Classroom Management Resource Page      Shindler      School Climate      PLSI       Teaching   -    Workshops by JVS

Chapter 15: A Win-Win Approach to Conflict Resolution and Potential Power Struggles

From Transformative Classroom Management. By John Shindler. ©2008

Reproduction is unlawful without permission



In this Chapter:

  1. Examining the Sources of Classroom Conflict
  2. A Process for Win-Win Conflict Resolution
  3. Successfully Resolving Power Struggles


Conflict is a natural part of any functional class. In fact, it is not necessarily a sign that there are problems with the classroom management or with the health of the classroom community. But it does often lead to unhappiness, discomfort, and or the need for members of the class to emotionally withdrawal or attack. So making sense of conflict, and providing our students with the skills, knowledge and dispositions to process it effectively is essential to creating a functional democratic classroom.


Where does conflict originate? It comes from many sources, and it takes many forms. Sometimes it is brought into the class from the outside, and sometimes it is created within the class. Either way, when it is examined with a sufficient amount of awareness, it can be a useful means to personal and collective growth. Our job as teachers is to help our students see that conflict can be an opportunity, rather than just a source of grief.



Chapter Reflection 15-a: In the most recent classrooms that you have observed, was there conflict present? What form did it take? Who was responsible for initiating it, and/or perpetuating it?



Exploring the Most Common Sources of Conflict

The most common sources of classroom conflict include the following:


  1. Students have competing ideas.   As teachers, some of us are more comfortable working in an arena with conflicting and competing ideas. Research into teaching style suggests that harmony-seeking Feelers (which make up a majority of teachers) tend to be less comfortable than logic-seeking Thinkers with the emotional climate that is created when disagreement is present (Myers-Briggs, 1998). But suppressing conflict can also suppress getting at what can be the meaningful essence of an issue or idea. So Feelers need to consider tolerating some healthy conflict in the name of learning. Conversely, the Thinker teacher should be aware that the feeling half of his or her students might not view argument and debate as the source of stimulation that they do. They need to recognize that what they see as healthy conflict or directness can lead to real discomfort, and can even turn off or shut down some of their students. In general, intellectual conflict is a powerful ingredient in a classroom that needs to be treated with care. And above all, we as teachers needs to model effective communication skills and conflict resolution.


As we develop our “culture of listening and respect” (discussed in Chapter 12), we need to help students separate difference of opinion from personal attack. We need to help them learn the skills of self-expression, while keeping the dignity and respect of others paramount. Helping students keep in mind that their ideas have changed over time and will undoubtedly change in the future can be useful. As they better distinguish their ideas from themselves, then they find it much easier to discuss them without getting defensive. We as teachers need to allow students to disagree and permit them time to process those emotions. As they learn that not always being right or having others agree is not the end of the world, they become more comfortable with self-expression and less fearful of conflict.



Chapter Reflection 15-b: While few of us are entirely comfortable with a great deal of conflict, for some of our students it can lead to a great deal of drama, pain, and/or emotional reactivity. It may be worth getting to know how your students react to conflict. Why do some students always need to be right? Why do some students feel so personally attacked when someone disagrees with their idea? How can we help our students express themselves and feel safe? Understanding the human ego’s need to defend itself is a useful starting point as we try to make sense of this area and for how to promote a healthy intellectual climate in the class.



In addition, we need to help students express their ideas in ways that do not attack others. A good way to start is to help them use phrasing that identifies their idea as “their opinion.” I-messages are useful for this purpose. For example, we might encourage a student to say, “From what I understand, I think a gas tax is a bad idea,” as opposed to “A gas tax is a terrible idea!” The first phrase does an adequate job of expressing an opinion, as such, whereas the second expresses the same opinion as a fact that essentially picks a fight. Practicing how to phrase opinions at the beginning of the year is time well spent. Leading the class in a concept attainment or classification exercise related to “good ways to express opinions” vs. “bad ways to express opinions,” can help clarify the difference more concretely. Putting the exercise on butcher paper and leaving it on the wall for a few weeks to refer to may be helpful as well. And as we continuously need to keep in mind the most powerful learning in this area will come from the modeling of the teacher. So model what you want to see from your students. Expect this to be more challenging than it sounds.


  1. Students have Competing Needs and Desires.  No matter how clear our expectations. No matter how well understood our social contract. No matter how well we promote community among the members of the class, we know there will be some level of conflict that comes from students competing needs and desires. But the difference between a democratic classroom with an intentional process for dealing with conflict and an authoritarian classroom where the teacher acts as the judge is that in a democratic classroom, conflict is an opportunity for all parties to grow, while in an authoritarian classroom, conflict is just a source of trouble for all concerned. Moreover, in a democratic classroom, each conflict leads to more learning and skill building, which leads to more effective conflict resolution and less future pain and suffering. Teacher-based resolutions lead to dependent and passive students who learn little about how to deal with the conflicts that arise in their lives, in or out of the classroom.



