Avoiding Power Struggles


It’s important to step back and see the big picture of what’s often going on in power struggles. If we don’t, it’s easy to get sucked into needless and futile power struggles with some students – conflicts  that often simply represent a student recreating some crummy part of their past. Sometimes the job of teaching involves protecting students from themselves. Students will have a tendency to recreate their crummy pasts, and will often invite us to help them. It’s like they want to reproduce a play they were in earlier, and invite us to audition for a part in it. It will be better for us and them if we don’t allow ourselves to get used in this way.


Many students have a deep sense of powerlessness from their life experiences. It often comes from having had overbearing or even abusive adults in their lives from early on. Many have had many things said and done to them that even triggered their fight or flight responses. Adults can be pretty scary to children, especially when angry and yelling, or when they get physical. Most kids will respond with anxiety and behave like turtles, sucking into their shells in self-defense. However, some learn to respond with anger (the other half of fight or flight) and to behave like rattlesnakes. They become quick to coil, rattle and even strike out in self-defense. Teachers often are quick to blame overly permissive parenting for kids who act out, but it’s often the exact opposite.

One way such students will attempt to compensate for their deep sense of powerlessness is to provoke power struggles with adults. If their behavior could talk, it would often say "I can do whatever I want to”. A teacher with an authoritarian mindset will be more sensitive to such challenges from students. An authoritarian teacher’s demeanor can also be like an invitation for such students to rebel and defy. It’s often too much of a reminder of the way other adults have treated them. It provides such students with opportunities to have a sense of power by rebelling or defying authoritarians.

Getting visibly upset with such students can also give them a false sense of power, and control, or even revenge. If teachers get upset, students will typically believe they upset the teachers, and the teachers typically believe the same. This gives students a false sense of power, and control, or even revenge.


Rudolph Dreikurs contended that when students misbehave they usually have one or more of four mistaken goals: Attention, Power and Control, Revenge, and Avoidance of Failure. He contended that students will move through this sequence in this order. They ultimately end up at Avoidance of Failure and shut down, or even drop out. For example, when children seek an inordinate amount of attention in ways adults consider unacceptable, adults often overreact to such behavior. This encourages such children to begin to adopt the mistaken goals of power and control, or even revenge.

There will always be some students who come to us who are prone to adopting the mistaken goals of power and control, or even revenge from being mishandled early in their lives. They will take any consequences teachers dish out to achieve these goals. Teachers will often help them satisfy such mistaken goals without realizing it – sometimes even wrongly thinking they had the upper hand.


Many teachers will have authoritarian mindsets from their own upbringing. At the very least, they are often inclined to plug into such a mindset when students misbehave, and defy them. The more a teacher demands obedience from students, the more likely he/she is to make him/herself angry and overreact to what a student says or does. Combine an authoritarian mindset with a student who is quick to adopt the mistaken goal of power and control, and you have a disaster looking for a place to happen.


We all develop cognitive, emotional and behavioral “ruts” during our lives from practicing and rehearsing thinking, feeling, saying and doing things the same ways over and over again. Ruts make our thoughts, feelings and actions automatic. “Ruts” can be helpful or unhelpful things to have – it depends on what thoughts, feelings and actions they lead to. “Ruts” are why people recreate their pasts, and their histories become their destinies. That can be a good or bad as well – it depends on what their history has been.

It’s important for teachers to realize that both they and students bring all kinds of pre-existing “ruts” to their interactions. Many students will be quick to rebel or defy teachers, or coil, rattle and even strike out at teachers at the slightest provocation – sometimes even without any seeming provocation. If we say black, some will reflexively say white, and get angry in doing so. Their reaction will be so automatic that their behavior will often defy common sense, even sometimes seeming like it’s intended to invite punishment, and like they’re bent on self-destructing. Too often teachers pre-existing “ruts” predispose them to go ballistic with such students. That never helps and can even give a student that false sense of power and control, or even revenge they might be seeking. If the student goes ballistic, the last thing we need is a teacher going with them. We always need at least one adult in the room.

There are some simple things teachers can do to help themselves always be the adult in the room, especially when students are prone to becoming oppositional and defiant.


