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Defusing a Power Struggle

EducationWorld is committed to bringing educators the practical tools they need to make good decisions, engage in effective leadership and implement strategies that work. To further this commitment, we have formed a content partnership with Stenhouse Publishers. EducationWorld is pleased to feature a variety of book excerpts as part of this collaboration. Check back frequently as we feature additional excerpts from Stenhouse titles.

The following excerpt comes from Chapter 8 of 55 Teaching Dilemmas: Ten Powerful Solutions to Almost Any Classroom Challenge, by Kathy Paterson (Pembroke Publishers, 2005; distributed in the U.S. by Stenhouse Publishers).

This excerpt suggests ways in which educators can deal calmly and effectively with tense situations involving angry students. See other excerpts from this book: Using Compassion to Build Positive School Climate and Stress Management and Self-Care.

Have you ever experienced panic when a classroom situation suddenly escalated into that feared power struggle? Were your first thoughts, “What do I do now?”

Imagine the following scenario and explore the advice that follows:

Kendra’s misbehavior had finally pushed Mrs. White too far, and the battle of wills was on. The louder Mrs.White reprimanded, the louder Kendra shouted back. Soon Kendra had toppled her desk and stormed from the room, Mrs. White right behind her. By the time the principal and several colleagues had appeared, Kendra had broken a window and cut both herself and the teacher. Mrs. White felt terrible. She knew she should have done something differently; she just didn’t know what.


About Stenhouse Publishers

Stenhouse publishes professional development books and videos by teachers and for teachers. Their titles cover a range of content areas -- from literacy and mathematics to science, social studies, the arts, and environmental education -- as well as a variety of topics, including classroom management, assessment, and differentiation.

Ten Ways to Defuse a Power Struggle

  • If the student is still showing some semblance of control, offer pencils and paper and invite him to write or illustrate how he feels. If he wants to, he can tear the paper up.
  • Invite the student to take a speed walk either to a specific location, such as a restroom, and back, or once around the school.
  • Invite the student to imagine blowing a balloon up with his anger—then popping it.
  • Suggest use of a pre-established time-out area, and indicate how long the time-out should be. (See “Time-Out Procedure” below.)
  • Maintain eye contact and a calm voice when speaking to the student.
  • Maintain proximity to the student, but avoid being too close—she may feel her personal space has been compromised.
  • If you feel too irritated or angry to deal with the situation right then, take a time-out yourself. Explain that you need a few minutes and say exactly when you will return to the issue.
  • Invite the student to accompany you outside for a few minutes of fresh air. This allows both of you to get away from the reinforcement of classroom peers.
  • Avoid making such statements as “I know how you feel,” which the student may find patronizing. You can only guess.
  • In the heat of the moment, quickly remind yourself that you are the adult and will act like one, no matter how upset you may be. Describe the situation as you see it: “You seem angry. You didn’t get what you wanted to play with.”

Time-Out Procedure

All students should be taught about the time-out area and the appropriate way to use it.

  • Establish where the time-out area will be. It might be a corner, an office, the hall, or a peer’s classroom. Location is dependent on the cooperation of other staff as well as the seriousness of the negative behavior. For instance, time-out for a “fight” would be best spent in the office.
  • Ensure that the time-out area has a desk or table and chair and any of the following: soothing music (headphones); a fish tank; a grudge jar (an empty container into which the student can place angry, written thoughts that are later reviewed with the student and either the teacher or counselor); a tape recorder with a blank tape for recording thoughts (again, reviewed later); a couple of cushions; a supply of plain paper; and a variety of “safe” writing tools, such as pencils and crayons. In addition, provide some tactile tools, such as a soft, squeezable ball, textured materials, fur, and bubble wrap, which children love to pop.
  • Establish for how long at a time a student can use the area. Five minutes is usually enough.
  • Emphasize that the time-out area is for emergency use only.
  • Have a sign-out sheet posted beside the door for students to record the time of leaving the class.
  • Teach the students how to use the time-out area appropriately:
    • Ask for a time-out pass.
    • Write your name on the appropriate paper that indicates exactly when you left the classroom.
    • Go to the time-out area quietly and sit down.
    • Write a brief account of why you are there.
    • If desired, choose one of the available activities.
    • When time is up, return to the room and sign back in.
    • Give your written account to your teacher.
  • Every time a student uses the time-out area, keep a permanent record of who, when, and for how long. This is very important in case you have to report to parents or the principal at a later date.
  • For debriefing, be sure to meet with a student who has used the time-out area sometime that same day.


Last updated: 9/22/2016

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