What Teachers should avoid with regard to conflict between students:

    • Ignoring conflict. This leads to the advantage of the advantaged. The powerful will ultimately use the vacuum of justice to get their way over the less powerful.
    • Acting as judge. This sends the message that students are too immature to solve their own problems, and impedes they moral and social growth.
    • Siding solely with the victim. Be empathetic, but being used as a tool to get back at an aggressor will lead to more dependence and a cycle of victimization for the weak party and an identity as a bully for the aggressor.
    • Don’t encourage tattle tailing. The more you encourage it, the more you will get it. You encourage it by acting as judge, siding with the victim, or not encouraging students to seek their own solutions before they come to you.


What Teachers should encourage with regard to conflict between students:

§         The use of a well established set of guidelines for conflict resolution (see win-win conflict resolution guidelines below).  An effective and uniform system helps support a sense of safety and learning for students.

§         Skills related to expressing and owning one’s feelings. I-messages and empathy are difficult skills to learn, but they are effective and save a lot of pain and suffering.

§         An effort on the part of the student to ask themselves, “What is the best thing for the class as a whole, and can I find a solution that meets my needs and is good for the group as well?”

§         An inclination to solve one’s own conflicts. It may feel difficult not to intervene at first, but as time goes on you will be surprised at how empowering it can be for the students, especially those that have previously been dependent on adult interventions.

§         An inclination to think in terms of one’s own behavior first and others second. Too often conflicts escalate because students all feel the need to point out the misbehavior of other students. We have all heard countless phrases that begin with “Teacher, ____ is _____ ing.” Aside from the most severe cases, attending to these types of student pleas for your intervention will only increase the amount of conflict and encourage an external locus of control mentality. A useful phrase in these cases can be “If everyone takes care of themselves we will be fine.”

§         An effort to recognize how much they are growing in their conflict resolution skills. As with the other skills that you are trying to encourage, don’t hold back your pride and respect for the students that are making the effort to grow in a new and difficult area. (see personal recognition vs. praise, Chapter 6).

§         Openness to modifying the social contract. If a conflict or a series of conflicts send the message that something is not working, use the opportunity to brainstorm a contract modification. This activity can be a very conspicuous opportunity to model the principle – conflict is an opportunity for growth.





Chapter Reflection 15-c: As you reflect on the last class that you observed, how many of the interventions of the teacher would you classify as being consistent with the list outlining “what to encourage,” and how many fell into “what to avoid?” Did you see evidence of the effect they had over time?



  1. Teacher’s Negative Affect/or Misguided Practice Leads to Student Conflict. If you are practicing any of the teacher behaviors “to stop doing” outlined in Chapter 2, conflict will follow. It may take the form of resistance stemming from a feeling that basic needs are not being met. It may take the form of jealously, if you use extrinsic rewards and/or personal praise. It may take the form of mistrust, if you are inconsistent with your consequences, or use arbitrary punishments. But in one form or another, student discomfort will lead to conflict. So be proactive. Create a safe, needs satisfying, consistent classroom climate and you will have to do a lot less conflict resolution and power struggle management.



Chapter Reflection 15-d: As you have been asked to do throughout the book, reflect on the relationship between teacher action and student reaction. Recall classrooms in which there is nearly no conflict, and other classes in the same school in which there is a great deal. What is the difference? In your opinion how much of the conflict in any class is created (both directly and indirectly) by the actions of the teacher?



  1. Students’ and Teachers’ Needs Compete. Even if you are being successful at creating a healthy needs satisfying classroom where the expectations are clear, there are bound to be cases in which your needs and those of your students will be at odds. Sometimes just explaining the rationale behind your expectations can help student see why they are necessary. Sometimes it may be necessary to engage in a process of problem solving to achieve understanding.


For example, a teacher may have a homework policy that makes perfect sense to them, but a good number of their students do not do most or all of their homework. In cases like this, it is important that we listen to our students needs. Ask them what they would change in the policy to ensure that everyone came with their homework completed. After listening to suggestions, you can find a practicable compromise that works for all parties. Jane Bluestein (20tt) calls this negotiating a “boundary.” She suggests conflict is minimized when each party can accept a policy boundary that “works for them.” This process helps meet the students’ basic need for power and brings another level of clarity to the expectations.



Chapter Reflection 15 –e: Recall our discussions in Chapters 6 and 11 related to boundary setting. It can be a potent tool for the teacher to promote clear expectations and student empowerment, but can also lead to an excessive amount of bargaining if it is not done intentionally, and proactively.


  1. Students bring in displaced anger from outside the class that plays out in conflict dramas and attempts at power struggles. Sometimes we as teachers have done a good job of developing a sound social contract and a fair and supportive classroom environment, but because one or more students feel the need to test us, or essentially “share their pain,” potential conflict can arise. Following the steps outlined below for dealing with a power struggle can help strengthen the social contract, keep us from getting hooked into something destructive, and lead to a growth opportunity for the student.



