How Do You Avoid The Power Struggle?

Power struggles. As another year begins in Kindergarten, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about these. In Ontario, children start JK when they are as young as three: turning four by the end of December. Sometimes students may be three-, four-, or five-years old, but be at a developmental level that is more like two-years old. As someone who has not had my own children, I didn’t have a lot of experience with toddlers until I started teaching Kindergarten. I don’t think that I truly began to understand their behaviour until I began working with Early Childhood Educators, who were willing and open to teaching me a lot. It was then that my thinking and approaches changed. 

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had to remind myself of some wise words: “You will never win a power struggle with a two-year old.” Three experiences made me realize how different approaches would have completely changed the following outcomes.

Earlier this week, I was outside with the other Kindergarten classes one morning. A group of students decided to set-up a hockey game over in the corner. They made sure that all interested children were included, and supported each other as they played. I really enjoyed watching this hockey game, and was doing so when one child took the hockey stick over to the picnic table. He started banging on the table with it, and then moved to banging on the ground. These are little plastic mini-sticks, and I was really concerned that he was going to break the stick. I went over to him and explained that the hockey sticks needed to be used for the hockey game. He wasn’t willing to go back, and continued to bang. Again, I asked him to bring back the stick, and when he ignored me a second time, I took the stick. Now I should have anticipated what came next, but I didn’t. He went to hit me. This should not be a surprise. It really was my own fault. If I didn’t grab the stick, he wouldn’t have hit me … but he might have broken the hockey stick. I could have reacted in all kinds of different ways, and over the years, I’ve reacted in many of them. But Stuart Shanker‘s and Susan’s Hopkin‘s voices went through my head at the time, and I started to think about Self-Reg and power struggles. 

  • I took a step back.
  • I gave him some space.
  • I got down low.
  • And I waited.

When he quieted down, I asked him in a really quiet voice, “What did you want to do with the hockey stick?” He replied, “I want to make music.” Of course! What a great idea! I could work with this. I said, “This is a wonderful idea! This hockey stick might crack though. That could hurt someone. What else can we find around here to use to make music?” That’s when he found another stick. Another child picked up a rock to use. I even suggested using our hands. This child totally calmed down, created his music, and left the hockey stick in a safer place. 

I was thinking about this experience when I was outside again one morning, and I heard some screaming coming from the building space. Why was this child screaming? I used the words that I often hear my teaching partner, Paula, use: “You look really sad. What’s wrong?” He stopped screaming and said, “Another boy took my hat. He threw it on the ground.” I replied with, “I can see why that might make you sad. Do you know who did it?” Sure enough, he pointed to a child that was hiding in the dig pit: huddled and crying. I went to go and talk with him, but I could see that he was also really upset. I tried Paula’s line again: “You look really sad.” Before I could say anything else, he said, “I’m mad! He [he pointed to the other child] started taking blocks from my building. He wouldn’t stop, so I took his hat.” Hmmm … “I can see how that would make you angry.” I looked at the first child and asked, “Did you take the blocks?” He admitted that he did. I said to him, “That’s why he threw your hat. He was mad. I wonder if we could share the blocks. Where can we find some more?” They looked around and found some. I then said to the child in the dig pit, “What could you do the next time you’re angry?” We brainstormed a couple of options together. A good start!

The more that I thought about what happened, the more that I realized that a different reaction from me could have changed the outcome. If I went up to that child angry that he threw the hat, he probably would have cried more. He might have screamed or thrown something at me. He was definitely dysregulated at the time, and not up for explaining what went wrong without my opening to do so.

