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Power struggles why they occur and how to avoid them

February 16, 2018
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Power struggles how do we handle them?

“Because I said so….” “I don’t want them to win.” “They can’t just do whatever they want.  I am in charge.”  “They can’t do that,  we are on a schedule.”  Have you ever heard these words (or something similar) come out of your mouth? These are common signals that staff are about to engage in a power struggle.  As staff working with individuals that may engage in challenging behavior we know we need to act professionally, yet we find ourselves engaging in this type of rigid behavior- digging in our heels and refusing to be flexible.  What else are we supposed to do?  In the webinar below, we will learn why power struggles occur and how they impact the individuals with whom we work.  We will also learn strategies to avoid “picking up the rope” so that we can spend more time focusing on supporting our individuals.  This webinar is recommended for teachers, nurses, direct care providers, and anyone who works with someone who may engage in any type of challenging behaviors.

Finding yourself in power struggles day after day with your students, clients, consumers?  Getting frustrated that the individuals are not just doing what you say, when you say it?  Ever have an “I don’t want them to ‘win’ attitude?  There is a way out!

A power struggle is a fight for control.  As staff we may attempt to gain control using force, coercion, or manipulation.  It takes two to struggle!  And when we engage in these types of behaviors, there are no winners.  Power struggles do not model behaviors that we want our individuals to imitate, may lead to more dangerous or even more disruptive behaviors, and negatively impact our relationships with the individuals.

The solution to avoiding power struggles?

To avoid a power struggle the first thing we need to do is manage our own emotions.  When you are in one of these situations, take a deep breath, maintain a calm, neutral tone of voice, and watch your body language.  Even if you are feeling frustrated and upset on the inside, no one should be able to tell on the outside.  Our focus tends to be on caring for everyone and everything else and we lose track of self-care.  Don’t forget to sleep, eat nutritious food, exercise and take time out for yourself.  These long term self-care strategies go a long way of helping us to keep calm in the moment!

Set the individuals up for success.  Have clear expectations for behavior across various environments and activities so that they know what they are supposed to do.  Reinforce the individuals when they are following those expectations.  You might even create behavioral contracts with individuals giving them specific targets to meet and specific reinforcers for when they meet those targets.

Providing choices throughout the day goes a long way to reducing the likelihood someone will engage in power struggle behavior.  Allowing for choice making gives the individual control.  We might have be get creative to come up with additional opportunities for choice making.  When you notice an individual is exhibiting early antecedents, offer them choices of things to do to help solve the problem.  For example, an individual doesn’t like loud noises and the cafeteria is VERY loud.  You might offer the person to take a walk in the hall or to put on headphones and listen to music.  Both things help to reduce the noise for the person and ultimately reduce their frustration in the moment.  Additionally, these are strategies they can request in the future in similar circumstances.

Adjust your expectations. First of all, are the expectations appropriate for the person’s skill levels in the first place?  Not everyone learns in the same way or in the same amount of time.  If a person needs 100s of trials to learn a skill, expecting that they do it independently in five trials is not realistic and we have set the person up for failure. A person with dementia may be losing skills and we will need to adjust our expectations of independence over time.

When an individual is engaged in a challenging behavior, our first reaction is to tell them to stop.  Well, that is not likely to be effective.  Instead, prompt an incompatible behavior or something you know they can reliably do.  Teaching the individual alternative strategies to request help or to ask for a break go a long way to reducing challenging behaviors over time.

The hardest strategy to use is to switch staff.  We might not want to “lose” but there are no winners in power struggles.  Someone else might use the exact same strategies we did and have more success.  Ultimately we want to reduce the frequency and duration of episodes of challenging behavior so that we can spend more time on learning academic, vocational, social, self-care, and other skills.

Wait there is more…

This is just the tip of the iceberg.  If you want to learn more about why power struggles occur, how to manage your own behavior, and additional strategies for avoiding power struggles, watch the presentation, “Don’t Pick Up the Rope: Why Power Struggles Occur and How to Avoid Them.” Be sure to check out the rest of our behavioral briefs on our website under Educational Seminars.

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