MONDAY, AUGUST 29TH, 2016
Kids with challenging behaviors are prone to default to power struggles with administrators, teachers, and support staff on a routine basis. A power struggle, in its simplest terms, is often a test of wills with someone winning and someone losing. However, when staff who work with students with challenging behaviors allow interactions to escalate to a power struggle, there actually are no "winners." Power struggles with kids with challenging behaviors always result in "losers" regardless of the outcome. Power struggles tend to beget escalated behavior, runaway emotions, and fractured relationships. No one wins with those outcomes. Accordingly, we want to avoid power struggles with students with challenging behaviors at all costs. Here are some simple tips on how to make that happen.
1. Situational Awareness: Recognize an impending power struggle for what it is; a power struggle. Simply don't go there. When an interaction with a student starts to drift toward a power struggle, stop the interaction or redirect the focus. Staff who believe they need to win every test of wills with a student with challenging behaviors need to do two things: take a step back and take a deep breath.
2. Remain Calm: There is an old saying that goes like this: "He who gets mad loses." Power struggles are easy traps for escalated emotions on the part of staff. It is extremely easy to get emotionally caught up in the back and forth dynamics of a student-staff power struggle. Best practice is always to maintain calm and emotionally neutral even though our natural tendencies tend to lead us in a different direction. Remember, when attempting to de-escalate, body language, tone of voice and eye contact count for a lot.
3. Time is on Your Side: Power struggles with students with challenging behaviors tend to go south when rapid-fire give and take escalate emotions and a staff member attempts to "up the ante" in terms of consequences. Bad idea. When a student begins the process (usually verbally) of engaging in a power struggle, set the time frame for interaction on your terms. For example, you do not have to respond at all to an inappropriate comment. And unless there is a danger to self or others, you do not have to respond to every inappropriate behavior. Often times if you simply 'wait it out" the student will realize that the intended response is not going to be forthcoming. Staff need to be reminded that they have as much time as it takes. Wait time, used strategically, is almost always a calming strategy.
4. Say What?: When a power struggle is likely, redirecting a student's attention is a strategy that is time tested and true. If the student is focused on an issue at the heart of the power struggle, sometimes simply asking the student about a topic entirely unrelated to the issue at hand helps redirect the student in a way that leaves the power struggle topic behind and forgotten. Staff may wish to act as though they are completely unaware of what the issue of the power struggle actually is; almost as if they don't "get it." Redirection does not have to follow a logical sequence to anyone other than the staff who is using it to avoid a power struggle.
5. Time Away: When a power struggle is eminent, simply suggesting a different physical location is a useful strategy. Sometimes the student will take a "self-directed" time away. Other times it may be best just to say, "Let's go for a walk down the hall." Or a staff may suggest that the student help with some routine task to redirect the student away from the issue at the heart of the power struggle. At any rate, the classroom should be recognized as just one of many physical locations to meet the behavior management needs of a student with challenging behaviors.
Power struggles are one of the most common and counter-productive behavior management challenges staff are routinely faced with when working with students who have challenging behaviors. Utilizing some time-tested strategies, and having those strategies in the behavior management "tool box" is one way staff can avoid the frustration of power struggles and ultimately better meet the needs of students with challenging behaviors.