Things That Trip Us Up

Today’s Tuesday Tips, Tricks and Things that Trip Us up is all about one of the things that trips us all up from time to time. No matter how mindful we are, how in the moment we are, how aware of this black hole we are, we all fall in. Some more than others.  And those who live in the black hole should probably be counseled out of teaching or at the very least be assigned some professional development and a mentor.

Power Struggle is the name of this particular black hole.

Here are the rules for power struggles.

1.  Avoid them. 

2.  Kids win in some way every time.

3.  In reality, for the long term, no one wins.

OK, for real, I hate even using the term ‘win’. But in  power struggles there are usually winners and losers of sorts. There is no compromising with a highly agitated, scared, angry, depressed, out of control person. Note I am not only referring to just kids- there is no compromising with adults in these states either.


Let’s first understand what refusal to take a directive from you is communicating. We have to understand the other person before we can expect them to trust and understand us and what we are asking of them.

Think about all the times you have refused or resisted doing something another requests or expects. The reasons are too many to list, right? The variables are many. Not only are we resisting the request, we may be resisting who made the request, where it was made, how it was made, when it was made, how we  are expected to comply, how we are feeling physically and emotionally, who will be witnessing our compliance, how we are feeling about ourselves in the moment. You can bet that when we are asked to comply when any of the variables just mentioned are out of whack, we will push back against that request.


Is that such a bad thing? To push back? To resist our request?  It feels bad when a wee one won’t honor our request to hurry up because they won’t leave the house without that certain something they absolutely must have to get through the day. It feels bad when a student or two slows us down when we have so much learning to make happen in a school day.

When these things happen, as frustrating as it is, we absolutely must be in that moment and mindfully do all we can to understand with our hearts. There really is no need to over analyze it or to go to that default list of reasons why kids don’t comply. We don’t need to know, in that moment, if the kid is seeking attention (oh, how I despise that whole premise), power and control, avoidance, yadda, yadda, yadda. All we need to know is that something does not feel good enough to comply. And in the moment we must take a deep breath and ask how we can help. Period.


When an upset student crawls under a table in the library, do not go in after him and pull him out. Don’t threaten, don’t take things away and do not offer rewards for coming out from under the table. They have chosen to go there because something doesn’t feel right. Breathe. Ask how you can help them feel more comfortable so they can join you. Just ask. They will tell you.

When a student refuses to take out pencil and paper do not say things like, “We will just wait to start until Tom gets his pencil and paper out.”  Or, “I like how Sara has her pencil and paper out and is ready to go.” I hate manipulating kids like this.  And I really hate when people say the second example is positive behavior support. Manipulating kids is manipulating kids. It’s coercion.  Instead, breathe and see this resistance as communication that Tony is feeling out of sync in some way. Either ignore or say something supportive. “Tony, join us when you can and let me know if I can help you in any way.”


When a student is consistently late to class and refuses to comply to the bell schedule, do not call him out in front of everyone every single day when he seemingly nonchalantly strolls in after you have started teaching. Do not say things like, “Gee, Tom, I guess you are better than the rest of us and don’t have to follow the same schedule as the rest of us.” Or, “That’s it! I have had it! Don’t come in here late again. Now go to the dean’s office. If you can’t be on time, you can’t be here.”


Either ignore or say good morning without sarcasm or malice. Then meet with Tom after class or later in the day and ask if there is anything you can do to help Tom get to class on time. Refrain from saying things about how in the real world or the working world, being late is not tolerated and a sure way to get fired. Tom knows this. Just ask how you can help. Refrain from offering prizes for being on time so many days in a row. Refrain from threatening detentions and office referrals. That stuff does not address the problem or change the behavior for the long term. Just ask. Tom will eventually tell you. Yes, you might have to ask him every day for months, but eventually he will tell you because you have demonstrated you care. And you care every day no matter how many times Tom wanders into your class late.

When Joey threatens to bite or spit, back away. He is warning you that you are too close and he is overstimulated, not feeling safe, overwhelmed. Believe Joey. And thank him for letting you know so you can get out of his way. Breathe. Thank the universe that Joey is in enough control to warn you. He doesn’t want to hurt you or spit on you. He really doesn’t. But he will if he feels desperate enough. From a nonthreatening distance, ask Joey what you can do to help. Stop with the request. He is feeling unable to comply. In his mind it’s a can’t, not a won’t. Honor that.

And on those days when every cell in your body is screaming that just for once you would like everyone to do what you ask, call in sick. Take a mental health day. If you can’t do that, then rework the schedule and include activities that are engaging and more playful, less reliant on exact compliance. Because it is OK to deviate from the schedule to provide relief to you all. Offer nothing to push or pull against.


On those days, find a mantra and say it over and over and over.

Mine is this.

In a week, a month, a year, 5 years will his refusal today make any difference?

And please do not go there. You know that place where you tell me if you let him ‘get away’ with it this time, he will never learn. That’s just ridiculous and will be addressed on a Monday Madness post.

For now, just breathe, say your mantra and ask how you can help.



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