Shifting from Power-Over to Power-With When Working with Young People

“If I could wave a magic wand, my students would understand how thrilling it can be to take control of their learning. My co-workers would understand how much more of an enriching experience it is for both us and the humans who are our students to buy in to their learning.”

        • Sara Wozniak-Randall, 7th grade Pacific Northwest History, Dimmitt Middle School



Sound Discipline’s work is about power. Our work invites adults who work with youth to shift from practices based in control and compliance to practices based in shared power.
The principles of shared power are basic to our human need for safety, belonging, and significance – which is fundamental for learning and for life.


What is Power-Over?

When we talk about power, people hear it all sorts of ways. Our default idea of power might be Game of Thrones-style “power-over” — individuals or groups getting to control things by force. But power-over runs the gamut of punishment and reward, from threats — “if you don’t eat your carrots, you don’t get to want to watch Little Mermaid…” to physical and psychological violence.

Power-over is the essence of all forms of oppression. In schools and in homes, we recycle, pass on, and often amp-up oppressions we experienced. We navigate systems of oppression and we ourselves collude in those systems as we have been trained. Our job as caregivers, parents, educators, and humans is to interrupt that. How do we do that? That’s the journey we are on.

Power-over is the default mode in our daily lives. It can feel nearly impossible to imagine a different way of being. The brain is wired to stick with what we know, because what we know makes us feel safe.

So, to learn to notice power-over and to translate that insight to ways of being and doing that change the culture — in classrooms, in workplaces, in our homes — we need intention, courage, and big doses and a variety of healing help. We need collective imagination.


DOOL: Stoking the Shared Power Imagination

You may have read or heard about our program we call Design Our Own Learning – or DOOL. We like to use DOOL as a verb — “We’re DOOLing now!” Over the last three summers, Sound Discipline worked with educators and students at Dimmitt Middle School and Evergreen High School to stoke collective imagination and explore what shared power in the classroom could look like with students as co-equal partners with educators. The experience was life changing for everyone – our facilitators, the students, and especially the educators.

“You Have to Experience It”

At our recent Schools Out Washington (SOWA) Bridge Conference presentation, I got to experience DOOL. After the conference, I reached out to 10th grade student participant Quynh Nguyen to listen and learn what DOOL had sparked for her. Her biggest thing was feeling connected and fully part of a community: “The sense of community was so strong. I was able to be myself. We wrote poems, we played games, we expressed ourselves. Instead of thinking about how other people think about us. DOOL has helped me a lot not only in school but in my life. It helped me be brave, it helped me speak out. It helped me be myself.”

Quynh talked about the power dynamics of knowing one another on a first name basis. The daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, she does not address adults by their surname or prefixes Mr. or Ms. “I got to call [my teacher] Bethany. She could be my friend and we could talk without that barrier. We got to know each other more and worked together smoothly.”

7th grader Lisa Tang talked about using her voice. Reluctant at first, she said there were some long silences and she hoped she would not have to talk. “I am an introvert about public speaking and what I have to say. I get shaky and sometimes I stammer. I got used to talking. I became more of a confident person. I’m still nervous and all but can keep going.”


An Educator Experience

Dimmitt educator Sara Wozniak Randall summed up her DOOL experience similarly.  “I’ve become more confident, more flexible, not just in my classroom but in my life. Specifically with education and shared power in mind, I feel students are doing the learning. I let go of my need to be in control. In my teacher program they always used the phrase “guide on the side” versus “sage on the stage.” Doing that is an art form. To do it you have to experience it. As a teacher, I am asking how I can connect everything to their lives so what we are doing is joyful not drudgery.”

As a participant in the Bridge Conference DOOL workshop, my own DOOL experience was joy – more energizing than a big cup of coffee. Students were in charge — doing the talking, expressing their ideas, co-leading the workshop they planned. One student warmed us up with an improv game–“yes and,” followed by a connection activity in a breakout room — “something old, new, and unique to you.” In a breakout room with a student, we had a blast sharing back and forth before being whisked back to the main room. That great feeling stayed with me for days.


What are some ways to practice shared power?

Take time to create shared agreements.

Say “I made a mistake” and fail out loud.

Say “I am sorry” and invite repair.

Ask for help.

Solve problems together.

Switch leader/follower roles.

Say “Yes, and…”

Share decision making.

Show respect, dignity, and mutual concern.

Co-create curriculum. Invite students to design and lead.


These subtle power-with practices are deceptively simple but powerful ways to nurture a young person’s sense of agency; power to…speak your mind, create, problem solve. This in turn fosters a sense of personal power, or power within — a sense of intrinsic self-worth, self-knowledge, and capacity to make decisions and choices authentically. This is how we DOOL. This is how we interrupt our defaults and practice power-with.


Andrea John-Smith is the Executive Director of Sound Discipline



Sound Discipline is working for a world where children know they belong and can learn and thrive.

We partner with educators, organizations, and families to transform schools into equitable learning communities.

We bring together science-based, trauma-informed, restorative, and Positive Discipline practices to facilitate change in the ways adults see and respond to students.

Courageous Educators:
We facilitate school leaders and educators to build classroom communities and model an inclusive culture school-wide that promotes student agency and well-being.

Equitable School Systems:
We coach administrators and educators to use data to identify and implement solutions that address damaging systemic patterns of inequity that target Black and brown students.

Connected Families:
We train and coach families and caregivers in a child’s life to apply solution-oriented practices that instill critical social emotional life skills.