It was thinking about some different approaches that got me through my third experience this week. We were playing in the classroom one afternoon, and I noticed a child getting increasingly frustrated. He started a few short screams and cries. I tried to suggest a different activity option, but that wasn’t working. Considering the time and the last time that he ate, I thought that hunger might be at play. Would a short lunch break make a difference? I grabbed his lunch bag off the shelf, and called him over to the eating table. He didn’t want to come, and started to cry a bit more. I tried to just let things be for a few minutes, but the tears weren’t subsiding on their own. I really needed to get him to eat or drink something. Forcing him to come would only result in a power struggle. No win there. So what did I do in the past when I wanted a child to come and eat and he/she was reluctant to do so? I needed to get creative! I thought about the day before and how excited he was to pretend to talk to a person on the phone. What if something in his lunch bag called him instead? No hurt in trying. I opened the bag, and quietly called his name: making the bag open and close with each word that I said. He stopped crying. He turned his head, and he walked to the eating table. “Isn’t that so cool? My lunch bag said my name.” I said that it must mean that the lunch bag wants him to eat something, and this is exactly what he did. I must admit that I love when the challenge of a “no win” becomes a “win” with just a different, creative option! Success. 

While I realize that these stories might be more unique to Kindergarten, there are students out there that struggle in every grade. Can each of these students self-select a better option, or again, do we need to consider options that reduce some of those power struggles in the first place? What are some things that you’ve tried? My teaching partner and I have had so many great moments these past couple of weeks, but maybe our biggest celebrations came when our actions helped turn around difficult situations. I can’t help but wonder if it’s some of these positive outcomes that might help change a child’s trajectory. Imagine how powerful that could be.


4 thoughts on “How Do You Avoid The Power Struggle?

  1. In my system role this past week I was asked to observe a Year 1 FDK student (S) and offer the educators feedback/suggestions regarding his difficulty “following rules and routines in the classroom”. As I sat back and observed, a power struggle began. The educator asked all the children to finish up play and line up to wash hands before eating. Simultaneously the educator began showing a animated show on the SmartBoard – volume very low. S continued to alternately wander the room and watch the screen. He ignored the educators requests to line up to wash his hands multiple times even when she directly addressed him – he would turn away, run away or keep his eyes focused on the screen. Many minutes passed, all the other students were now at their tables eating and the educator was becoming more frustrated in her inability to get S to comply even after using First-Then language, and explaining why hands need to be washed before eating. I have witnessed similar power struggles in many classes and decided the best feedback I could give woukd be to model an alternative strategy for dealing with “non–compliance”, especially with our little guys who are still learning the rudiments of routines and social norms and expectations, and self/regulation. I offered to intervene and using invitational rather than directive language I got down to his level, offered my hand to him and said, “Come with me and we’ll wash our hands then sit down to eat. “. We walked hand in hand to the sink and we both wanted our hands. He took his lunch bag went to his table and sat for the next 20 minutes eating and interacting with the other students st his table. I have found this simple tweak in the instruction to the student from directive language to invitational one of the best strategies to avoid power struggles and teach needed skills. I must credit our Early Years Team and the book Beyond Behaviour Management for this “trick”. Give it a try it can be a life saver in some tricky situations 😜

    • Thanks for sharing this, Denise! This is such a great story with such a fantastic lesson. So glad you mentioned the Early Years Team, as they also helped me learn how to better support these students. Even the word choice and tone I choose align a lot with what Sue and Sarah modelled for me years ago. I have no doubt that Liz and Andrea use similar approaches. Your comment reminds me that I really need to read BEYOND BEHAVIOUR MANAGEMENT. Every time I hear an anecdote that comes from suggestions in that book, I think about how much it aligns with my own beliefs.


  2. I am so glad to hear these stories as I struggle with this everyday. I have a student who perseverates on Batman and tablet. When he does not get these things he throws furniture toys and can get physically aggressive. Sometimes we successfully distract him but as he is more of a two-year old, it is hard. We do use visuals which sometimes help. This student is also dealing with an unstable home life and trauma. Toiletting is also a trigger for him. He responds well to me as I can usually hug him and talk a little to him. As you know, we can’t always be there for him one-on-one as we have the rest of the class to supervise (also has many other significant behaviours going on). any ideas?

    • Wow Laura! There seems to be many components to this story. Does he connect well with any of the kids, or would some be interested in connecting with him? Kids sometimes respond differently to other children versus adults. I wonder why he might perseverate on the tablet and Batman. Are there similar things that might interest him? Does this perseveration only happen at certain times of the day? Is he indicating what he might need at this time? I wonder if there’s anyone else in the school or board that might be able to assist with this. Sometimes we need these multiple perspectives. Good luck!


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