Win-Win Conflict resolution:

Having a system for conflict resolution in place for our classroom or school can have many positive benefits. First, it will reduce the amount and intensity of the conflicts that do occur. Second, it will help students build useful skills to solve their own problems - skills that will be valuable both within the school walls, and outside in their homes and communities. Third, the conflict resolution skills discussed below will act to promote a deeper sense of responsibility, community and success psychology among the student body of a school or classroom.


Naomi Drew, author of the book Hope and Healing offers a 6-step process for successful conflict resolution. It can be used by students for self-mediation, or used by a peer mediator. These steps provide a useful framework for examining how to make a conflict an opportunity for growth rather than disharmony.

Step 1: Cool off.
As Drew States, “Conflicts can’t be solved in the face of hot emotions.” It is important for all parties within any conflict to take a step back and recognize the reactive pattern that wants to emerge from within them, and gain some distance and perspective.  Help students develop the habit of taking a moment to turn their attention inward and notice that they are most likely wanting to react out of a pain-based mechanism whenever they feel they have been hurt, threatened or wronged.  What Eckhart Tolle calls the “pain-body” is a mechanism in each of us that feeds on the emotion of pain. This pain-body reaction blinds us to reason, and actually desires to invite more pain and tries to escalate the drama and the conflict to achieve this. Just helping students develop their awareness alone will save a great deal of suffering for all parties over time.


Help the students consciously witness the tendency within them for the pain reaction to rise when first confronted by a conflict. As Tolle suggests when one brings conscious awareness to the inner pain reaction, it will begin to fade. Then the student can then begin to shift their attention away from the past (where the pain-body wants to keep it) into the present moment (where they will be able to think rationally). Once they feel they are ready to approach the problem constructively, they are ready to go on to the next step and engage with others to problem solve.



Chapter Reflection 15-f: Can you recognize this pain-body reaction within yourself when it arises? We all have a pain-body, and while the triggers may be different (e.g., insecurity for one person, and rejection for another person), the mechanism is rather similar. When the pain-body reaction arises, notice how you actually desire more pain and a perpetuation of the angry emotions. Seeing it within yourself will make you much more effective when you see it arise within your students.



Step 2: Tell what’s bothering you using “I messages.”
When each participant is ready to put her or his energy into listening and problem solving, and is not still acting out of the defensive pain-reaction, they are ready to enter into a process of communication. However, if the words they use send messages that imply blame, attack, or indictment, not only is it likely that this demonstrates that they are coming from the participant’s pain-body, but these types of messages are likely to trigger the other participant’s defensive reaction. The result will be an escalation of pain as each participant engages in the pain-feeding frenzy.  On the surface, this may appear like communication, but in reality, it is simple two people using each other to supply their inner pain-mechanism and defend their egos. If we examine it closely, this is what is going on in most arguments.


Therefore, the language in the participants’ communication at this stage needs to work to offer information and clarity, rather than blame.  A good technique for accomplishing this is the use of “I statements.” As mentioned earlier in the chapter, I statements are phrases such as “I was waiting my turn and it seemed to be that you stepped in front of me,” or “What I heard you say was ‘I am a fool’ and I did not think it was funny, and I did not appreciate it.” Drew recommends that when making “I” statements it’s important to avoid put-downs, guilt-trips, sarcasm, or negative body language. They need to simply report information and one’s experience. And it is important to remind participants that both events and feelings are useful information at this stage in the process. The students need to maintain a win-win mindset throughout the process. And at this stage, information contributes to solutions, whereas blame, attacks, and victim language contribute to losers within the process.  This early step requires a great deal of trust on the part of the participants. They will be tempted to give in to a competitive win-lose mentality.  So in the early stages of facilitating this process, you will be required to provide a great deal of encouragement to your students to trust the process and their classmates.



Chapter Reflection 15-g: Thomas Gordon, the inventor of the term I-messages, has developed a great deal of information on what they are and how to use them. His Teacher Effectiveness Training website is full of good ideas in this area.


Step 3: Each person restates what they heard the other person say.
When each participant is required to restate what they heard the other say, it brings both clarity and empathy into the process. Each is important. If there is no clarity, there can be little real understanding, and solutions will likely be superficial. If there is no empathy, it is a lost opportunity for growth. In addition, it is a likely sign that participants do not sincerely desire a win-win outcome. Successfully restating another’s words shows that one is trying to come out of his of her own narrow point of view into a place of shared understanding.


Using the example above, one such statement might be, “I heard you say that you did not think it was funny when I called you are a fool, is that correct?” Do you hear the clarity it introduces to the process, as well as the empathy?

Step 4: Take responsibility.
It is important that participants within the process adopt the attitude that blame and assigning fault are counterproductive, and therefore to be avoided. Blame is external and past oriented. Responsibility is internal and present-to-future oriented. An effective conflict resolution process is an effective tool to promote internal locus of control and consequently what we referred to in chapter 8 as a “success psychology.”


