So often, everyday directions can quickly become a tug-of-war between students and teachers. Time and time again, we find ourselves inexplicably on two opposite sides of what should be a collaborative effort toward a child’s success.
These moments ignite both our own and the child’s fight/flight/freeze response. Over time, even small tug-of-war interactions over common tasks and directions break down the classroom trust and efficacy, leaving teachers feeling defeated and students feeling called out.
There are loving yet firm ways we can hold our students accountable to a safe, productive, and fun learning environment without singling out a child. Appropriate boundaries are essential to any classroom, and finding safe yet firm ways to establish and uphold those boundaries creates an environment based on mutual respect.
Boundaries, not Rules
As a new teacher, I read what seemed like 100 books and articles on essential classroom rules and procedures to set into place. I quickly found that I couldn’t cover every student behavior with a rule or procedure; every time I felt I had every possible student behavior, another unexpected occurrence would pop up. Not only was this an exhausting way to teach, but it treated my students like the defense to my offense.
This was when I began establishing the importance of boundaries in my classroom. At the beginning of the year, we spend a lot of time discussing our classroom as a relationship like any other—and all relationships need boundaries.
Boundaries change with what we need—maybe today we need to stay quiet as a class because there’s something everyone really needs to focus on. Or maybe today we need to work on group work; therefore, our noise level is appropriately louder—but still respecting the work of other groups and other classrooms near us. Whatever the case may be, our boundaries are set around our two classroom values—safety and personal bests. When students are outside of boundaries that I or their classmates have previously set, I pose the question “Is this safe?” or “Is this your personal best?”
This moment of reflection often doesn’t require a student to even answer aloud. The gentle reminder “Today, we have a noise boundary because we are taking a test, and a lot of our classmates need quiet to focus. Is this your personal best with that boundary?” is more often than not enough to reset the student to the agreed-upon boundaries.
Identifying Student Boundaries
Essential to this process is exploring the nature of boundaries, including helping students identify their own boundaries. At the beginning of the year, I am very open with my students about my boundaries that might make me different from other teachers they see in a day.
My flexible seating arrangement is both a boundary for me and a chance for students to learn about their own boundaries. It’s a boundary for me that I do not choose seats for upper-elementary students. They are old enough to be responsible to choose the seating that’s best for them, and I set the boundary for myself that I will not take up time thinking through interpersonal problems and other factors to create a seating chart. I share this with parents and students openly. I would rather spend my time creating lessons and giving important curriculum feedback.
On the flip side, we spend a considerable amount of the first day of school reflecting on where students want to sit and what boundaries they want to set for both themselves and others who choose to sit around them. Once students come up with two boundaries for themselves and two boundaries for those around them, they write their self-seating boundary on a small poster that they keep in their cubby or binder.
Students set boundaries for themselves like “I will hope for my favorite seat but take a breath if it is already taken.” They then practice their boundaries with others in small groups. “I am excited to sit next to you. Just know I can’t talk when I am reading a book or article” or “Thanks for sitting next to me. I like to talk about my work while I work; are you OK with that?” Over time, natural groups within the classroom begin to form based on similar or matching boundaries.
Sometimes, It is What You Say
The adage “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it” doesn’t always give the full picture.
Our word choice with students makes an impact in the messages they receive, especially during times of conflict. When students are outside the boundaries of my classroom, I remind them of exactly that. “I know I’ve set the boundary of X, and that isn’t being upheld right now.” This is an “I” statement that sets a clear message of what needs to change without specifically pointing out a student or students.
I also work to never assume the intention of a student; however, I often communicate the message I’m receiving, even if it’s unintended. In fact, in conversations with students, I always assume that the negative message I am receiving is unintended. I may say, “When you sigh as I am talking, the story that pops up in my head is that you don’t care what I’m saying. I know you probably don’t mean that, so can you tell me what you do mean?” Assuming positive intent is a critical piece of relationships and boundary setting, especially in the classroom.
Relationships with students and classroom boundaries are not at odds with one another—in fact, one is essential to the other’s existence. Students need to be held to their personal bests in a loving and firm manner that places the dignity of the student before all else. Calling students into a loving classroom environment, rather than calling them out, leaving them feeling isolated and confused, creates a peaceful and productive classroom for all.