It’s especially important to clearly articulate how the adult loses.
The adult loses when there are colleagues present who see the interaction and now are less likely to approach the adult because of his/her perceived unwillingness to work through conflict. The adult loses when student observers, perhaps kids who have a positive rapport in class with the adult, now see him/her in a different light – as someone willing to strip a student of his/her dignity. This new realization will follow into the classroom.
Not all adults will agree this is a problem or area of concern because they believe that students should comply. Some of your team members may be notorious for engaging in power struggles with other faculty or students and won’t see themselves as a part of the problem. There are two ways to approach these folks.
First, it helps to engage these folks by using the notion “Have you or someone you know been in this situation with a student?” or “Even if you feel you rarely or never get into power struggles with students, it’s likely you’ve witnessed someone else doing this, right?” By wording it this way, adults are less likely to get defensive. Also, when you use an example of your own, you are respectful in doing so.
Second, convey the idea that we don’t want kids to learn to comply with people just because they have more power. If we teach this, we send kids mixed messages. On one hand we teach kids to think for themselves and then on the other we say things like, “Do what I say and don’t question me.” If we want critically thinking brains we have to allow kids to push back—respectfully. The kid who complies with an adult is the same kid developing the same behavior pattern to comply with a peer who is doing something unethical etc. This is an opportunity to teach kids how to stand up for their beliefs in a respectful way.
It’s important to acknowledge that you know this happens at your school, but reinforce that you know all of your team members want to improve and certainly never knowingly engage in a power struggle to be hurtful. This approach makes it clear that you know what happens in your school while also maintaining everyone’s dignity – something else that you must always strive to model as the school leader.
In the Opener, specifically discuss the reasons (your motivation and goals) you want the team to discuss power struggles. Begin by sharing a personal experience and then ask your team members to talk about their experiences with power struggles in pairs or triads to get them warmed up around the topic. Participants will probably agree that power struggles result in someone feeling a loss or lack of control or respect. With equal importance is effectively communicating these feelings of loss or lack of control will negatively impact the student learning environment.
Ask for a volunteer to share a past power struggle that didn’t end up well. In other words the adult felt that both parties walked away feeling disrespected and viewing the other person negatively. Be prepared, as always, to provide an example of your own as a starting point for those folks who feel they cannot come up with one or share the scenario from above. Give the team time to discuss the scenario in small groups, focusing on any portions they feel could be modified for a better outcome. Ask the team to keep the scenario in mind for discussion after the learning.
As always, be sure to start with the why? Why is it important to minimize power struggles in our school? Make it clear to your team that these negative feelings become the basis for a negative school culture. There is plenty of research that correlates a negative school culture to poor student achievement, lower teacher retention, and a general lack of community. If an adult is likely to engage in a power struggle with a student, they are also more likely to be confrontational with colleagues. This, of course, directly impacts teaching and learning. Finally, a negative school culture is more likely to result in a generally unsafe school. Students who do not feel positively about their school are much more likely to break rules and make poor choices that can result in unsafe situations. It’s important for your team to understand that a positive school culture is critical to student success and safety.
Share the following recommendations on how to avoid power struggles. Ultimately, that is our goal. No one wins in a power struggle and the goal is to eliminate these struggles and, thereby, avoid the negative feelings associated with power struggles. To that end, we have to work toward increasing our capacity to not allow conflict to result in a power struggle. Here are some ideas on how to do this:
1) Offer choices: Yes, it seems simple but even 18 year old seniors respond more positively to choices then demands.
2) Avoid negative words: No one wants to hear “No!”, “You can’t.”, “Stop!”, “Do _____ or else…”, etc. These words can’t always be avoided (especially when safety risks exist) but we can be thoughtful about not making them our “go to” words.
3) Show understanding: adults don’t always agree with the rules either and yet we follow them anyway because we understand the root cause or reason. Share your personal sentiment and then why you follow the rule anyway. Be as specific as possible. Sharing your personal perspective demonstrates both respect and trust for the student. You might also explain why the rules exists. Only do so, however, if you are 100% of your explanation. Making something up as you go can cause more damage than good in this situation. If you don’t know the background of a rule, acknowledge that and demonstrate a willingness to find out the information and circle back to the student to discuss it.
4) Delay your interaction: If a student does something that immediately makes you angry/frustrated/annoyed, etc (again, short of a safety issue or anyone being at risk), don’t immediately engage. We all know that going into a conversation with those emotions only makes the situation worse. Even if the student does what you ask, they are obeying but not respecting you as an authority and they won’t internalize the rule (they’ll just do it again when the adult is out of sight). This dynamic also makes it much more likely that you will have contributed to having a negative effect on the student’s ability to learn in his/her next class. Think of it this way, no teacher appreciates when a student walks into their classroom angry and hostile because of an interaction they just had with another adult (even when the adult is justified).
