From Power Struggle to Benevolent Authority and Empathic Limit-Setting: Creating Inclusive School Practice with Excluded Students through Action Research

May, 2018

Source: Action Research (2018) 


Teachers face a dilemma in setting limits and establishing boundaries with excluded students, who often exhibit extremely disruptive behavior that cannot be ignored or condoned. Since limit-setting through threats, sanctions, punishment, or expulsion simply reinforces the cycle of exclusion, the alternative approach presented here is to treat the breaching of boundaries as a developmental rather than a moral issue. Benevolent authority and empathic limit-setting, which lie at the core of this method, involve understanding and tending to the needs of the young person while at the same time clearly defining the necessary boundaries and positively reinforcing students for maintaining them. The transition from power struggle to empathic limit-setting entails both a turning point in which problematic incidents are essentially reframed, and emotional awareness on the part of teachers of their own inner turmoil in response to such situations. To the extent that teachers can exercise their authority without punishing or humiliating their students, they provide a holding environment in which excluded students feel stable and secure enough to develop their own internal authority. This paper is based on action research carried out with teachers in an MEd program in inclusive education at the Oranim Academic College of Education in Israel.

This article describes a process of action research carried out with a group of teachers studying in a master’s program in inclusive education at Oranim Academic College of Education in Israel. All of the participants taught in regular public schools. The study sought to examine, in a nuanced manner, how to come to know students, their needs, and what they are capable of doing at any given moment, while setting limits in a way that suits the primary norms of the school and society.

In trying to get familiar with the proposed model, the group began by identifying the point at which the breaching of boundaries by students first created tension in the school or caused the teacher–student relationship to descend into a power struggle. Next, we narrowed the focus to specific situations during the learning process where teachers were able to manage the breaching of limits in a way that did not worsen the relationship and to treat this behavior as an opportunity for development.

Empathic limit-setting means establishing realistic boundaries while containing the pain this may evoke and not giving up on the student. It entails teaching students to accept and internalize boundaries without the teacher resorting to violence, humiliation, or exclusion. This study tracks the learning process of the teacher–participants, attempting to recognize the turning point at which they shifted from engaging in power struggles to employing empathic techniques. However, the emphasis is not simply on presenting an alternative approach to boundary-breaking but on putting it into practice under real conditions.

The present study proposes a relational approach, grounded on this critical model, in which these defiant rule-breakers express their anger and protest their marginalization, even as they behave in ways that perpetuate their state of exclusion. Excluded students are indeed not to blame for the alienation that they feel. They are not responsible for the anger that leads to their violent outbursts but they must do the work needed to manage it. The approach offered here enables young people to explore the sources of their rage, to articulate it, and to try to change their situation.

Inclusive practice means accepting students despite their anger and helping them draw a clear distinction between legitimate anger and unacceptable behavior. Anger is legitimate within the context of social exclusion and the experience of alienation and hurt; yet their behavior is neither acceptable nor will it help them to change their situation and their social status. Work on empathic boundaries allows room to pursue this change.

The critical perspective is usually considered a luxury reserved strictly for academics. Practitioners need to act and get things done under real conditions; hence, I am suggesting a particular set of action strategies (practices). Implementing this model is an extremely delicate “dance” and some of the steps are clearly behaviorist. The significance of this approach is that it takes into account both the need to set clear goals and reinforce them and, at the same time, to look at the larger emotional and cognitive picture. 

Updated: Jun. 20, 2018