Participants need to embrace the attitude “what can we each do to make things better in the future?” This attitude is in direct contrast to the attitude characterized by the statement “It is not my fault” or “It is your fault.” Again, the skills related to a successful resolution to conflict do not come easily and will take a great deal of encouragement and practice as the concrete experience of success, which can only come with time. The natural tendencies to defend, share one’s pain, or obtain “justice” will be difficult to break. But a powerful resource that you as the facilitator will always have is that taking part in a successful resolution process feels deeply satisfying to the participant. Use this awareness to motivated participants to stick with it, and resist bad habits.



Chapter Reflection 15-h: As you read each of these steps, do you find yourself subtly resisting the ideas? It is natural, and understanding why can be instructive. What about these ideas is threatening? Is there a part of you holding on to the belief that this is all too much work, and that conflict is just natural and inevitable? Is your ego rooting for win-lose conflict resolution rather than win-win? Listen to your inner-voice of resistance. What is it telling you?


Step 5: Brainstorm solutions and come up with one that satisfies both people.
As Drew suggests, “Resolving conflicts is a creative act. There are many solutions to any single problem.” Participants quickly learn that it is not about getting someone in trouble or deciding who is at fault. It is about solutions that will make life better in the future. Sometimes this is a matter of compromise. Sometimes it is a matter of finding a new and better way. Sometimes it is about one person realizing that they need to change a behavior pattern.


For younger students it can be immensely helpful for the teacher to ask guiding questions to help the process along. The teacher might ask, questions such as “What is it that each of you want?” “What did you do today to try to get what you wanted?” “What happened?” “What could you do tomorrow to get what you want without one person feeling hurt?” As you guide this process, give students time to think after you ask your questions, and resist the temptation to give them answers, unless absolutely necessary.  After hearing a workable idea offered, you might ask, “Would that solution work for both of you?”


For older students, it may be effective to have each participant take some time either independently, or if it makes more sense, as a team, and brainstorm a set of ideas on paper. They should be encouraged to think of a series of ideas. As with any brainstorming exercise, students should recognize that items further down the list often end up being most insightful. Participants can then examine each list and agree on a solution that is most acceptable.


It should be noted that the conflict resolution process should be part of the social contract, but does not imply that consequences for contract violations are ignored. For example, in the case of two students involved in a physical altercation, we can assume that we have some form of consequence for hitting. Therefore in a situation where one student hits another, in response to a hurtful comment, a conflict resolution process should be employed, but the consequence for hitting still needs to be implemented. The conflict resolution process will help aid in supporting better decisions in the future and mend the relationship between the students. But the class needs to understand that when they violate the social contract, there are consequence in place.

Step 6: Affirm, forgive, or thank.
After a solution is agreed upon help participants develop the habit of shaking hands, thanking one another, and forgiving one another. Forgiveness, and gratitude are powerful mindsets for participants to close the process with. They say that 1) what was most important about this conflict resolution process was that we all grew a little bit, and 2) the relationship was worth the effort it took to overcome the natural tendency to fight, or withdraw.


Every time the students successfully execute this conflict resolution process their skills for dealing with conflict within and without grow.  If they can learn at an early point in life to recognize their defensive pain-driven mental reaction, become responsible for their actions, and to forgive and move on, they will have acquired skills that are as valuable as anything they will learn in their time in school.


As the students become more skilled at this process observe both the social and communal bonds grow. The social bonds will grow, because the students will develop more respectful and effective ways to interact. The communal bonds will grow as they learn to work through difficult situations collaboratively. To have community, we have to need each other. This process brings students out of their emotional isolation into a trusting and needs satisfying place.


As you examine the ways in which this conflict resolution process affects students you might recall our discussion in Chapter 8 related to the formation of a psychology of success.  Win-win conflict resolution skills promote each of the factors: internal locus of control, acceptance and belonging, and a mastery orientation to learning. And recalling our exploration of how to promote responsibility in our classes in Chapter 11, it should be apparent how this process can be a powerful tool in the development of a more responsible approach to problems within the class.



Chapter Reflection 15-i: Imagine a school in which students were experts in conflict resolution. They do exist, and the results they achieve are often remarkable when it comes to reducing fighting, bullying, arguments, and all the many conflicts that arise in collective spaces at a school. Consider encouraging your school to take a school-wide approach to conflict resolution modeled after one of the successful schools and the principles outlines above.





Table 15.1 Benefits of a deliberate and effective way of dealing with conflict.





Strengthens relationships and builds teamwork.

Damages relationships and discourages cooperation.

Encourages open communication and cooperative problem-solving.

Results in defensiveness and hidden agendas.

Resolves disagreements quickly and increases productivity.

Wastes time, money and human resources.

