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Six Tips for Eliminating Power Struggles


· Problem Solving,Social-Emotional,Life Skills,teaching,Physical Education

Last year, I challenged myself to avoid Boss Talk at all costs. And by Boss Talk, I mean giving absolute directions like "sit down", "talk nicely", "give that back", etc.

It was a total game changer. Not only did it improve my relationships with my students, but it also worked wonders with my own toddlers. I experienced less resistance and less explosive reactions.

The idea came about from years of teaching my students some of the strategies you'll see below. I'm always working with students on fixing problems with others and finding ways for them to communicate their wants and needs to others.

Over several years of teaching, I began to notice a trend. Kids had a terrible way of communicating. For instance: 

Jim is bothering Grace

Grace turns around and tells Jim to STOP IT

Now Jim doesn't stop, he just continues to do it more

What's happening here? It's a power struggle. Kids are already so powerless. They rarely have any control over their lives and they refuse to give up what little control they do have. So when Grace says STOP IT, Jim is thinking that if he does what he's told, now he's giving Grace power over him. That he's allowing Grace to be the boss of him. And he already has enough bosses (parents, teachers, older siblings, etc) and doesn't need any more. So there's a deliberate refusal to do what's asked so that he can prove (at least to himself) that he still has his power to make decisions for himself.

I see it frequently with my students, but I also feel it at home. I could be walking into the kitchen to do the dishes and my wife instructs me to do the dishes. Immediately, red sirens blare and I feel myself go into a “you’re not in charge of me. I’ll do what I want” mode of thought. In the blink of an eye, I flip from wanting to be helpful to feeling a little resentful.

Or just this summer, I watched a boss tell their employee, "Get off your phone." It was rude and I'm sure it chiseled away at whatever respect there was for that boss. It sure made me lose respect and I only witnessed it.

We all want to be independent and responsible for ourselves; and telling others what to do only damages relationships. So I teach my students NOT to tell other people what to do and instead give them tools for communicating without the Boss Talk. In doing this, I've picked up amazing communication tools that allow me to do my job and get through life without inciting power struggles. The results have been amazing.

Strategies for Eliminating Power Struggles

Here’s a look at some strategies I’ve found to be successful:

"I can’t let you… because…" (and a step better, add what you can do instead)

This is has been a goldmine with my toddlers at home. Instead of just saying no or just telling them to stop doing something. I tell them that I can’t let them do it and then give a reason. It’s even better if it’s a reason that they understand and buy in to.


  • I can’t let you carry all that stuff up the stairs because I’d hate to see you slip and not be able to catch yourself.
  • I’m not going to let you talk to me like that because it makes me not want to listen. We can try talking again when we’re both calm.
  • I can’t let you run in the halls. What if you run into a teacher with a cup of hot coffee?

Give information


When you give somebody information, you’re giving them the benefit of the doubt that maybe they just didn’t realize they were doing something that wasn’t okay. It’s less abrasive than assuming the worst. In my “gym”, one of the Forbidden Phrases is any variation of the word “cheat”. When you use the word, you’re assuming the worst. But, if you assume that they just forgot or got carried away, then they have no need to be defensive. Reminding them a rule or giving them other information doesn’t come off as judgmental and they’re more likely to hear you out and do what you want.



  • We can’t hear the movie over your voice.
  • I don’t like it when people touch my face
  • It doesn’t sound like you’re talking about the project we’re working on.
  • another example (stemming from my be kind, remind Problem Solving Expectation)

Ask Questions


Sometimes just asking a question can be a friendly reminder of what should be happening.



  • Are you walking how you're supposed to in the hall?
  • Did you forget to stay in your area?
  • Didn’t I tell you I don’t like it when people touch my face?
  • Is this what you’re supposed to be working on?

Give Choices


Giving choices allows others to still have some control over their circumstances.

  • Do you want to play in the tub until bedtime or do you want to get out now and have a snack?
  • Can you do it here or do you need another place to do it?
  • Do you want to show me you know by doing the activity or would you prefer to write about it?

One Word

Nagging is the worst. You’ve already said it, don’t make it into a big deal. I’ll talk to kids about having professional (or at the very least, business-casual) discourse. When I hear inappropriate language, I don’t need to go into all the ins and outs and whens and whys. I just say “language”.

  • Other examples:
  • I've taught a soccer game that uses no hands. Somebody touches the ball with their hands and I'll just say "HANDS"
  • I've asked my kids to get their shoes on and they need a reminder. "SHOES"

I'm calling it the Power Challenge. It's become a lifestyle for me. Are you up for it? Have you come up with any other strategies for eliminating power struggles? I'd love to hear them. Let me know in the comments.

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