Power Struggles in the Classroom

When I was growing up, I knew a kid who had a real hard time staying in his seat. He would wander around the classroom tinkering with things and helping other students when they were stuck. His teacher wanted him to sit still and the classroom model could not accommodate this student. He loved to explore and figure things out by trial and error. But sitting still in a desk listening to a lecture? That was near impossible for him. So the teacher got more frustrated, while he got in trouble more and more often, and slowly stopped respecting the teacher’s opinion. Eventually, the solution to this power struggle was to put the student on medication.

We can say this student had trouble focusing, or we can say that he had a different way of learning. It’s a subtle difference in diagnosis that makes a big difference in how we treat the problem. When we have students who don’t want to do what we say or learn how we tell them to, we can fight it and force them to do what we want, or we can try to see the world from their point of view.

Power struggles can look different depending on the student, so let’s start by looking at a couple of different scenarios.

  • The ADD Student — As in our story above, this kind of energy can manifest in a student who wanders the room tinkering with stuff, or in the student who has a lot to say while interrupting or ignoring what others have to say. This kind of student might be seen as a know-it-all. They might have a particular area of interest that overpowers any other topic. They may get sent to the principal’s office for being disruptive and, ultimately, may be put on ADD medication.
  • The Athlete and the Craftsman — We might recognize this struggle in the athletes who just can’t wait for the game or the student who is really good at making stuff. They might see academics as a waste of their time and be resentful that it’s standing in their way. In a milder form, this disinterest might just look like apathy, but if intensified it could come out as a more aggressive undermining of the lesson — This is stupid or I’m never gonna use this.
  • The Group Leader — This kind of energy might also come out in the student who does all the work in a group activity. This student could bowl over the others because they do it faster and want to do it their way.
  • The Bully — A student who feels attached to their status or power in a group can easily turn into the bully when they feel their authority is slipping. Not wanting others to be better or have more than them, they belittle or try to limit their peers. We’ve all seen this before in the star athlete who struggles in math and tears down the “nerds,” or in the queen bee who sees a new student gaining influence among her peers.

While these scenarios are all different, they share a common energy or mentality.

What’s Going On

The students who fit these kinds of scenarios often have an action-oriented energy. They may be very efficient, wanting to do things their way and get it done. Rather than take the time to communicate with or include others, they likely prefer to just jump in and do it (as in the Group Leader scenario). When this tendency toward action is bottled up too long, it can come out in the aggressive or unfocused ways we saw above. To us, it might look like a student is out of control. But if we take a moment to consider the positive side to this kind of mentality, we might find ways to harness all that action-energy.

What to Do

As the teacher, we are automatically in a position of power. When faced with a student who is exhibiting this kind of mentality, it can lead to a real butting of heads, especially if we try to cling tightly to that power. If we play the power card to force the student to do something, or cut them down in some way, we might win the game — but not the tournament. This doesn’t mean we have to let students walk all over us. Instead of “winning,” let’s think about “defusing” and giving the student agency.

  • Let the student wander or tinker — If you have a student who really struggles to stay in his or her seat, try to set some boundaries that allow them move around a bit. Rather than get frustrated by repeatedly asking them to get back to their seat, let them wander within limits. Maybe you have an area of the room they can go to or maybe you let them go wherever so long as they don’t distract other students. Just how doodling can help some students focus, you might find that simply being able to move allows this student to pay more attention to what’s happening.
  • Try to include hands-on activities — Especially if you have several students with this kind of action energy, try to include activities that let them make things, move about, or interact with the material.
  • Set clear roles in group activities — For those Group Leader types, it can be helpful to have clear roles in activities: a Facilitator, Note-Taker, Reporter, etc. Make sure to talk about what each role does. For example, a Facilitator doesn’t make all the decisions — their job is to make sure everyone is included in the discussion. A Facilitator role can be really good for these types of students, so long as they have clear boundaries — when they see themselves as a benevolent leader guiding their team, they can really shine.
  • Conduct all-class discussions about how to work collaboratively in a group. These types of students are not prone to reflection. You may need to remind them often about other people’s perspectives. Together discuss questions like: -“What do you do when you are in a group and there are opposing ideas?” -“What if you think your idea is best but others don’t agree?” -“How do you include different ideas or make sure everyone gets to participate in the project?”
  • Make room for the student’s special interest — If you have a student who finds joy and meaning in more physical activities — like making something — see if you can make space for that student to show off what they do. For example, instead of having to write a paper about the Medieval Period, let them build a model village from the time period. Or make a deal with them that sets clear boundaries — “I know you are far more interested in bugs than in history, but we do still need to cover the material in this class. So, how about every Friday, you can share a new bug fact or drawing that relates to what we’ve been learning in class?” If they need to do something physical during the more sedentary parts of class, let the student draw bugs in the historical settings you are talking about and share them.

When I was young, my mom used to tell me stories of a school started by my great-great-great aunts for their nieces and nephews. This rural boarding school was surrounded by the family’s farmland. In their school, these action-oriented students were regularly sent to work with the uncles on the farm. This was not a punishment, but a recognition that they needed to go be active — sitting in the classroom wasn’t working for them that day. While this isn’t possible in most classrooms of today, we can find other ways to allow these students to be more physical, giving them some power and agency over their life. It can go a long way toward defusing power struggles.

This is our fourth post in a series about Emotions in the Classroom. Check out more here.