Preschool Power Struggles

Preschool Power Struggles

A preschool teacher posted her power struggle dilemma on a Reggio Emilia discussion list. Here’s her question and my response:

Q: HELP! Today was the day for power struggles all around, I swear it’s contagious. Either that, or they picked up on the fact that I had no sleep last night & was nearly incoherent–hate how well kids can read your current physiological state.


Our #1 power struggle has been consistent with one child, though it was much worse today. He does fine throughout our work periods, plenty of energy (all boy, of course), but the moment it’s time to clean up he suddenly becomes very VERY tired and can’t possibly help clean up. I’ve been focusing on giving him very specific, simple tasks so it’s not overwhelming (ie. pick up 5 blocks, then you can go take a rest) but even that is too much for him. Today I asked him to take his shoes out of the middle of the floor & put them in the shoe basket, where they should have been in the first place. He plopped himself down on the floor & flat out refused. I tried everything short of time out (pat myself on the back for that because I was SO ready to go there!) with no response.


Finally, I asked him to select another task–which he did, but then refused to follow through with, and I let him know that he could choose to do it today during clean up or tomorrow during our work period. Of course he didn’t do it, and the mean teacher (me) threw the toys BACK on the floor after picking them up to vacuum so he can clean it up tomorrow. That’s as close to following through with a “negative consequence” as I am willing to go, and if he refuses that I don’t know what to try next.


#2 Power Struggle: We’ve also been having group time woes still–I decided against making it a requirement, but now when those children who choose to participate come to the group area the others mingle around the outside rough housing, throwing blocks, and just creating chaos in general–which obviously isn’t fair to those who *are* choosing to participate. I’m starting to second guess myself on that one, I’m thinking I will go back to a ‘mandatory’ 10-15 minute group discussion at the beginning of the day.


I swear they are doing this because they know we have families coming in for trial days the next two sessions, I am totally dreading tomorrow. We *have* to fill at least two more slots in my class group, perhaps they are picking up on that stress?

A: You are right. Kids read us far better than we read them.

#1. Putting Away Toys:

One thing I noticed in your description of the first child’s resistance was that he was able to participate throughout the work periods, and briefly again later in selecting another task. His shut down seemed to occur when you gave him specific direction, which he read as control. It seemed the more control you asserted, the more stubborn he got, and the power struggle was on.

To reverse a power struggle, you have to somehow get on the child’s side. To prevent its recurrence, you need to reconnect the child with his natural sense of cooperation. The simplest way to do this is to SAY WHAT YOU SEE, Add STRENGTHs and offer CAN DOs.

SAYing WHAT YOU SEE in the form of an objective observation pops you out of your perspective into the present moment with the child. From this neutral middle ground, you can more easily step into the child’s perspective, show him his hidden STRENGTHs, and support him in problem-solving with CAN DOs.

In the scene you described, my guess is that the boy was feeling a lot like you were feeling–-tired and in need of personal power. His feigned need “tired” was his way of telling you his real need was “power.”

If you had been able to sit with him for a moment, objectively observe the scattered blocks together, and then comment on how huge any task appears when you are tired, you would’ve taken a big step toward building a connection with the child and comforting yourself. You would be making both yourself and the child right at the same time, which is the first step in shifting a power struggle into cooperation.

SAYing WHAT YOU SEE might’ve sounded like, “Wow! Look at all those blocks! There’s one way over there, and one, two, three in a pile there. And there’s more there. And look at that. Your arm is so tired you can hardly lift it. This is a daunting task! (Kids like big words.) And somehow all of these blocks have to be put away. Hmmmm. That’s a tough one.”

As you step into the tired child’s perspective and ponder the overwhelming task together, listen for any type of connection or cooperation he shows like demonstrating how tired his legs are, too, or pointing out more blocks that you didn’t mention, or joining in the count, etc. To deepen the connection and build his sense of personal power, point out any STRENGTHs he demonstrates along the way like, “You spotted that one over there,” or “Looks like you kept track of all the blocks, even when they were scattered,” or “You found every one,” or “You knew what color that one was,” or “You just counted to four,” etc. Kids love to know things so they feel empowered when you point out what they know.

When you begin to hear some level of cooperation, you can shift into problem solving with a CAN DO like, “It seems like an impossible task to get all of them put away with arms that are too tired to lift and legs that are too tired to run, but hmmmm, must be some way to get that done so you can finally get to rest.”

If he doesn’t answer right away, get ready to initiate some imaginative problem solving with a fun or silly suggestion like, “Maybe your eyes still work. You could try looking at them really hard and seeing if you can move them with your eyes.” If he shakes his head or says that’s silly, point out the STRENGTH, “You knew that wouldn’t work.” Then try again, “Well, hmmm, maybe your nose then. You might be able to scoot them into a pile with your nose like a dog…” by now most kids will giggle and either try your CAN DO or start coming up with some of their own.

Play along with whatever he decides. Even if you have to attend to something else and come back, stay engaged with him and keep pointing out his STRENGTHs. If he just can’t do it at all or asks for help, go with that. “You just can’t find a way to do it yourself. Wow, you are tired! But, even though your body is too tired, your brain still figured out a way to get the job done – asking for help! That shows clear thinking!”

