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Avoiding Power Struggles with Students

The dos and don'ts of dealing with classroom confrontations.

Found in: Classroom Management, Discipline

“I hate you, and I hate this school!”

This isn’t the reaction educators are looking for in the middle of class. But disruptive and confrontational students are sometimes an unavoidable challenge. If handled poorly, these confrontations can lead to power struggles -- and more disruptions.

Fortunately, many educators have developed strategies for dealing with confrontational students. At the top of the list: “Never get into a power struggle,” says Mary Barela, a middle school teacher in Fort Collins, Colorado. “You are the adult and know better. If the conversation feels like it is slipping toward a power struggle, find a way to change the course.” 

That may feel like it is easier said than done, so we asked educators for their advice on defusing tense situations with students. Here's their list of  Dos and Don’ts.


  • Engage students by providing a “hook” for each lesson at the beginning to keep them thinking and interested.

Dr. Robert Feller from the University of Washington believes these hooks prevent potential disruptions and stimulate students’ minds so they focus on the upcoming lesson. Teachers can do anything from a simple science experiment or a game that connects students’ lives to the lesson.

“Attention grabbers may be used to provoke thought, facilitate active learning, or just share experiences, says retired teacher LaNelle Holland in Whitesburg, Georgia. “The teacher who asks challenging questions stimulates student interest. Empower your students by encouraging them to participate in activities of the whole group or in smaller groups.”

  • Try to understand the student’s background and home life.

Problems at home or a difficult home life are often a reason for disruptive children. If you know where your students are coming from, you are in a better position to relate. Author and education researcher Dr. Elise Trumbull believes that a connection with students creates a level of respect and trust between students and the teachers. If teachers can start to understand students’ cultures better, a partnership can be formed between school and the home with the parents.

“Taking the time to learn about a child’s background can make the difference between compassion and callousness,” says retired teacher Diane Postman of Yorktown, Virginia. “Knowing a child is dealing with family issues or poverty can lead a teacher to make allowances or adaptations to help a struggling child succeed. This can ward off some behavioral problems and help the child to save face.”

  • Make it a teaching moment.

When a disagreement or confrontation arises, show the student how to deal with it in a dignified manner and maintain the integrity of your classroom. Frank Iannucci, a math and computer science teacher from West Orange, New Jersey, says teachers should immediately stop the confrontation and arrange to discuss it with the student in a mature, adult manner, regardless of the age of the student, after the period. This demonstrates to students that fights can be stopped before they get out of hand.

Amy Van Wormer of St. Petersburg, Florida, agrees. “Respectfully remind them of why there are there, and continue with the lesson. If [the behavior] continues, request to meet [the student] privately outside of the class,” she says. “[Ask the student] to make the right choices and ask why they are having trouble doing the right thing.”

  • React in a way that allows the student to save face.

Never engage a student in front of classmates. It embarrasses the student in public, sends a message that you don’t care for the student’s feelings, and could potentially escalate the situation.

“Maintain control of your own actions and somehow find a way to give the disruptive student an ‘out’ so that he or she can back down without losing too much face,” says Barela. “Another option, if possible, is to remove the student from the learning environment so that the two of you can deal with the issue privately. Even taking a short walk out in the hall can do wonders for both of you.”


  • React to every little distraction unless it is distracting other students.

If you react to everything that goes on in a classroom, you’ll lose too much valuable teaching time. If the primary problem is one child’s behavior, you can talk to him or her in private, but as long as the student isn’t disrupting the class, it’s not worth stopping instruction to address a situation.

Linda Marino, a special education teacher in Mexico, New York, has one method to avoid power struggles. “I have certain students who love to instigate and distract each other, so I made distraction tickets. I give students a ticket when they ignore the negative behavior of another and do not let that student distract them. At the end of the day, we have a lottery drawing with the daily distraction tickets and the winner gets a special prize from me.”

  • Let the student get a rise out of you.

Keep your composure while dealing with students, because disruptive students will look for any opening to create chaos. You need to be a role model for students and show how to properly deal with an argument.

“Don't get ‘in their face’ and stay calm!” says Holland. “Also, don’t take it personally. Kids run rampant on emotions and if handled correctly, you can usually keep it under control.”

  • Attempt to get the last word.

Fighting for the last word in an argument only prolongs the argument. Try to understand where the student is coming from, but don’t add more fuel to the fire by adding a quick jab at the end.

According to Christopher Perillo, a high school science teacher in Kenosha, Wisconsin, “Teachers who insist on having the last word are bringing themselves down to a juvenile level. Students will remember this and that teacher’s value will be diminished.”

  • Use language that will put the student on the defensive.

It is much better to focus on what you don’t understand by using “I statements” and “feeling statements” rather than “you statements.” This will allow the student to explain instead of argue their point. It also allows the student to understand that the teacher isn’t trying to pin them into a corner or assess blame, but rather understand the student’s actions.

“We all can get angry at some point in our lives, but how we deal with it constructively is important,” says Patrice Palmer, a second-grade teacher in Las Vegas, Nevada. “Using ‘I’ messages and not ‘you, you, you’ messages is important because it doesn’t put someone on the defensive.”

Following these dos and don’ts should help you run a smoother classroom and allow students to be academically engaged instead of engaging in arguments.


Illustration By Dave Clark


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