“…with developing minds and bodies, young adolescents must confront the central issue of constructing an identity that will provide a firm basis for adulthood…a conscious effort is made to answer the now-pressing question: ‘Who am I?’ ”
Woolfolk, A. (2008) Educational psychology: Active learning edition. Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Allyn and Bacon.
People inherently like to feel in control of situations in their lives. Kindergarten-aged children like to know that they can zip their own jacket, 3rd graders feel empowered when they get to pick their own books for their reading folders, and 6th graders like to know that they can make a difference in their own and other people’s lives. Adolescence especially is a time when students find that they can become passionate about things in their lives, as this gives them a greater sense of identity, something at this point is really forming on an individual level through choice for the first time. And oftentimes, these individuals test new things, try out new identities and explore what they believe in, what they stand for and who they are.
Sometimes, when students are looking for control in their lives outside of school because of unstable situations at other junctions in their lives, highly confrontational attitudes can arise. Often, a student will be asked to do something or to correct some misbehavior and, either because of a heightened sense of identity formulation or because of what was discussed at the opening of this paragraph or because of both, the student will refuse, creating an instant power struggle where both you and the student are looking for control.
These situations can be dangerous for the student’s emerging sense of self and for the teacher’s sense of authority amongst other students. If the teacher doesn’t fully sense what is happening and fights back, a reflex in trying to uphold authority, students, especially those at this age, can and will push the struggle to its limits. This can result in both the teacher and the student doing things which neither truly want but need to do through desperation to keep the power, to save face.
I am by no means an expert at saving face; I mess up all the time. However, in my time in middle school classrooms, and through Nonviolent Crisis Intervention Training through CPI (see below), I have learned that it is best to first realize that a power struggle has begun the moment a student unwillingly refuses to do what is asked of them. At that point, a teacher should give the student two clear choices while at the same time allowing the student to know that they are the one who will be affected by the choices the student makes, not the teacher. Clear and simple choices then need to be followed with time for the student to be able to make the choices, with the choices sometimes needing to be repeated by the adult. Then, after a clear amount of time has been given for the student (say 15 seconds) it should be made clear to the student what they are then choosing one of the options. For instance, if a student doesn’t make a choice, it should be made clear to them that by saying nothing they are choosing to take the path of disciplinary action.
I have found this to be effective when the teacher then follows through with the choices that students make, keeping themselves from getting caught up in the struggle by staying aloof to it overall, not to the student, but to the struggle itself.
“Although I don’t like having to send you to the principals office, I will. I would rather not, but it will happen if that’s the choice being made.”
As a teacher, my purpose is to educate and enrich the lives of as many students as possible. Oftentimes, students choose not to allow this to happen, but this shouldn’t mean that the other students suffer because of one student’s choices.
I am not perfect at this by any means; I have only had a handful of situations where I have had to deal with these kinds of attitudes. However, I have had more success than not with the above procedure and thought it had a place here. I am sure that with time, I will have many more opportunities to develop and refine my skills as an effective educator.