Calling for volunteers also feels very supportive for kids and helps build a sense of community in the classroom. In addition, the boy could participate by “using his brain” to direct any children willing to help like a Simon Says game or something else that would build his power in a way that’s OK with you. At the conclusion, you would be able to SAY WHAT YOU SEE and point out the STRENGTH “cooperation” that you just saw demonstrated by him and the others working together to get the task done.

Some teachers worry that meeting one child’s needs will cause other children to copy the same helpless behavior, but what actually happens is that it simply makes the classroom emotionally safer for all of the kids. Fewer feigned complaints and more cooperation result.

#2. Group Participation:

Because children act according to who they believe they are, shifting beliefs shifts behaviors permanently. Providing children with moments of success connects them with their STRENGTHs as you are doing by limiting group time to 10-15 minutes. But as you noted, group participation of this type works for many preschoolers, but not all, and you are trying to accommodate that by allowing them to play separately.

I’ve worked with a number of children who feel like they disappear when they join into a group, so asking them to sit and do what the rest of the children are doing won’t work. To provide those children with success in participation, you can find participation in what they are already doing by SAYing WHAT YOU SEE and pointing out that STRENGTH, then problem-solving to come up with CAN DOs that meet the child’s and the group’s needs.

For example, to the child throwing blocks outside the circle you could SAY WHAT YOU SEE and add a STRENGTH like this, “You’re throwing blocks over there and everybody keeps looking. Looks like you want to be part of the group, just not do what we are doing. Hmmm. Must be something we can do together!” Similarly, you could point out to the wrestling kids that they enjoy participating with each other, before problem-solving with CAN DOs that work for everybody.

Changing group time from discussion time into more of a “circus” time for a while where the children get to perform separately or together for the group might be a good CAN DO for reengaging kids who are more active than verbal. That way even the most active children could hear the STRENGTH “participation” and begin to see it in themselves, as in, “You just jumped up and down for the other children (or you two just showed us arm wrestling). That’s how you like to participate!”

When children experience participation in a way that works for them, they begin to see themselves as part of the group instead of as outsiders. It’s this shift in belief that allows children to join in willingly.

So many possibilities open up when you reverse power struggles by SAYing WHAT YOU SEE, finding STRENGTHs where there didn’t seem to be any, and offering CAN DOs instead of control. Imagine the warm and fuzzy impression these types of interactions would make on visiting parents. But best of all, imagine the difference they would make in children’s lives!

If you’d like to learn more about using SAY WHAT YOU SEE to bring out the greatness in children and open possibilities for them in life take a look at our book. You can read it free online here.


  1. Deborah |

    Lot’s of good advice but I can’t help imagining the chaotic atmosphere that would ensue from telling children who are throwing blocks during circle “that’s how you participate!” Not to mention the disrespect you are showing the other children who are listening and participating;especially if one of them gets hit by a flying block or elbow. Children also need to learn self control as well as being in touch with how they feel. Society does not benefit when each member is only concerned with his\her feelings and power. Respect is a two way street.

    • Deborah,

      Good point! You are right. If you stopped after pointing out a STRENGTH in a behavior that you don’t like, you are likely to get more of it. And it sounds like you imagined the children in question throwing blocks and wrestling NEAR the other children, while I was picturing them across the room.

      For clarity, if there is any possibility for damage or injury in a situation, intervention is the first step you take while SAYing WHAT YOU SEE.

      Now to correct the glaring gap in my post that I think you were reacting to – the disconnect between pointing out the STRENGTHs in the active children and the CAN DO of circus time.

      The purpose of pointing out STRENGTHs as soon as possible is to reduce defensiveness so kids can cooperate and see (maybe for the first time) that the desired behavior is possible.

      But you don’t stop there. The next step is to offer CAN DOs or better yet, engage the children in coming up with their own. For a CAN DO to be effective, it must meet the child’s needs INSIDE YOUR BOUNDARIES.

      The teacher had already demonstrated a flexibility with structure. So my CAN DO in a group situation like circle time would be to create a structure that works for rambunctious kids, too, so they could experience participation as a good and natural thing.

      That’s what the teacher was trying to do by allowing the children to join in when they were ready. When you do that, you readily see the degree of self-control the children think they have, or in this case, don’t think they have, so you know what you need to do in terms of intervening, setting boundaries and finding hidden STRENGTHs.

      As you mentioned, self-control is another STRENGTH the kids need to know they have in order to cooperate. To reconnect kids with their STRENGTHs during a CAN DO that all the children enjoy like circus time (or circle games like Follow the Leader, etc.), I would be watching for and pointing out self-control and consideration in addition to participation whenever I saw them doing things like: making sure they didn’t bump into other kids while performing, waiting their turn, making suggestions for other kids, etc. For children to see their hidden STRENGTHs, we have to see them first.

      Since the ultimate goal here is seated discussion time, over the next few weeks I would move incrementally from one success level to another by adjusting the proportion of action/discussion time per day or per week gradually until the group was able to achieve the goal. (Permanently reserving one day per week as a special fun circle time would help.)

      In pre-school (and beyond) transition is never a smooth curve, but as long as you respect your own boundaries first, when you respect the needs of each child, they will respect you back. Respect is indeed a two-way street!

      For more on how to establish clear boundaries using the SAY WHAT YOU SEE approach, see the chapter on CAN DOs in the online handbook. I think you will like it.

      Thanks for your comment!


      • Deborah |

        Thank you, this is very helpful!

  2. Katey Nicosia |

    Gah! I so needed this. Spot on! Thank you for the wonderful advice.

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