It doesn’t mean you have to like or even tolerate what a student says or does. It just means that you choose to see it as understandable given what the students life experiences have been leading up to the time you cross paths with them. Taking what they do personal is a set up for overreacting emotionally, and behaviorally. We’re less likely to take it personal, even if it is, if we look at what they say and do this way. More often than not we are just being cast in the role of some other adult in their lives.

You can read more about what it means to have UOA at:



Most teachers have an external locus of control and wrongly believe that what kids say and do makes them angry. Blaming students for getting upset just make teachers more likely to go ballistic.

However, that’s not the way it really works. It’s what we choose to think about, or how we choose to look at what students say and do before, while or after they do so that really determines how we end up feeling. There are ways we can choose to look at things that will make us feel better, and others that will make us feel worse.  There are ways we can choose to think or look at things that will make dealing with behavior we don’t like harder, and others that will make doing so easier. It can be very helpful to constantly remind ourselves that students don’t upset us, we upset ourselves. You can read more about developing an internal locus of control at:  http://www.teacheresp.com/TeacherTool3.html

Another part of having an internal locus of control is recognizing and reminding ourselves of what we do and don’t have control over. We really never do control what students think, feel, say or do. We only control what we do. Many adults, including many teachers, think, talk and act like they can and do control children and teenagers. This is just a set up for provoking needless and futile power struggles with students.


Here’s a simple example. Suppose a student said “I can do whatever I want to”. Many teachers knee jerk reaction would be “No you can’t”, followed by something like “You’ll do what I tell you to” or “You have to follow the rules like everyone else”. The question is, who’s right? Actually, students can do whatever they want. They might have to suffer some consequences, but they can. They don’t have to do what teachers tell them to, and don’t have to follow rules. Saying something like the above would just invite them to rebel or defy a teacher.

An alternative and better response would be “You’re right. You can do whatever you want”. Some students will puff their chests up and invite teachers to try to control them just so they can show the teacher that he/she can’t.  This is called “taking the wind out of their sails”. Not to mention that it’s the truth. A teacher could follow up with “However, if you do that, I’m going to…..” The problem for students is that teachers can also do whatever they want, as long as it’s within reason. If a student were to say “We shouldn’t have to do this”, a teacher could respond, “You don’t”. They could follow with, “But if you don’t, you’re not going to (pass this class)”


For example, demanding that students be the way we want them to be, or act the way we want them to instead of just wanting them to. In other words, demanding obedience instead of inviting or requesting cooperation. What this does is creates a bigger gap between our expectations and reality if and when students do things we don’t like. The bigger the difference between our expectations and reality, the more emotion we’ll generate. The more emotion we generate, the more likely we are to react instead of respond in the best possible way to what students do. Overreacting emotionally and behaviorally just gives them the opportunity to have a false sense of power and control, or possibly revenge.

Another example is choosing to see what students do as awful instead of just unpleasant or inconvenient. A third type of irrational thinking is telling ourselves we can’t stand what they do instead of just not liking it. The fourth common type of irrational thinking is labeling and damning them as persons (i.e. “That little brat”) instead of simply disliking their behavior. You can read more about learning to recognize these four types of irrational thinking at:



Practice and rehearse correcting such irrational thinking until it becomes automatic, like grammar check on a computer. This will help keep your emotional thermostats turned down, and to turn it down quickly should it go up suddenly. For example, if one of your thoughts was:

“These kids have to do what I tell them to”

You’d want to get in the habit of challenging such a thought with questions like:

“Why do they have to do what you say? They have to, or you just want them to?”

The only correct answers to such questions are:

“They don’t have to. They don’t have to, I just want them to. They don’t have to do anything”

Read about how to correct irrational thinking at:



Always try to start what you say to students who are misbehaving with “Please…” or “I..”. For example, “Please don’t do that” or “I’d really like you to stop doing that”. Forcing yourself to construct your comments this way is not only the most effective way to express grievances to students, but it can also be an example of “putting your behavior where you want your attitude to be”. By practicing talking these ways, you eventually start to think in healthier ways, in terms of wants, preferences and desires instead of needs, necessities and demands. As time goes by, you are more likely to request or invite cooperation instead of demand obedience. You can read more about using I Messages at: