I’ve Got the Power: The Effects of Physical Positioning in the K-12 Classroom on Power Dynamics
The power dynamics of the classroom have long been established in K-12 schools, though the interplay between these dynamics, physical positioning in the classroom, and student behavior is lesser explored. Previous research has shown body positioning can influence interpersonal behavior. Through a literature review of studies in social and behavioral psychology, the manipulation of teachers’ and students’ physical positions, whether standing or sitting, and its effect on power was examined. I hypothesized: (1) seated students with a standing teacher would feel least in power and would behave accordingly; (2) standing students with a seated teacher would feel and act most powerfully; (3) students assuming the same position as their teacher, whether both standing or sitting, would feel more equal in power to their teacher, though perceived power levels between these positions would likely vary as there may be differences in the power communicated by standing or sitting positions. Though various studies appear to support these claims, my conclusions are neither concrete nor undisputed. More direct research is needed to gauge the effectiveness of all positions better. The implications of this research on student behavior could be applied to classrooms to benefit students’ learning and behavior. Furthermore, this research is especially relevant now due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the return to the classroom following online learning.
Power dynamics within the classroom have long been established in K-12 schools, though the interplay between these dynamics, physical positioning in the classroom, and student behavior and learning is lesser explored. Previous research has shown body positioning can influence behavior interpersonally. A study by researchers at Harvard University, the University of California, Berkley, and INSEAD, found that power posing, or taking a broader posture, has been shown to increase confidence and improve performance.1 Other research done through the University of Amsterdam indicates a more slumped-over posture is worse for participants’ moods. Stooped participants were found to have more negative overall thoughts than participants in a straighter posture. The study also found there is less mood recovery for participants in a negative mood when stooped.2 Another study on cardiac vagal activity and power posing found power posing is associated with higher levels of bodily activation and thus affects power.3 These studies have shown posture can affect intrapersonal behavior as well as power. Still, how teachers’ and students’ positioning in the classroom has affected power dynamics and, thus, interpersonal behavior requires scrutiny. The potential impacts body position can have on behavior and performance illustrates the importance of this research. Through a literature review of studies in social and behavioral psychology, I formed a hypothesis surrounding the manipulation of teachers’ and students’ physical positions, whether standing or sitting. Broader posture was assumed to be standing in this instance since one is generally more open in a standing position, while a more slumped-over posture was assumed to be sitting since it’s more closed off.
Prior to encountering the literature in the field, I hypothesized that seated students with a standing teacher would feel least in power and behave accordingly since students are more closed off. This positioning is the standard way classrooms are arranged. Standing students with a seated teacher would feel and act most powerfully since students will be in a broader position. The teacher’s positioning in these “opposite positions” would also communicate power differences to students, meaning interpersonal power dynamics would be affected. Students assuming the same position as their teacher, whether both parties are standing or both sitting, would feel and act more equal in power to their teacher due to students and teachers being on a more level playing field. Perceived power levels between these “same positions” where students and teachers are standing and students and teachers are seated will likely vary as there may be differences in the power communicated by standing or sitting positions. As a result of the literature review, the studies I have found have led me to argue in favor of my previous hypotheses. I will first address the “opposite positions,” meaning positions wherein teachers and students assume complementary positions of standing and sitting. Position 1 will refer to a standing teacher and seated students. Position 2 will refer to a seated teacher and standing students. Afterward, I will address the “same positions,” meaning positions where teachers and students adopt the same stance as each other. Position 3 will refer to the condition where both teachers and students stand, and Position 4 will refer to the situation where both teachers and students sit.
Regarding opposite positioning, research indicates Position 2 may have better outcomes on student behavior. A study conducted by researchers at the Autonomous University of Madrid and Ohio State University found, in reference to interpersonal power, that “the more powerful the message source behaves, the less powerful the message recipient acts by comparison.”4 This conclusion suggests that with physical expressions of power, the positioning of two people may often be complementary rather than involve mimicry. Since this is the natural response of recipients of power, a complementary position may be most comfortable. Applied to the classroom, Positions 1 and 2 may be most comfortable for students since they will complement the teacher’s seated body position as they stand.
This complimentary feature could work both ways whether students sit or stand, but this does not necessarily mean that Position 1 would be equally beneficial for students. As has been discussed previously, a more expansive posture has numerous benefits for an individual’s behavior which a more constricted posture cannot seem to offer.
These studies may suggest Position 2 may be the most favorable in the classroom for students. Students would feel more comfortable and confident in a complementary position and may feel more empowered due to their wider posture while standing, which would affect their behavior.
Regarding “same positioning,” my hypothesis seems to align with the research in this area. Turning to Position 3, a study performed through a collaboration of universities in the United Kingdom examined 25 employees’ experiences of standing in normally-seated workplace meetings. Researchers found employees felt discomfort due to challenges in norms and authority. The standard for these meetings was to sit, and by standing, employees directly ran counter to it. Standing employees also expressed feeling as if they were challenging the authority of the person in charge because of their position in relation to the meeting presenter, who also was standing.5 If generalizable to the classroom level, this demonstrates students in Position 3 could feel they are challenging the authority of their teachers if both parties are standing. This research suggests students assuming this position would lead to more discomfort but also implies students would feel more powerful than if sitting, which could affect behavior. While discomfort would theoretically increase, this begs the question of change in norms. If, for instance, students were taught to stand in relation to their teachers at a younger age, which was the norm, students may not necessarily be uncomfortable since this would be what they were used to. Ideally, future experimentation could explore this idea.
Meanwhile, the above study’s findings indicate that students may feel powerful, though discomforted, when standing in relation to a standing teacher more than they would if they were standing and their teachers were sitting. This evidence suggests Position 3 may have less of a positive impact on student performance behavior than Position 2, which would likely involve power and comfort.
A different study conducted through Northumbria University and the University of Liverpool discusses the importance of height on status. The study noted that in men, height is linked to a higher social status across cultures, and taller men are generally thought to be more dominant and leaderlike than their shorter peers. This phenomenon allows them to wield more authority.6 Since these findings suggest height is positively related to interpersonal dominance, and if this research were to be expanded and found true for women, height and associated status could play out heavily in the classroom. When children are developmentally shorter, having not grown past their teacher’s height, and if both students and teachers stand, students may feel less dominant and in power due to height differences with their teacher. If both teachers and students were to assume a seated position, height differences would be minimized, which could have potentially positive implications on student behavior.
This study also introduces an interesting axis to examine the question of height and power- gender- since differences may come into play in perceiving height and dominance between male and female teachers. As teaching is a predominantly female-dominated profession in the United States per the National Center for Education Services,7 this could be an essential factor on which to keep an eye.
Also, height, age, and associated physical growth patterns could be a critical factor in this research. Later in the K-12 years, when students presumably could grow taller than their teachers (male or female), given their stage in development, the height of teachers and its effect on student behavior would have to be re-examined. Both age and gender may overlap: the average height for women in the United States is 5’4,8 so it is highly likely in this profession, notably, some students will eventually surpass their teachers in stature.
This research leads me to conclude that out of the “same positions,” Position 3 may be more beneficial to student intrapersonal power perception. Students may feel more powerful while standing in a more expansive position9 and behave accordingly. If taught at an early age, discomfort associated with students standing in relation to their standing teacher10 may not be as impactful of a factor and could prove Position 3 to be reasonably beneficial for student behavior. Position 4, on the other hand, seems like it may be more beneficial to student interpersonal power perception because height differences and the status associated with people of taller stature11 will be minimized as much as possible.
A practical reservation one might have regarding student standing positions (Position 2 and Position 3) is the impact on classroom management and composure. Standing students, in their more empowered positions, may challenge the teacher’s authority negatively in that the teacher is unable to maintain a productive learning environment. To that, research is needed to examine the effects of such positions. Perhaps this issue would present itself, and a balance between time in a dominant standing position versus a constricted seated position would need to be stricken to give students just the right amount of empowerment and not defiance. If the norms were altered from a young age, it is also possible that students may not feel as if they are challenging authority, as the Mansfield study suggests. Likewise, they may not seemingly associate standing with rebelliousness, and thus this objection may not hold true.
As with all research, there is some contradicting evidence to my claims. A 2017 analysis of Amy Cuddy and Dana Carney’s 2010 work surrounding power posing found that though adopting powerful postures led to self-reported increases in feelings of power, “it did not affect participants’ behavior or hormonal levels.”12 This conclusion suggests that differences in performance due to positioning may be only in participants’ heads.