Deals with real issues and concentrates on win-win resolution.

Focuses on fault-finding and blaming.

Makes allies and diffuses anger.

Creates enemies and hard feelings.

Airs all sides of an issue in a positive, supportive environment.

Is frustrating, stress producing and energy draining.

Calms and focuses toward results.

Is often loud, hostile and chaotic.

Reference: UCSD Human resources div.

Figure 15.2: Possible Phrases for a Wall Chart to Support Conflict Resolution Success

In This Class We . . .

§         Deal with conflict constructively, thoughtfully and deliberately

§         Recognize that conflict comes from thoughts, so we can change our thoughts and end or reduce conflicts when we so choose.

§         Understand that conflicts have solutions if we make the effort to look for them

§         Use conflict as an opportunity to make us better as individuals and as a class

§         See ourselves becoming more skilled at conflict resolution all the time



Dealing with Conflict within the Social Contract

By definition a social contract exists to meet the needs of its members. If it is not meeting its members’ needs, in the most effective and fair manner, then it should be modified. Usually a good sign that it needs to be modified is the presence of conflict. If we experience a persistent problem in the class we may want to go about a system of problem solving and then adopt the new solution into our social contract. For example, if we find the students fighting over who gets to use the computers, it is a sign that we need a better system for computer use. As in all cases related to the development of the social contract, the more democratic the process is, the more sense of ownership of the outcome there will likely be. So when contentious issues arise among members of the class, it may signal the opportunity for a class meeting or at least a brainstorming exercise.



Chapter Reflection 15-j: What is your instinct when conflict arises in your class or within groups that you are leading? Is it to take over or is it to use the conflict as an opportunity for growth and problem solving? If you are attempting to head down the road of being a 1-type teacher, you will want to find an efficient system for conducting class meetings. Recall that they do not need to take more than a few minutes.



Power Struggles

As we examine the idea of potential power struggle situations with students. It is important to keep in mind that the social contract is the framework from which we are working. In many cases, what is occurring during a power struggle is the student testing the integrity of the social contract. The are saying in essence “No!” to our class agreement.  When a student defies us openly, we are naturally going to feel angry and offended, and our tendency (encouraged by our own defensive pain-body reaction) would then be to exert our power and show the student who was boss. While this may feel satisfying in the moment, it produces a number of undesirable effects, including:

  1. Engages us in a power struggle. There is no power struggle until we buy into the challenge.
  2. Losing sight of the point. The point is that the student needs to be responsible and fulfill their commitment to the contract they have agreed.
  3. Sending the message to all the other students that the teacher can get hooked into a power struggle.
  4. Sending the message to the other students that when a student says “No!” to the contract, they are just given some short-term pain, but they are not held responsible in a meaningful manner (Recall chapter 12).



Chapter Reflection 15-k: What is your tendency when students challenge you? What happens when we take the challenge and engage the student?



So what do we do when a student challenges us instead of reacting to the personal offense with reactivity or some kind? Cuwin and Mendler offer a process for dealing with a power struggle successfully.  It provides a coherent and sensible approach to dealing with student-teacher conflict that will save us a lot of pain and suffering. And as we consider it within the context of the social contract it has the following effects:

  1. Strengthening the social contract, by reinforcing it.
  2. Placing the responsibility on the student
  3. Indirectly teaching (social learning model) that living up to our commitment to the social contract takes precedence over selfishness (i.e., the student’s tantrum or the teacher’s power trip)
  4. Teaching that a good game or emotional hook is not going to work to change the rules that are outlined by the social contract.


Dealing with a power struggle

Curwin and Mendler offer the following 7-steps to success when confronted by a student who attempts to engage us in a power struggle.


  1. Do not manufacture power struggles by the way you teach. 

By and large power struggles are a result of a student’s attempt to satisfy an unmet need.  Students who feel a sense of power and control, are making progress toward their goals, are supported by the teacher, have avenues to share concerns, and are given choices and not backed into corners by harsh directives will be much less likely to feel the need to engage the teacher in a power struggle.





  1. Move into a private (and out of a public) encounter.

If the encounter begins publicly, quickly move it into a private, one-to-one interaction.  A public stage will put the student in a position where they must defend their image, and put you in a position that you feel the need to demonstrate your power.



Chapter Reflection 15-l: Recall the social learning model here. What does a public implementation create? What does the “audience factor” affect the student’s thinking?



  1. Avoid being “hooked in” by the student.

If the student tries to hook you in by making you feel guilty or responsible for their inappropriate behavior, simply ignore the hook and give the responsibility back to the student.  A hook is intended to shift the focus externally to you or another factor. They act to shift blame and pull you in. If you become drawn in on a personal level, the student is then in control.



Chapter Reflection 15-m: What hooks have you heard students use? Share your story with your colleagues or classmates? Reflect on what hooks are trying to do, and why it is so tempting to play into them.



