As an educator or parent, getting into a power struggle can be an awful thing. We waste so much of our energy trying to get we we want that we sometimes forget what our goal was in the first place. Power struggles can be especially difficult with kids with ADHD, autism, oppositional-defiant disorder, and other social-emotional challenges. After teaching middle school special education in a behavioral classroom for ten years, I’ve picked up a few strategies on how to avoid (and get out of) power struggles.
If you find yourself needing more support with de-escalation strategies for kids and young adults, consider this De-escalation Strategies Guide with a detailed educator guide, sample scenarios, proactive strategies, and de-escalation techniques.
Here are some strategies for avoiding power struggles that you can use right away:
1. Develop a relationship early on. This is by far the most important element to reducing power struggles with kids and young adults. Talk to kids about what they’re interested in and spend time learning about those topics. That often means talking about non-school related topics, and that’s okay. Time spend on relationship building is never time wasted. It’s a prerequisite for learning.
2. Hide your frustrations. We all get frustrated with students sometimes! When that happens, take a breath and walk away. Kids really need more positivity in their lives. By showing our frustrations, we are just making kids feel poorly about themselves instead of helping them reach their individual potentials.
3. Be kind. A kind tone and “please” really can go a long way. Sometimes this can be all the child or young adult wants. Other times, kids are so shocked that someone would ask them so politely, they just end up following through right away. Be reflective with yourself frequently about how you might be coming off to another individual.
4. Give the expectation and run. That means what it says! Literally tell the child your expectation or direction privately and then get out of there. Don’t give the child a chance to talk back to you or tell you they aren’t going to do it. Get out of there!
5. Ignore what you can ignore. If a behavior isn’t interfering with the learning of others, try to ignore it. Even if it bothers you personally (like pen clicking or tapping), let it go. Most likely, another student will end up politely correcting the child. This is really the best thing when this happens because kids listen to each other much more than they listen to adults! Additionally, sometimes our reactions are actually the reinforcement that kids are looking for. By ignoring many behaviors, we are helping to extinguish them. When you want to correct a behavior, consider if you can ignore it or not first.
6. Let the child or young adult get the last word. This seems counter-intuitive in the education world. Adults always feel the need to get the last word with kids, but so often it really does not get us anywhere except further argument! My favorite strategy is just to pretend I didn’t hear it when a student talks back or says something negative under their breath. Things like, “I’m not doing it,” and “This is a stupid project,” can just be completely ignored! It will make your life easier in the end.
7. Listen and validate. If a student is having a problem or starts to argue, listen to them without interrupting. Validate them by saying, “I see your point,” and “So what you’re saying is…?”. Spending that extra time just listening to a student and letting them have a voice can defuse power struggles before they start.
8. Explain your reasoning. Let students know, “I really need all eyes on me right now so I can explain the directions to the lab and then you can go off with your groups.” Kids need to know why they should be paying attention and following rules. So often, a simple explanation can make a big difference.
9. Give choice. It’s healthy for kids and young adults to have choices. On a math homework page, let kids choose any ten to finish. For a presentation, allow students to select whether to do an oral report, a multimedia presentation, or write a report. Even really small choices can make a big difference. For example, if you have a student who struggles working with group work, ask them to choose between two groups.
10. Be flexible. Kids and young adults need structure, of course, but adults need to show they are flexible and compassionate, too. Don’t get stuck on having one right way to do things. My favorite example is letting students use gel pens to complete their work. I have never in my life seen middle schoolers so excited to complete homework. If students are working and growing, it’s okay to be a bit flexible in how they do it.
11. Know how to back out of power struggles. Finally, if you do happen to get in a power struggle, here is a winning phrase that can stop the battle right away: “Let’s talk about that later”. It defuses the situation, lets the child or young adult know you will follow up, but puts the disagreement on hold. This is a great way for teachers to address the behavior without making a huge deal of it in the moment. It tells your other students that you are handling the behavior, just not at the moment. Get this list of over 50 free de-escalation strategies you can use right away.
12. Compromise with a goal in mind. Consider what your goal is for the child. Do you want them to finish an assignment? Work in a group? Finish their test? Stay quiet during a lesson? Be willing to make accommodations and compromise with the student in order to have them meet your expectation for them. Let’s consider an example. Let’s say a student is outright refusing to start their math homework. They tell you it’s too long and they don’t do homework. If your goal is to help that student work on some math problems, ask them how many they think they could finish before the end of class. Compromise on a number and assign only those ones. While it’s not where you want the student to be, it’s a stepping stone to get there.
13. Embrace the behaviors you can. If a student has their phone out in class when they shouldn’t, direct them to look up a question about your curriculum and then give them time to share the answer with the class. When a student makes a joke, make a joke right on back! This has to be done thoughtfully, but it’s healthy to embrace the challenges when you can.
If you are interesting in this topic, be sure to read my article on 50+ de-escalation strategies with a free printable list!