A further statement in the analysis maintains they are not entirely denouncing the results of the 2010 study. Instead, they suggest these experiments can’t be replicated successfully, meaning there is an element of uncertainty surrounding these findings. Whether differences are actual or merely self-reported, these findings do not disprove physical position effects on behavior. While hormonal changes may not necessarily occur, countless studies demonstrate the impact of physical positioning on behavior, regardless of if changes only occur in participants’ heads. This analysis does not derail my argument but simply casts small doubt on how certain studies in the literature may have been conducted, meaning more research is needed.
Although not concrete nor undisputed, research suggests that out of all four positions, Position 2 would be most beneficial for student behavior. As hypothesized, since Position 2 allows students to adopt a more expansive stature and a complementary position, students may feel more confident and comfortable, affecting their behavior the most positively out of the other positions. My assumption about Position 1 being the least beneficial also seems to be supported by the research, as students would feel less confident and behave accordingly. Finally, my hypotheses about the “opposite positions” also seem to align with the research in this area, with Positions 3 and 4 communicating cues about power differently and being beneficial for different forms of communication. For the effectiveness of all positions to be more accurately evaluated, more direct research is needed because of the potential impacts this research could have on student behavior and the pertinence of the problem at hand. Ideally, experimentation would be conducted to establish better causal relationships between positioning and power dynamics and the resulting behavior. There are a variety of factors influencing power, such as differences communicated in height by gender and the effects height has on internal behavior, which need to be explored and considered in greater depth to create a more accurate picture of the relationships between power dynamics and standing and seated positions. If substantial, the findings of this new research could be applied to classrooms. They could benefit student learning and behavior, especially since power dynamics shape the educational experience for all parties. Minor alterations in positioning and, thus, power dynamics could potentially have huge implications, ideally setting students up for success and empowering them to use their voices effectively.
This research is especially relevant now due to COVID-19 as teachers and students return to the classroom following online learning. Teachers standing over their students once more should be aware of how their physical positioning may affect behavior, power dynamics, and learning, given how difficult the past few years have been on students. Overall, it seems that the learning landscape has been altered due to the pandemic, and as such, aspects of the classroom that are often overlooked should be considered.
Finally, relationships with professional authority will impact students for the rest of their lives. It is worth noting how power differences affect these long-lasting and impactful relationships. The K-12 years are a crucial time for development, so putting students in the best position for success is incredibly important.
1. Cuddy, A., Wilmuth, C. A., Yap, A. J., & Carney, D. R. (2018). “Preparatory power posing affects nonverbal presence and job interview performance”: Correction to Cuddy et al. (2015). Journal of Applied Psychology, 103(5), 560-560. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000317
2. Veenstra, L., Schneider, I. K., & Koole, S. L. (2016). Embodied mood regulation: The impact of body posture on mood recovery, negative thoughts, and mood-congruent recall. Cognition and Emotion, 31(7), 1361-1376. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2016.1225003
3. Laborde, S., Strack, N., & Mosley, E. (2019). The influence of power posing on cardiac vagal activity. Acta Psychologica, 199, 102899. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.actpsy.2019.102899.
4. Guyer, J. J., Briñol, P., Petty, R. E., & Horcajo, J. (2019). Nonverbal behavior of persuasive sources: A multiple process analysis. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 43(2), 203-231. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10919-018-00291-x
5. Mansfield, L., Hall, J., Smith, L., Rasch, M., Reeves, E., Dewitt, S., & Benjamin Gardner ⨯. (2018). “Could you sit down please?” A qualitative analysis of employees’ experiences of standing in normally-seated workplace meetings. PLoS One, 13(6) doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0198483.
6. McCarrick, D. J., Brewer, G., Lyons, M., Pollet, T. V., & Neave, N. (2020). Referee height influences decision making in British football leagues. BMC Psychology, 8(4). https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/eyjsm
7. National Center for Education Statistics. (2021). Characteristics of Public School Teachers. Condition of Education. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/clr.
8. Fryar, C. D., Kruszon-Moran, D., Gu, Q., & Ogden, C. L. (2018). Mean Body Weight, Height, Waist Circumference, and Body Mass Index Among Adults: United States, 1999-2000 Through 2015-2016. National Health Statistics Reports, (122), 1–16. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30707668/.
9. Cuddy et al., 560.
10. Mansfield et al. “‘Could You Sit Down Please? A qualitative analysis of employees’ experiences.”
11. McCarrick et al. “Referee height influences decision making in British football leagues.”
12. Simmons, J. P., & Simonsohn, U. (2017). Power posing: P-curving the evidence. Psychological Science, 28(5), 687-693. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797616658563.