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Am I Triggering Power Struggles with Students?

In This Post

My colleagues and I had the opportunity to observe every three weeks at 12 junior and senior high schools at the newly established Intervention Centers. We spent about one and a half hours at each site. As a restorative practices trainer and consultant, I had the opportunity to witness many reasons students are sent to the Intervention Centers (what used to be called in-school suspension).

Reasons Students Are Sent to Intervention Centers

Yes, there are students who are sent to the Intervention Centers on a somewhat regular basis. Others are seen once, and they don’t return. But there’s another group often not talked about. It’s the students of teachers who refer countless times more students than most teachers. When I was a teacher at Johansen High School, the administrators recognized the five teachers who had the lowest number of referrals during the academic year.

On the other hand, the names weren’t announced, but the number of the three highest referrals were also mentioned. These referrals were in the hundreds. Typically, educators with high referral numbers create these endless referrals by engaging students in power struggles.

Pushing Buttons: Think About It

Take a moment to think of one student’s behavior that pushes your buttons. How would you answer the following questions?

  • What does the student say and/or do that triggers you?
  • How do you usually respond?
  • How does the student respond to your response?
  • If the educator engages in a power struggle with a student, who is really at fault?
  • Why do we send students to the office when educators engage in the power struggle and contribute to escalating it?

Setting the Trap

Some students are excellent at setting traps for educators. The list of how they set the trap is long. But here are a few traps. A student who intentionally tries to get into an argument with an adult. Any adult will do. The student exhibits challenging behaviors or refuses to follow the rules. The student is no longer interested in problem solving, but provoking others and being right.

Can you resist a power struggle?

tug of war with a rope decorative image

I became aware that there are some educators who can’t resist a power struggle which results in the student being sent to the office. I want to send both the teacher and the student to the office when ultimately the teacher is the cause, not the student. From my observations over nine years, men are more often to cause power struggles with students than women, and the group of employees who demonstrate this most often are campus supervisors.

Answer: Dodging the Power Struggle Trap

In 2016 I developed what became one of our most popular workshops, Dodging the Power Struggle Trap. I created versions of this workshop for yard supervisors, campus supervisors, elementary educators, secondary educators, and even one for parents that hasn’t done given yet. For those educators who identify themselves as ones who create power struggles and want to change, this is very doable by applying the workshop’s content.

Authors Sikorski and Vittone explain how educators get into power struggles. “We’ve all found ourselves there before—involved in a tug of war, pulling hard on a metaphoric rope in an effort to gain or retain power. Whether in a professional, public, or personal realm, we may find ourselves regretting the thought process that convinced us to take up the struggle.”1

Staying Out of Power Struggles

How can you keep yourself from responding to power struggle traps?

There are numerous ways to de-escalate power struggles, but by far the best technique is not to allow yourself to get engaged in a power struggle with a student. Don’t pick up the rope. It’s that simple.

If you’re asked to be on one of two teams in a tug-of-war and your team refuses to play, no tug-of-war results. The same is true for power struggles. Simply refuse to pick up the rope and don’t play the game.


  1. Sikorski, Pam and Terry Vittone. How to Avoid Power Struggles.

April 18, 2016.

  1. Image: metaphor-tug-rope-competition []
  • Are you relieved when certain students are absent?
  • Do you have students who “push your buttons”?
  • Do you find yourself butting heads with the same students day-after-day?

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