Strategy: Avoiding Power Struggles

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As the teacher in the classroom, you are ultimately in charge of how the classroom is organized and how instruction is provided. In promoting a positive classroom climate, respect is often a value that teachers want exemplified within the walls of their room. It’s important to remember that respect is a two-way street. There should be mutual respect from the students to the teacher as well as from the teacher to the students. Modeling respectful interactions when engaging with students in all situations is necessary to show students what that looks like and sounds like in practice. At times, students will challenge you as the adult. This can result in you feeling as though you have been disrespected, which can ultimately lead to a power struggle between you and the student. Once a power struggle ensues, regardless of the outcome, there really is no winner and the classroom climate and the relationships you have with students can be negatively affected.
In times of emotional distress and frustration, we sometimes respond to stressors in ways that are not productive or positive. Recognizing and preparing for stressful events that can cause you to react in ways that are not helpful is important in order to preserve a positive classroom climate and demonstrate mutual respect to students. While we cannot always predict when a power struggle might occur, we can plan for its occurrence and be reflective and purposeful in our handling of such situations.
How Avoiding Power Struggles Connects to CARES
As the adult in the classroom, it is your job to model appropriate and desirable behavior that you want your students to demonstrate. This can be challenging for adults who may have different cultural values and norms than their students. Some teachers may come from a culture that automatically grants respect and obedience from children to adults, while some of your students may come from a background where respect, regardless of age, is something that has to be earned. Assuming that all of your students will follow your directives simply because you are the adult in the room may cause you to experience some harsh realities and expose a mismatch between your cultural norms. It’s important to remember that you are a “safe” adult in most student’s lives. Most students know that no matter what they say or do, they will still be permitted into your classroom. Of course, there are exceptions to this, but because of this idea of “safety,” students sometimes feel more empowered to test adults in school buildings.
Some key elements for effectively avoiding power struggles:
(from Dodging the Power-Struggle Trap, full citation below.)
1) Disengaging from the power struggle is the first step to effectively avoiding them. A power struggle requires two parties to participate. If you don’t participate in the event, then a struggle cannot ensue. The step of disengaging from such an event is a personal one and can often be done with relative ease. One simple way to disengage is to take a deep mindful breath that will allow you to calm down and provide you with just a little more time to think about what to do next in such a situation.
2) Interrupting a student in this instance means that you are trying to help the student calm down and avoid an escalation in the emotions they are likely feeling. As the adult, you need to be calm and respectful and approach this part of the process in a positive way. A way to interrupt the escalation in behavior is to temporarily remove the student from the classroom. This does not mean that you punish the student and kick them out of class. Instead, you could send them on a quick errand out of the room. This can provide the student time to calm down before returning to class.
3) Deescalating a student’s intense and heightened emotions is essential for any kind of productive outcome to occur. This is not the time to deal with the consequences of the student’s behavior regarding the ensuing power struggle. That can come later after the student, and perhaps the teacher, have calmed down and can reflect on the incident in a respectful way. One way to help a student deescalate is to give them the power to make decisions about their own behavior. If you feel that the student is being defiant because of a need to feel that they are in control, then let them know that they ultimately have the power to choose whether or not to comply. Sometimes this is enough to alter the situation and maintain the status quo.

How To

How to Avoid Power Struggles

The best way to avoid a power struggle is to never get into one with a student. Even the most well-intentioned teachers can find themselves getting into a power struggle with a student over minor incidences. Once you do find yourself in a power struggle with a student, getting out of it quickly and calmly is most desirable. After experiencing a power struggle with a student, self-reflection is key to helping to avoid a reoccurrence of such events in the future

Strategy Tool
Avoiding Power Struggles - Strategy Tool
Use the Avoiding Power Struggles strategy tool to help guide your coaching and get you in the habit of using descriptive language with your students.


Avoiding Power Struggles - Reflection
Take a moment to make sure your plan is going to work.

