Avoiding Confrontations in the Classroom

Instructor: Millicent Kelly

Millicent has been teaching at the university level since 2004. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice and a Master's degree in Human Resources.

This lesson will look at strategies that can be used for avoiding classroom confrontations and power struggles between teachers and students. Both positive and negative actions in response to power struggles will be discussed.

Picture This!

You're teaching a lesson on the Holocaust to a class of 8th graders. You notice that Johnnie is not paying attention and is being somewhat disruptive during a serious and important lesson. You choose to ignore Johnnie's behavior for now and continue with the lesson when suddenly Johnnie jumps out of his seat and defiantly shouts 'why do we have to learn this bull.' In one moment, your entire classroom atmosphere is transformed, and the focus is now no longer on the lesson, but on Johnnie.

Your reaction to this incident is crucial, and it can either set a positive or negative tone for the rest of the school year. Whether you're teaching at the pre-school, elementary, middle, or high school level, student/teacher confrontations in the classroom are never acceptable and need to be addressed as they occur without turning into power struggles. By the end of this lesson, you will be familiar with effective strategies for handling classroom confrontations to avoid power struggles, so that you can appropriately deal with the Johnnies of this world.

Power Struggles

Classroom power struggles can arise out of a number of different situations and are usually instigated by students when they:

  • Believe a grade or situation to be unfair
  • Don't want to complete assigned work
  • See a situation as being unfair
  • Don't want to be told what to do

When students become confrontational in a classroom, they are primarily seeking to engage their teacher in a power struggle so they can appear as the winner in the classroom battle, and get attention and respect from their classmates. This needs to be dealt with effectively so that the teacher does not become involved in a power struggle, and can maintain the integrity of their classroom environment. Let's take a look at some ways to diffuse an escalating situation.

What You Should Do

It's not always easy in a moment of direct confrontation to react in a manner which will diffuse rather than escalate a situation. It's important to remember, however, that regardless of how you look at classroom situations, the teacher is the adult, and the student is the child. Keeping this in mind may help as you formulate the best way of dealing with student confrontation. Here are nine guidelines you can follow to prevent or end a power struggle:

  1. Perception - look beyond the behavior and consider whether it's developmentally appropriate considering the age of the child. For example, pre-schoolers are well known for throwing screaming temper tantrums, while young adolescents are experimenting with asserting their authority.
  2. Walk Away - by removing yourself from an escalating situation, both parties have the opportunity to collect their thoughts and cool down so that the issue can be discussed rationally.
  3. Don't Have the Last Word - power struggles will be prolonged when both parties want to have the last word. Let the student have it and end the struggle.
  4. Keep It Private - if a student is causing a classroom problem, quietly removing that student from the classroom and speaking to them privately avoids a power struggle from taking place.
  5. Watch Your Language - what you model is what you teach. Avoid the use of sarcasm and other derogatory language in your classroom. Sarcasm can create misunderstandings that it was not intended to.
  6. Ignore - remember that as a teacher you are on stage in front of an audience. The students are eagerly anticipating how you will respond to a confrontation. Don't engage in the struggle.
  7. Determine the Importance of Demands - you need to figure out whether or not a demand you're about to make of a student will change the outcome of your classroom lesson. If the answer is no, your demand is probably not important enough.
  8. Don't Give Ultimatums - threatening students is not effective unless you are going to follow through on the threat.
  9. Know Yourself -it's important that you understand what sets of an emotional response in you that could lead you to engage in a power struggle so that you can let the situation diffuse prior to engaging in a conversation about it.

Johnnie's Back!

Now that you know what helps prevent these situations, let's revisit Johnnie's case and apply some of the strategies we discussed that can prevent the classroom outburst from escalating into a full blown power struggle.

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