Figure 15.3: Common power struggle hooks can include the following phrases:

  • You are not a good teacher
  • You do not like me
  • No one likes me
  • You are prejudice
  • Other teachers let me do this
  • You let everyone else do it
  • I can see why people say you are such a jerk
  • School is a waste of time, especially this class
  • I promise not to do it again, just leave me alone




  1. Calmly acknowledge the power struggle.

It is counterproductive to show anger or to “flex your muscle.”  Instead, with a calm voice, acknowledge to the student that things appear to be heading toward a power struggle, which would surely make any eventual outcome worse.  Ask the student to consider how the situation could end up in a “win-win” scenario.


  1. Validate the student’s feelings and concerns.

Use phrases such as, “I understand that you feel the way you do, but that does not mean that it excuses what you did,”  “Those feelings make sense, I can see why you think that, but . . .“ Feelings are important and valued, but they are aside from the essential point. Throughout the process we need to project an unconditional positive regard for the student. We need to side with their feelings and concerns, but at the same time maintain a clear understanding that they are accountable. If we go negative, they will lose sight of the intervention being about their responsibility and see it as a punishment that is coming from an external agent (i.e., us).


  1. Keep the focus on the student’s choice, and simply state the consequence (repeating if necessary).

No matter what “hook” the student tries to use, keep the focus on the fact that the student made a choice to violate the rule/social contract (i.e., “I understand that you feel this is unfair, but you made the choice to ____ and the consequence we decided on for that is ____.”)  They chose to act in the way they did, and therefore they need to accept responsibility.  If the student does not want to accept the logical or agreed upon consequence, then they can make the choice to accept a more significant consequence, such as losing the opportunity to be part of the class/activity.  Calmly repeating the agreement or being a “broken record” can reinforce the point to the student that the next things that needs to happen is that they need to make a choice or take responsible action. The rest of the conversation is secondary. But be careful not to badger the student. A calm or encouraging affect can each be effective, but aggressiveness will be counterproductive. There is no need to act powerful – the reality is that you have the real power of the social contract and your rights as a teacher.



Chapter Reflection 16-n: When you visualize being in a power struggle with a student do you find yourself naturally wanting to be either aggressive or feeling fearful. Visualize a power struggle situation. What emotions do you feel arising? Now visualize the interaction without fear or aggressiveness, simply awareness and clear communication. Can you feel your thinking becoming clearer, and do you now see the student as less threatening as well?



  1. Put your emotional energy into constructive matters.

After you have successfully communicated to the student their choices, it is not useful to dwell on this student’s behavior. There is no need to hover or pressure the student.  Shift your attention back into your teaching. Model constructive, rational, positive behavior.


Applying the Steps to a Classroom Situation

Now let us applying these 7 steps above to a classroom situation in which a student challenges us to a power struggle (see table 15.1). In this case we will assume that we have done an effective job of developing our social contract and creating clear expectations in our class. However, on this day, for some reason, maybe some displaced aggression from an earlier parent – child interaction, the student feels a need to challenge us, and engage us in a power struggle.


Power Struggle Scenario:

Imagine that you have just completed an activity where your students individually completed a project that required them to use paper and poster making materials. You gave the class a 5-minute warning before you asked them to clean up their desk areas and get ready to go. As you are ready to dismiss them, you detect that on one desk there is still a noticeable amount of paper. Doing a good job of technical management (and consistent with your social contract), you calmly repeat the expectation, “When all the desks are clear and all the materials are put away, we can go.”  On just about any other day, this would have been sufficient to motivate the particular student to fulfill their responsibility to the class and its social contract. But for some reason, today is different. The student does not move to clear their desk. Lets suppose that the student is hinting at his or her disposition on the matter by avoiding eye contact with you. As your blood pressure begins to rise, you realize that you need to be purposeful and deliberate right now, and use this opportunity to take a step forward in your own conflict skills, toward better classroom relationships, and improved clarity or the classroom social contract. You dismiss the rest of the class and ask the student to stay.


Table 15.1: Application of the 7-step process outlined previously for successfully resolving a power struggle to the case above.

Steps for

Successfully Negotiating a Power Struggle


Paper on the desk example

1.      Do not manufacture power struggle (consider if your teaching has been a contributing factor)


Recall if there was something that occurred during the activity that the student may be responding to. Did you inadvertently make a derogatory comment about the work or have you alienated the student in the past. If so, this is a good time to do some healing. But no matter what responsibility you need to take to fix your part of the relationship, the bottom line remains. The student made an agreement to live up to the social contract. Part of that responsibility is to do their part of the clean up. Your request was reasonable. You are the facilitator of the contract, so it was your job to make the request. It is not your job to judge, shame, lecture, or bring up past history. As you approach the student keep 2 simple ideas paramount: show real concern by helping the student to grow, and keep the focus of the interaction on the act and the responsibilities that go along with the choice to take action – relationship and responsibility.


