Establishing boundaries, building relationships

September 20th, 2018

This summer I was leading a staff check-in at YMCA Camp Widjiwagan in Nashville, Tennessee. One of the twentysomething male leaders asked a question: “I’ve been focusing on building relationships with the boys in my group, but one of the boys was hitting me on the back of my head. What do I do about that?” He gave me a sincere yet incredulous look.

I smiled and nodded my head. “It sounds like it’s working.”

His countenance communicated his disbelief. I heard him say, “What are you thinking, lady?” without even saying a word.

“Let me explain,” I continued. “This boy is testing the boundaries with you. He wants to see how far he can go.”

I’ve heard this concern in different words from other educators over the years. The underlying question seems to be: “If my students get to know me, will they still respect me?”

It’s important to start with unpacking what we mean by the word respect. If you are implicitly defining respect as keeping silent and doing everything you say the first time, because they don’t want to be punished, then I encourage you to consider another job. The days of “children should be seen and not heard” are over. When our society embraced social media, we also embraced giving voice to the previously voiceless. The fourth wall has dropped between brand and consumer, screen and viewer, teacher and student. To continue to stifle the voices of children is to operate out of fear and control.

Instead, what if we choose to operate out of love, to do whatever it takes to let each person in the building know that they are seen and known — that they belong? Our understanding of respect would be much different, wouldn’t it? Respect is valuing ourselves and others.

"Building People: Social-Emotional Learning for Kids, Families, Schools, and Communities" (Abingdon Press, 2018). Order here:

When we value something, such as a family heirloom, it means we bestow worth onto that object. Oftentimes it is not the object itself that has great dollar value. A handmade holiday ornament has worth because it was passed down from generation to generation, not because a lot of money was spent buying it. What if we give ourselves permission to see the worth of each one of our students? How would that value revelation change our practice?

Taking the extra step to let our children know that we are more alike than different helps build relationships. Sharing age-appropriate stories about our school days, family life, athletic or artistic accomplishments lets our students know that they are not alone in their struggles. Growing up is not easy. They can take a cue from the lessons we learned. We give them permission to be human with us, with each other, and with themselves.

We may not be celebrities, but we are role models for our kids — everyday heroes. They are learning by our example. Therefore, it is not unusual for them to test boundaries with us. In fact, it’s a good sign that they are starting to open up.  As our relationships are developing, what they need to know is that we are bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind. We’ve got them! They need to know we are a safe place for them to share their hearts.

There is a difference between value and authority. Each and every individual has inestimable value. I am not worth more than my students because of my age, education, or skin color. However, I am an adult who has been given a special job to do to help them learn and grow. My right and power to impart knowledge and give direction is because I’ve lived longer and I’ve learned a lot along the way. Therefore, I need not be afraid if a student is unhappy with me because I remind him of appropriate boundaries.

Many years ago, I read a quote from a magazine that has stuck with me: Boundaries define you. They give you shape. They let you know who you are. Live within them, and the possibilities are endless. Let’s teach our kids boundaries with love.

Here are a few quick tips for establishing boundaries and building relationships:

  1. Adopt three simple rules — boundaries — and reinforce them, especially at the start of class meetings or sharing circles, such as:
    • I will listen when someone is talking because I may learn something.
    • I will use my hands, feet, and words to build up and not tear down.
    • I will work as a member of my team.

  2. Remind your students regularly that you are a safe place for them. Show you are a safe place by staying calm and using an even tone of voice, especially when students are upset.

  3. Listen. When students speak, listen to what they are saying and what they are not saying. Read between the lines. Invite students who do not feel as comfortable talking in front of their peers to write letters to you or start a conversation journal with them — a special journal for the two of you to talk through what is going on in their world.

Originally published on EdCircuit. Reprinted with permission.

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