As an example, let’s go back to our initial scenario. In that case, instead of approaching Derek in the moment, Mr. Smith could indicate he sees the hat (perhaps by pointing to his head) and say “Derek, I’ll touch base with you later about the school dress code.” In doing so, Mr. Smith acknowledges for Derek and others that he sees the infraction and intends to address it later in a private manner. School leader note – this is a good time to determine two or three key things your team will agree to as the go to statements for handling conflict with students. An important learning experience is to have staff members share statements/actions that they find work productively with students as well as those that don’t. Once the brainstorming is complete, be concrete about which three statements will be used by all team members.
5) In particularly challenging situations, be prepared to walk away. If you have tried other options (like those offered in numbers 1-4) and the student is adamant about engaging in the power struggle state, “I feel like we are headed toward a power struggle and, frankly, I’m not interested in going down that road. We both lose in that scenario and I don’t want this to be negative. I’ll let your counselor/administrator know we talked and perhaps the three of us can touch base together to work this out for the future.” In this instance you are preserving the possibility of a relationship with the student while also letting him/her know that you are holding him/her to the expectation (which also sends a positive message – you know they’re intelligent enough to get it done). Walking away in this manner is not a loss of power. It models for the student that sometimes the best resolution is one that is delayed until emotions calm down.
6) Long-term picture, address those issues that are repeated problems as a school team. The ugly truth is that the majority of schools constantly deal with the small stuff (hats, short skirts, tardiness, etc) and detest the time that is devoted to these trivial topics. That’s not to say that being on time to class is not critical. It is to say that in the mind of the student these small issues are absolutely trivial and we are unlikely to make them see it otherwise. The most effective course of action is to harness the power of your school leaders – students, teacher, parents, etc – to address the issue(s) head on versus fighting the battle every day with the same small group of students.
Once you have thoroughly explored these ways to avoid power struggles, put the group into pairs and have them go back to their original scenario (either their own or the one provided by you) and re-enact it using one or more of these methods. They can either talk through how to modify the scenario, do a role play of the scenario, or you could have them write about it first and then share it with their partner.
As a final practice, ask for a couple of volunteers to share their before/after scenarios and allow the larger group to provide feedback. You may want to have members of your school leadership team prepared to go first.
Offer each team member an index card and ask him/her to indicate which of the methods discussed today will be one that he/she will try to use in a future instance of conflict with a student. On the back, ask each member to write one more suggestion to add to our list of methods to avoid power struggles. Compile this additional list and send out to your team after this session.
Part Two: Leading the Learning with Your Students – Coaching your Student to Avoid Power Struggles
For my high school students, when I set the tone about expectations in the beginning of the school year, I always gave them advice about how to handle conflicts with faculty—especially conflicts where they thought they were treated unfairly or disrespectfully. Just like with adults, this is best done in small groups (Advisory is a great setting). If that is not possible, consider a video lesson incorporating both your leadership team and student leaders. Here are three strategies to teach students:
1) Most struggles arise over a breach of school rules – so follow the rules and you’re good. And remember, we do recognize that some of the rules may not make sense to you or are inconsistently applied. If you don’t like a rule, we have a process for having it reviewed for potential change.
2) Know yourself and your ability to deal with conflict. If you know the person talking to you is someone with whom you don’t see eye to eye, agree to their request and then go talk to a trusted adult about the problem. That adult will work with you (and an administrator/counselor if that will help) to find a solution.
3) Understand your body language and the body language of others. If you feel yourself exhibiting signs that can be construed as disrespectful, then that is a good time to back off, end the conversation politely, and go seek assistance from another adult.
My message was simple, if you engage in a power struggle with an adult you will lose; translated you will likely end up with a consequence for insubordination (technically both people lose but I wanted kids to see it was a no win situation in hopes that we would avoid the power struggle all together). The better option is to resist the power struggle and seek out support to resolve the issue.
I ultimately gave our kids this out – when an adult in our school asks you to do something (short of do something you feel is ethically or morally wrong or could cause harm) do it. If you feel the adult treated you disrespectfully or that the situation was unjust or unfair, talk to someone you trust later and we will work through it together.
A Final Thought
Regardless of the outcome, a culture where power struggles are permitted to persist is a culture where students begin to learn the lesson that they always lose. Gone unaddressed, power struggles send the message that students can and will be targeted. The result – students begin to feel they have nothing to lose and are more likely to engage adults disrespectfully; discipline referrals increase, school safety decreases and a cycle of a negative school culture is bred or continued. As the school leader, you have the moral responsibility to tackle the issue; and, with this article, you have some tools with which to start the conversation.