2. Move into a private (and out of a public) encounter.

If you foresee a power struggle situation forming, it will help if you do not take part in the interaction in a public forum. The public factor will likely encourage the student to defend their honor and/or impress their friends (or even their enemies possibly), and will encourage you to exert power in the face of a public challenge. So close the proximity gap and move near to the student. And depending on the situation moving to a private location might be best.

The fewer distractions and the more immediate the resolution the better the outcome will be.


3.      Avoid being “hooked in” by the student.


If the student is still sitting in the chair and has not taken the sensible step to clean up their learning area, then it is a good bet that they are deliberately going to engage us in a power struggle. It is useful for us to understand at this point that the student is experiencing pain in some form, and they at intent on sharing some of that pain with us. If we shift into pity mode, or defense mode, we will soon be in a power struggle. Keep your “just relationship and responsibility” mantra going in your head, if you begin to feel hooked in.

At this point, it makes sense to repeat the request again – calmly and clearly. “When you clean up your desk, you can go.”

Without being condescending, using a “broken record” technique to clarify the contractual expectation can be effective. If your response is continuously some form of the message, “when you (fulfill your responsibility), then you will (be afforded the rights of those who are responsible),” the student understands that the conversation is about what they are going to do regarding their contract obligations, and not about something of less significant importance at that moment.

The student may offer a statement intended to “hook” you in. These may take the form of “This is the worst class I have ever had,” or “You are the worst teacher,” or “You never make Julie pick up her stuff,” or “This is because I am (____ ethnicity) and you do not like (_____ ethnicity) students.” Hooks can be explosive and may make us want to express our anger (by activating our pain-body reaction) and/or defend ourselves. BUT THE HOOK IS NOT THE POINT, SO DON’T PLAY INTO IT. Once we respond to the hook we are in an argument, and the student has shifted the focus of the interaction to their agenda and away from their responsibility. A useful phrase at this point may be, “That may be true, but right now, you have to decide what you are going to choose to do about the paper on your desk.”


4.      Calmly acknowledge the power struggle.


It may be useful at some point in the interaction to help the student become aware of the dynamics of the situation. A useful phrase may be something to the effect, “You seem to want to argue, or get into a power struggle right now. That is not is not going to help either one of us resolve this situation.”  Playing the psychologist, may seem condescending, so try not to guess what is wrong. Just show empathy and awareness of the dynamic. The more awareness that can come into the situation the more reasoned the thinking will be. A useful mental thought here is to mirror the affect that you want from the student.

5.      Validate the student’s feelings and concerns.


Without being too psycho-analytical, it is useful to let the student know that you understand that they have some pain that is causing this need to engage you. For instance if the student makes the statement, “I know that you do not like me, don’t pretend you do.” Yes, this is a hook, but it may or may not express authentic feelings. The mistake would be to respond in a way that attempted to defend our self against the accusation of non-liking, or ignore the idea completely implying that maybe they are right. So we might respond in a way that attempts to validate the student, but keeps the fulfillment of their responsibility in the foreground, such as, “You know I like you, and I get the feeling like there is more going on here than what is being said, and I promise that we can talk about your concerns about me and this class, but right now, you have one job, to make the choice to fulfill your commitment to our social contract, or accept that by your actions you are rejecting your commitment.”  We need to fulfill our part of the social contract by following through and taking the time to listen to students concerns. But we can only control the choices that we make, this student needs to take responsibility for theirs.


6.      Keep the focus on the student’s choice, and simply state the consequence



In the larger context the choice the student has made is essentially to say “No!” to the social contract. However, the phrasing you would use should point out the current choice the student is making and the resulting consequence to that choice.

Early in the interaction our language might be something to the effect, “you have make the choice not to clean up your desk area, when you make that choice, you will be dismissed to go.” At this time, the consequence may have increased to a lost opportunity to go and take part in the activity with the other students.

As time goes on, the student’s decision not to pick up the paper begins to imply a choice to defy his or her commitment to the social contract. So our statement after a few minutes of student inaction should imply that the student must somehow show a commitment that this will not happen again. We might use the language, “You made the choice to disregard your responsibility. Our social contract only works when all of us live up to our agreements. You need to clean up your area and explain to me (in writing is best) how and why this is not going to happen again, before I can consider you a responsible and committed member of this class.”


7.      Put your emotional energy into constructive matters.



Your physical actions throughout this process are also meaningful. Avoid hovering or standing over the student. Giving the student space sends the message that they are free to make a decision without coercion. Do essentially what you would do if you were alone in the room. Use eye contact and good listening skills when you are directly interacting with the student, but when the student is thinking, then it is best to show the student that “life will go on, no matter what choice they make.” Let your actions and emotions send the message that you hope they make a good choice, but your job is to put positive energy into your work and the class. If they want to engage in something constructive, you will be there, but there is nothing they can do to get you to join in their pain party.



