How can teachers avoid power struggles with students?

Check Out the New Blog How can teachers avoid power struggles with students?

Feel confident in your ability to respond to a student who attempts to engage you in a power struggle…

Students who are defiant or non-compliant can be among the most challenging to teach. They can frequently interrupt instruction, often do perform poorly academically, and may show little motivation to learn.

There are no magic strategies for managing the behaviors of defiant students. However, based on research, here are some de-escalating techniques that tend to work best with defiant and non-compliant children:

1. Cool Down Break
Allow the student a ‘cool-down’ break. Select a corner of the room (or area outside the classroom with adult supervision) where a student can take a brief ‘respite break’ whenever he or she feels angry or upset. Be sure to make cool-down breaks available to all students in the classroom, to avoid singling out only those children with anger-control issues.

Whenever a student becomes upset and defiant, offer to talk the situation over with that student once they have calmed down and then direct the student to the cool-down corner.

2. Questions
If you are faced with a confrontational student and do not know what triggered that student’s defiant response, you can ask neutral, open-ended questions to collect more information before responding. You might pose ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘when’, and ‘how’ questions to more fully understand the problem situation and identify possible solutions. Avoid asking ‘why’questions (e.g., “Why did you get into that fight with Jerry?” because these questions can imply that you are blaming the student.

Some sample questions are:

  • What do you think made you angry when you were talking with Billy?
  • Where were you when you realized that you had misplaced your science book?

3. Disengagement
The careful teacher avoids being dragged into arguments or unnecessary discussion with defiant or confrontational students. When you must interact with this student to confront, command or discipline, be careful not to get ‘hooked’ into a discussion or argument with that student. If you find yourself being drawn into an exchange with the student (e.g., arguing, raising your voice, reprimanding the student), the following strategies may be useful in disengaging yourself:

  • Move away from the student
  • Repeat your request in a business-like tone of voice
  • Impose a pre-determined consequence for noncompliance

4. Non-verbal
Non-verbal and para-verbal behaviors can be used to defuse potential confrontations. When interacting with defiant or confrontational students, teachers can reduce tensions by using non-verbal and para-verbal techniques such as non-threatening body language, soft tone of voice, or strategic pauses during speech.

If a student is visibly agitated, the teacher may decide to sit down next to the student at eye level rather than standing over that student. This is a less ‘threatening’ posture.

Insert a very brief ‘wait time’ before each response to the student, as these micro-pauses tend to signal calmness, slow a conversation down and help to prevent it from escalating into an argument.

5. Active Listening
The teacher demonstrates a sincere desire to understand a student’s concerns when they actively listen to and then summarize those concerns. Many students lack effective negotiation skills in dealing with adults. As a result, these students may become angry and defensive when they try to express a complaint to the teacher, even when that complaint is well founded.

A teacher can show that they want to understand the student’s concern by summing up the crucial points of that concern (paraphrasing) in their own words.

  • Examples of paraphrase comments include:
  • Let me be sure that I understand you correctly…
  • Are you telling me that…?
  • It sounds to me like these are your concerns:…

When we engage in ‘active listening’ by using paraphrasing, we demonstrate a respect for the student’s point of view and may even improve our own understanding of the student’s issue.

6. Tone of Voice
Keep responses calm, brief and business-like. Because sarcasm or lengthy negative reprimands can trigger defiant student behavior, instructors should respond to the student in a neutral, business-like, calm voice. Also, keep responses brief when addressing the non-compliant student.

Short teacher responses give the defiant student less control over the interaction and can also prevent instructors from inadvertently ‘rewarding’ misbehaving students with lots of negative adult attention.

7. Face Saving Opportunity
When confronted, offer the student a face-saving out. Students sometimes blunder into potential confrontations with their teachers. When this happens, we can help avoid a full-blown conflict in a manner that also allows them to save face.

Try this face-saving de-escalation tactic:

Ask the defiant student, “Is there anything that we can work out together so that you can stay in the classroom and be successful?”

Such a statement treats the student with dignity, models negotiation as a positive means for resolving conflict, and demonstrates that the instructor wants to keep the student in the classroom. It also provides the student with a final opportunity to resolve the conflict with the teacher and avoid other, more serious disciplinary consequences.

Be prepared for the possibility that the student will initially give a sarcastic or unrealistic response (e.g., “Yeah, you can leave me alone and stop trying to get me to do classwork!”). Ignore such attempts to hook you into a power struggle and simply ask again whether there is any reasonable way to engage the student’s cooperation.

When asked a second time, students will often come up with workable ideas for resolving the problem. If the student continues to be non-compliant, however, impose the appropriate consequences for that misbehavior.

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