Scroll Top

Power Struggles

As we settle into Term 2 and start to find our groove for the rest of the year, I’ve had a few conversations with teachers about certain students demanding more than their share of time and energy. It’s draining. As we discussed it, the common theme is how power shows up in our classrooms.


Whether we like it or not, power is evident in every classroom and every interaction in our classrooms. Further to that, the balance of power is everchanging and needs to be carefully monitored. Understanding how power can shape our classroom culture can be one of the most important tools in your toolkit.


Firstly, we often think that when power is at play, it’s a bad thing. It’s not at all. Empowering your students to take control of the decisions they make and their achievement is healthy. That’s power at play in a good way.


Although empowering our students to be responsible for their actions is desirable, it’s often the negative interactions that consume our time and our energy.


I see negative power as a person having the intention to influence the behaviour of another. It’s a fight for authority, and in its early stages, when it appears in the classroom, we’re often not even aware it’s happening and it can go unnoticed.


Don’t worry. The student fighting to hold the power doesn’t know it’s happening either, so rarely would it be a deliberate strategy they’re deploying. Instead, it’s a learned behaviour, which means our job is to help them unlearn it.


When a power dynamic is lopsided in the classroom, and a teacher finds themselves in a power struggle with one or more students, the most obvious signs are driven by someone’s needs not being met. This could look like attention seeking behaviour with other students in class, or occupying your time and energy through arguments, disagreements or, at the other extreme, withdrawal. But it can show up in more ways than that. It could also be when a student always has the last say or refuses to move to another seat in the classroom. It’s not that there is a problem with the seat you’re asking them to move to, it’s just that they want to exert their dominance in front of their peers. 


When a student finds their way into a power struggle with you, the worst thing you can do is retaliate by matching their power or, even worse, upping it. It’s what the student wants, as it gives them a dopamine hit. That’s the feel-good chemical released in our body. All you’re doing is playing straight into their hands.


Retaliating with power is evident when teachers raise their voices, threatening extreme consequences that you’ll never be able to follow through, or telling a student to respect you because you’re the teacher.


Tackling unhealthy and negative power isn’t a quick fix, and it’s definitely not a tick box and you’ll be right, but hopefully the strategies below will get you started…


  • Create a culture in your classroom where the right type of behaviours are rewarded. Where possible, student input here will go a long way to them owning it.
  • Identify what their need is and try to feed it positively. If it’s attention, give it to them by being proactive with the time you spend with them.
  • Try not to control the behaviour. Rather, provide a high level of support and accountability. Expectations remain high, but the responsibility sits with the student.
  • When dealing with negative behaviour, take it away from the attention of others and, where possible, do it discretely. Then it’s about approaching with curiosity and tackling the conversation Past>Present>Future.
  • Know where you are at. Avoid emotion driving your response.


The only way to win the power struggle is by working restoratively. If nothing else, focus on the quality of your relationships. A strong connection where everyone respects each other is the easiest way to diffuse power.