Fearing the idea of students saying NO

As long as the student makes the choice, by virtue of their willful action, to dismiss or reject the social contract, they have made the choice to step outside of it until they show a commitment to being a responsible member. It may be the case that no student makes that kind of choice all year. If we do a good job of creating a healthy learning community, it is likely to happen rarely if ever. But if we fear a student engaging us in a power struggle or rejecting a request, we will always carry a bit of unnecessary anxiety. Our fear may lead us to such actions as ignoring or rationalizing a student’s choice to dismiss the class contract or implementing a punishment that does not hold the student responsible for their choice, like sending them to the office. Yet, if we keep in mind that, at any moment, a students has the choice to be responsible or not to be responsible. So, if they choose not to be, that is their right, and we do have to get angry or scared, we simply need to give them a clear context to make future choices. Therefore, it is possible that one day a student may choose to step out of there commitment to the class, and we need to be able to show the tough love it takes to let them make that choice.




If on the other hand we let fear or sympathy guide us to letting the student off the hook, we have sent a powerful message to the rest of the class that when students say “No” to the social contract, the teacher will not hold them accountable. Examined within the social learning model the message is that the contract is neither sound nor sacred. While no other student may see themselves as wanting to disrespect the contract, they will likely lose respect for it, when they view it being disregarded. It may not be conscious, but expect an erosion of commitment to the social contract. Conversely, when we hold students accountable, no matter how difficult it may be, we send the message to the members of the group that the social contract has integrity.



Chapter Reflection 15-o: When a student says no to you, what has your inclination been to this point? How will you approach it in the future?




Conflict will be present in any class. How we process it will define the effect that it has on our students.  As we examine the process for creating the 1-style classroom and the qualities of a classroom community in the coming chapters, you will recognize that conflict can be an opportunity for growth. Moreover, it can provide a means to discovering the empowerment that comes from knowing that one can maintain awareness and intention in the face of problematic situations. In addition, power struggles can become opportunities to learn responsibility and to strengthen the social contract. In the next chapter we will examine how to work with difficult students. We will need to build on the concepts from this chapter to be effective. If we take the position that difficult students need to be punished and put in their place, we will find ourselves engaged in perpetual power struggles, and our efforts will not support the growth of the student toward more functional behavior.



Journal Reflections

1. Recall the last power struggle that you have observed. Did the teacher use the skills and processes recommended in the Chapter?


2. Reflect on the classes that you have observed that seem to be conflict-free. What did the teacher do to promote this condition? Conversely, reflect on those classes that seemed to be mired in conflict on a regular basis. What did the teacher do to contribute to the situation?




Chapter Activities

1. In small groups, role play power struggle scenarios. Have one member of the group take the role of the student who is trying to hook the teacher into a power struggle, and one member take the role of the teacher who is trying to guide the interaction to a positive outcome. It will be helpful to pay attention to the steps suggested by Curwin and Mendler on page --.


Some possible power struggle scenarios:

  • Student refuses to hand over an i-pod or cell phone (when there is a no electronics policy in the class).
  • Student decides to insult the teacher in front of the class.
  • Student refuses to do work, or line up
  • Student refuses to put away their materials


After the role play, have all members of the group discuss what they would have done, and whether they felt the intervention of the member taking the role of the teacher was effective and why.


2. The next time someone initiates conflict with you, see if you can apply the skills outlined in the win-win conflict resolution on page --. Then reflect on the difference it makes in coming to a constructive outcome.


3.      Conduct a web-quest related to conflict resolution programs. In your search engine, put in the words, “conflict resolution” “school-wide” or “classroom” explore some of the sites that outline successful programs.  What do you find that these programs have in common?


4.      In your group role play the following conflict resolution situations. Choose either the elementary or secondary scenario. Pick on member of your group to be the teacher and two others to be students.



Student A comes to you and tells you that student B has been pushing them. Student A is crying.  Student B quickly comes up to your desk and tells you that student A was pushing them too. Help guide the students through a conflict resolution process.



As you approach one group in your class you can see that they are off track. Student A tells you that student B is not doing their job in the project. Student B says that they are doing what they were told to do earlier, but now the group is changing their minds. Student A laments that Student B is going to cost them a good grade, and has been misrepresenting what they said. Student B, is getting defensive and threatens to give up and let the other do their part. Help guide the students through the conflict to a more productive and amicable place.





Bluestien. J. (1999) 21st century discipline. Fearon Teacher Aids. Torrance CA
Drew, N (2002) Hope and Healing: Peaceful Parenting in an Uncertain World. Citadel Press. New York.

Gordon. T (2006) Teacher Effectiveness Training. Gordon Publishing International. Solana Beach. CA

Myers, I., McCauley, M., Hammer, (1998) Manual for Use: Myers-Briggs Type Inventory. Consulting Psychologist Press, Palo Alto, CA.

Tolle, Eckhart (1999) The Power of Now. Namaste Publishing, Vancouver, Canada