Goal Setting

Avoiding Power Struggles - Goal Setting

Use the following form to set your goals to avoid power struggles.

References to Other Relevant Resources:

Dodging the power-struggle trap: Ideas for teachers. (n.d.). Retrieved October 12, 2020, from


Concentration Areas: Connection to the Curriculum; Authentic Relationships; Reflective Thinking About Cultural, Racial/Ethnic, and Class Differences; Effective Communication; Sensitivity to Students’ Culture

What is CARES?

CARES is an acronym for the five domains that research has found to be successful in engaging students of culturally diverse backgrounds at school. Each letter refers to a significant element of interaction within the classroom. Applying all five domains of CARES works because it promotes a better understanding of students and ourselves by using strategies that deepen those relationships every day.

There is no single element that works independently of the others. All five CARES domains, together with the Positive Behavior Supports & Classroom Climate elements, support one another and need to be applied in the classroom to be successful.

Why is it important?

Research has shown that each of the five CARES domains has a significant impact on students and their behavior when used regularly and over time. Students who are known and understood by their teachers as individuals in the classroom report deeper connections academically and to their school. When teachers understand their own cultural heritage, they better understand the differences between themselves and their students and report higher levels of mutual respect with students. This also helps teachers to recognize the similarities they share with their students as well as recognize ways in which they are different. Students are more connected and engaged in classrooms where teachers welcome exploration; invite, acknowledge, and celebrate cultural differences; make relevant connections to the curriculum; listen attentively to understand how each student is approaching the concepts; and use humor and other effective communication tools.

CARES Overview

Greeting Students at the Door

Using Journals to Build Relationships

Identifying Reinforcers for the Classroom

Using Social and Emotional Coaching

Using Behavior-specific Praise

Using Active Supervision

Using Group Contingencies

Using Precorrection

Teaching Behavior Expectations

Providing Academic Feedback

Increasing Opportunities to Respond

Developing and Using Clear Academic Objectives

Posting and Using a Schedule

Coaching Process – Menu of Options

Coaching Process – Providing Feedback

Coaching Process – Introduction and Overview

Observation Practice 4

Observation Practice 3

Observation Practice 2

Observation Practice 1

Using an Attention Signal

Teaching Classroom Routines

Physical Classroom Structure

Values Card Sort – Example

Card Sort Introduction

Coaching – Interview Guide

Opening the Meeting

Defining and Teaching Classroom Rules

Mrs. James

Miss Faber

Positive Behavior Supports & Classroom Climate

Concentration Areas: Smooth Transitions, Pacing of Instruction, Student Engagement, Clear Expectations, Use of Praise, Use of Reprimands, Level of Disruptive Behavior

What is Positive Behavior Supports & Classroom Climate?

Positive Behavior Supports refers to the proactive ways that teachers work with their students, as well as the ways that teachers respond to challenging situations with students. The focus is on recognizing and affirming student strengths rather than punishing them or taking something away from them. A positive approach to the classroom will promote a classroom climate that is welcoming to all students and is a place where students want to engage with the teacher, each other, and the curriculum. All individuals, students and teachers, and the interactions between and amongst all classroom members play a role in the climate.

There is no single element that works independently of the others. All Positive Behavior Supports & Classroom Climate elements, together with the CARES domains, support one another and need to be applied to the classroom to be successful.

Why is it important?

In a classroom climate that is positive and welcoming to all members, the classroom becomes a safe place where culture and diversity can be openly discussed. A supportive climate is one that promotes student engagement and success. Students feel supported and motivated to be an active member of the classroom community. The teacher taking a positive and proactive approach creates a climate of care and respect and promotes desired student behaviors. This classroom is also a place that provides consistency to students, which is especially important for students who may experience stress and uncertainty outside of the school building. Teachers who have positive and proactive classrooms report fewer disruptive behaviors from their students, an increase in student achievement, and better overall perceptions of school climate.

Double Check Classroom Check-Up Overview