3 Tips for Avoiding Power Struggles with Students
3 tips for avoiding power struggles with students

Avoiding Power Struggles with Students in Special Education

Managing and trying to avoid power struggles with students in my special ed classroom can be a true challenge. Just like adults, students have up and down days as well. Some days may go really smoothly, and other days may not. My best advice to you as the teacher would be to follow the 3 tips below in hopes to try and AVOID power struggles with students altogether. (I know I know….sometimes it's easier said than done though right?!)

What is an example of a Power Struggle?

Power struggles with students might look different ways in the school setting. It may look like a student not wanting to come into the building straight off the bus at the beginning of the day. Power struggles may look like a student not wanting to come inside from recess because they are having too much fun. It might also look like a student refusing to do any of the work asked of them that day or refusing to get up off the hallway floor. This type of challenging behavior can be tough to navigate sometimes. Power struggles are real and are going to happen in special education. What are some things that you can do as a teacher to AVOID being in a power struggle when possible?

What is an example of a power struggle?

How to Avoid the Power Struggle in Education

Let's look at 3 tips below that have worked for me over the years to help try and avoid power struggles with my students! I hope that they help you too!

How to avoid the power struggle in education

Tip #1: Create Opportunities for Choice

I talked a lot about creating choices in my last blog, 4 Tips for Smooth Transitions in Special Education. I create many opportunities for choices throughout the day for my students. It is important to them to have a say and some feeling of independence even though they are completing work and curriculum that maybe we need them to do. When I say that I create opportunities for choice, this definitely does NOT mean that they have the choice to forego something on their schedule. However, I may create choices like this: Do you want to do your writing assignment or math assignment before you eat your snack? Do you want to complete your math problems sitting at the table or do you want to lie under the table today to do your math? Notice how we aren't skipping anything, just re-wording things in a positive way to simply use choices to improve challenging behavior.
Plus, offering students choices allows them to make decisions, which is a big piece of self-advocacy and an important life skill. Try it! It works a lot better than you might anticipate!

Create opportunities for choice to avoid power struggles

Tip #2: Pick Your Battles/ Don't Engage

Picking your battles may be one of the most important things that I've learned as an educator. If we nitpicked every little thing from every student every day, we wouldn't really get much done, would we? Having the mindset to let little things go and only worry about big issues has been a game changer for me as a teacher (and a mother too!) Working with students shouldn't be about winning or losing as an adult. There are definitely certain students who will try to get you to engage in a battle with them. DO NOT ENGAGE! School is about learning and if a student is arguing with you, they are not learning. Yes, there are times when winning a power struggle is important to maintain discipline. But you want to choose to hold your ground in those situations when you have time and energy to see it through. And when the outcome is important.

pick your battles with students and do not engage with them
Teen woman with a headache holding her hand to the head

Tip #3: Use Visuals to Help

Have you gathered that I love and believe in visuals yet? Besides being a special education teacher, having a son with Down syndrome has shown me the power of visuals. I use them all over my house to help with chores and daily routines. This way, I am not telling my son to put his laundry in the hamper or dishes in the sink-the visual pictures are on our schedule. Sometimes I am so surprised by how students react to visuals so differently than audio. Many times, I have asked students to do something and they don't hear me. However, when I place a visual representation in front of them, they are immediately engaged. Instead of telling them that it's time to come in from recess, show them on their visual schedule that lunch is next, and look…there happens to be another recess this afternoon but we have to get through these things on our schedule first. This also shows students that sticking to their schedule and routine is important and that they know what is coming next. This takes out any uncertainty in their day which can help to decrease the possible chances of a power struggle.


use visuals to help avoid power struggles

We all know that these tips and behavioral interventions for power struggles won’t work every single time. They will keep you from being sucked into the power struggle and wasting your time with these problem behaviors. And many times, it will result in the student actually doing the target behaviors. What other advice do you have when it comes to avoiding power struggles with students?

I am a High School, self-contained Autism teacher from Central New York, who is passionate about individualizing student learning. I am a mommy of three, lover of all things Disney, married to my best friend and addicted to chocolate!! I hope that you find great ideas and inspiration here, so welcome!!

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