5 Ways to Stay Calm in a Power Struggle
We have all been there. You are teaching a powerful lesson, kids are participating, objectives are being met, and then you ask a student to answer a question, perform a task, or help with a job and you are met with silence. You feel it-that slow burn in the pit of your stomach. You decide to try ignoring and will come back and check in a few minutes. Hoodie goes on, head goes down and you think, "Nothing has happened, he was fine ten minutes ago. He's just being difficult and shouldn't be." On you go with your lesson, and as you move through the room, you circle back around to Mr. Hoodie, only to be met with complete shut-down. No response to any prompting you are providing. That slow burn starts to bubble. You push harder, begin making demands like, "Take your hoodie down-I need an answer from you". This pushing goes on for two more minutes-which of course, feels like two hours, and suddenly Mr. Hoodie explodes. He kicks his desk, slams his hand down on the table, tells you, "No", or "Leave me alone".
Just like that, you are in a power struggle.
Now what? Do you push? Do you hold him accountable? If you don't, the others will see that you do not have control here and it could lead to other issues later with other students. These are the situations we face every single day, sometimes multiple times a day. Students come to us more and more with lots of "stuff" that we cannot control or fix for them. We cannot control how much sleep they got the night before, or if they had dinner, or if a safe adult is at home with them. A lot of our students come to us like a can of soda. They may look perfectly fine on the outside but they were shaken before they came to us and once we flip the can top, the soda inside will explode and spray everywhere. Kristin Souers, author of Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-sensitive Classroom, describes letting that need for control go and instead focus on how we influence our classroom environment. The reality is that the change needs to start with us.
1. Build Strong Relationships with Your Students
This sounds obvious but when our students truly believe that we understand and know them, they will add you to their sometimes-short list of safe people. Once you are on that list, when you ask seemingly innocent questions, they will be more likely to answer that they are overwhelmed or in shut-down mode, rather than not answer at all or respond with inflammatory responses.
2. Use Less Words
When a student's soda can has exploded, if you launch into a lecture or use a lot of words, the power struggle will grow like a wildfire. Your best strategy here is to simply pause, take a deep breath, and stop talking. Silence is golden. Their explosion can be triggered by more words because now the focus is getting you to de-regulate.
3. Talk with a Quieter Tone
When you are ready to speak, do it softly. Kids in trauma know only that when people are upset, they yell or they leave or they hit. They are used to that in their own homes. By taking deep breaths, pausing to formulate what you need most of all out of this exchange, planning the few words you need to deliver the message, and then delivering them quietly, the chance of the student positively responding increases dramatically. They will no longer feel threatened or no longer be reminded of how this goes at home.
4. Talk Slowly
A faster rate of speech makes our voice rise in pitch and that is very triggering for students who are exploding. The slower you talk, the lower your pitch, the quieter your tone means the more quickly you can diffuse the situation.
5. Have Empathy
Many times, I have been called to a classroom to help diffuse a situation with a student who is exploding. When I enter, I move slowly to the student, and when I begin taking with him or her, I never start with, "What's going on?" Or "What's wrong?" Shaken soda-can-kids hear, "This is all your fault, what are you doing?" Or "You are in trouble now", and it can be very inflammatory and create bigger behaviors. Instead I start with naming emotions. I might say, "Oh, I'm so sorry. You look frustrated, can I help you?" Stay away from general emotions (mad, upset, sad) at first, they tend to send the message that you do not know what is going on with them. Being specific and giving them a chance to tell their story goes a long way. By extending grace and letting them know you will give them some time to explain what they are feeling and that you will remain calm in their chaos to help them get through it goes a long way in helping a child feel safe in a potentially very scary event. A kinder student once yelled at me when I told her it would be okay, "No, it won't!" and her event got bigger. That showed me how scared and end of the world feeling this was for her. I chose to simply quietly say, "I know it feels that way. It will be okay and I will stay by you until it is." After simply sitting by her and telling her how proud I was of her for trying to use her strategies, she could start taking deep breaths. If I would have chosen to remove her from class, or lecture her, or engage in some form of anger response, this explosion would not have ended as quickly or as peacefully as it did. A little bit of grace and a little bit of empathy goes a long way for kids struggling to appropriately communicate their frustrations. For those not quite ready to talk, we have strategies in place such as walking a couple of laps around the school or designated area, or moving to a calming corner of the classroom until they are ready.
Once a student can process through what triggered them and they can talk it out, they can return to the task and be more likely to complete it. If we can stay regulated in sometimes very difficult situations, we are more likely to reach and then get back to teaching our students.