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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The dreaded power-struggle

“Mark, can you sit down and do your work please?”


“Mark, sit down please.”

“I don’t want to.”

“Sit down.”


“Because….because you need to do your work.”

“I don’t want to.”…

Half an hour later.


“What are you goin’ #$%#$% do?” You quickly duck out of the way of a flying chair. “I said I don’t want to do it!!”

Angry, you confront him and say “Don’t you throw things at me!”

“I will @#$%@ do what I @%%# well like!!!”


Have you ever been caught in an un-winnable argument like this? I have come close with a few children aged between 8-11 who were diagnosed with oppositional defiance disorder, ADHD or bi-polar disorder.

But I usually remembered just in time the important techniques that ensure the child, myself and other children around did not get hurt. Here is one of the techniques that helped me diffuse the situation.

Roger’s Chain of Action

Let’s re-tell this scenario following Roger’s “chain of action” (cited in Brady and Scully, 2005).

It’s homework time at home, or deskwork time at school.

You point to your schedule which is hung on the wall. “Okay, everyone/Mark. Its nearly time to work at your desks/do your homework. You will need your pencil case, your Maths book and your ruler (you write this on the board/on a sticky note and put it on his desk). I’ll set the timer for five minutes so you can get ready.”

Mark is clearly not moving. He looks in your direction to see what you will do.

Step one: Tactical ignoring

You decide to see what will happen if you ignore. The minutes tick away. Mark starts to do things like flicking spit-balls at his sister or throwing small projectiles such as his rubber at his peers.

Ignoring is obviously not working.

Step two: Simple direction, rule re-statement, or question and feedback.

As you are wandering around helping others, you stop close to Mark, ensuring you have his attention without getting “in his face”.

“What are you meant to be doing, Mark?”

“I dunno.”

“You can check the schedule if you don’t remember.”

“I’m not dumb.”

“I know that.” said with a genuine, warm smile. “So what are you meant to be doing?”

Mark reluctantly tells you.

“That’s great! You should have just enough time. There’s still one minute on the timer.”

He starts getting ready, albeit mumbling, “I hate maths!” But you have walked away and ignore this. You know he is capable of the work you have set, and he knows you are willing to support him where necessary, so discussion is not necessary and will only prolong the argument. Though you may want to quickly state these facts before you walk away.

Unfortunately, he discovers a tempting projectile in his equipment and starts to set up a catapult using his ruler in order to release some of his frustration. He’s not ready to stop fighting yet.

Its time to act quickly.

Step three: Repeat step two or take child aside and give them a clear choice.

You don’t waste time with reviewing what he is meant to be doing. Someone may lose an eye.

You put your hand on Mark’s catapult and ask him calmly, “Do you want to do this now, or during recess/your favourite TV show?”

“You can’t do that!” He is hanging for a showdown.

Calmly you say, “It’s your choice. You have about 30 seconds left on the clock.” Then you walk away (with the ruler and the projectile).

Conclusion 1: It works (and it usually did for me)

The success of this process relies on you having built a rapport with the child, respecting and caring for their needs. It also requires firmness, confidence and consistency in application. If you fail to follow-through with choices at any time the child will not take you seriously.

So don't "threaten", just state facts about what is going to happen.

Conclusion 2: He opts out and starts throwing larger projectiles.


Step 4: Isolation, time-out, exit from the room.

Have a crisis management plan in place to respond to any escalating aggression.

At home:
You may have a punching ball or “outburst” space where he can have it out safely.

Or, if possible, remove Mark to his room where anything he breaks has consequences for him rather than the family – though it is likely that this could start another argument and you will be unable to get him out of the room.

Another option is to remove yourself and any other children to a different room.

But there must be consequences after the outburst has subsided. That is, you must follow through with the choice you gave him. So Mark will have to do his work later and miss out on his favourite show.

At school:
Have a “buddy teacher” who is in a room close-by to whom Mark goes to “cool down”. The buddy teacher will have a desk close to the door where he can sit unobtrusively. It would also be important to have some physical outlet, such as a stress-ball. Though just walking between rooms (always being within sight for duty of care reasons) may be enough for some children.

Alternately, you may have a telephone in your room and an agreement that you can call either the principal, the deputy principal or the head teacher for welfare, who will then come down and either remove Mark or stay with him whilst you move your other students to do their work in the lovely sunshine or the library as the case may be.

But, again, you must follow through with the choice you gave him. So Mark will either work on his Maths with you or another staff member (such as the principal or in the library) during recess.

This should be seen as a natural consequence for his actions, rather than a “punishment”, especially if (as his actions suggest) Mark is struggling with self-esteem or self-efficacy issues.

If you follow these steps you might find that you have avoided a power-struggle and saved yourself and others a lot of time and angst.

Brady, L. & Scully, A. (2005). Engagement: Inclusive Classroom Management. Sydney: Pearson Education.

Interesting reading:,%20sample%20&%20guidance.pdf


Sue August 23, 2009 at 7:02 PM  

Hi Amanda,
I have just returned home from the Asia Pacific Autism Conference. What an amazing 3 days! I have placed an order for some of the recordings from the conference and thought that some of your readers might like to order them too. You can get CD Roms including video of the sessions and the PowerPoints or MP3 recordings . Almost as good as being there! Now all I have to do is get back into the swing of regular classroom life again.
Here's the link if anyone is interested.
My kids loved the Dave is Brave song and story. I think we will wear it out!

Amanda August 23, 2009 at 7:44 PM  

Thanks, Sue

I will share it on my facebook page and twitter as well... some great stuff there. I will need to spend more time and get some things myself!!

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