Brittany Williamson

Teaching boundaries to your students is essential to their emotional development and intelligence. It helps them to become self-aware as to what they will and will not tolerate, builds confidence, sets them up to have successful relationships, and fosters traits, such as respect and empathy.

One way to define boundaries to your students is to have them envision an invisible fence between themselves and others. This fence represents the limits in which they don’t venture beyond and in which others are not welcome. And this goes both ways. It’s important they understand to respect the boundaries of their peers as well.

As teachers, there are several ways in which you can model and promote healthy physical and emotional boundaries in the classroom. 

  1. Empathy Checks: Empathy is important because in order to both set boundaries and respect others, kids need to know what they want and need, as well as what others want and need and how it feels not to have those needs met. Daily peer interactions offer ample opportunities to practice intervening in the moment and practicing empathy. For example, when a peer takes another’s crayon without asking or says something unkind, explore the feelings if the roles were reversed. “How do you think Thomas felt when you took the crayon he was using? How would you feel? What could you do differently next time?” Doing this creates perspective. It links actions to subsequent feelings.
  2. Role Play: For younger students, use circle times as a mindful check-in on appropriate social skills. It is helpful to give your kids several key phrases they can use to self-advocate and to teach them to use their words. Offer “what if” scenarios and let your students explore possible solutions for creating boundaries by practicing different exercises, such as “I statements,” saying “No” in a respectful but clear way, or giving appropriate touches, like high-fives and side hugs.
  3. Let Your Students Brainstorm Solutions to their Problems & Conflicts: Unless immediate danger is present, try not to rush in and rescue peers in conflict. Encourage them to come up with compromises and solutions to the problem on their own. Act only as a mediator, assuring that each kid has a chance to share their feelings and needs.If you find yourself needing to step in, here are some helpful suggestions: Give each student a chance to express their feelings and encourage them to avoid interrupting one another in an effort to listen and try to understand. If both parties are heated, agree to take a break and come back together at lunch or recess that day. If all parties are calmer, it will likely be easier to reach a solution. If students are struggling to reach a compromise on their own, offer suggestions, like apologizing to one another or promising to respect each other’s space in the future.
  4. Model Clear and Healthy Boundaries: Showing respect for each student in the class and ensuring everyone has rights to their feelings and appropriate expressions of them are the best ways to demonstrate healthy boundaries for children. As is following through with classroom expectations and consequences. If you decide a rule stands, it stands. Mean what you say and say what you mean. Otherwise, children will learn that boundaries can be pushed and manipulated.
  5. Labeling Emotions and Needs: We want to help kids get comfortable with articulating their own feelings. One way to do that is to label them as they occur. When we label a feeling, we show acceptance of it. This reinforces our students’ sense of self. For example, if a student is upset that a peer pushed them on the playground, acknowledge the feeling by stating it – “I can see you are very angry that someone invaded your personal space.” Then, work with both students to identify the feelings that led to the incident and come up with a healthier alternative for the future.

Being able to set and respect boundaries is a crucial part of self-care that will serve your students well throughout their entire life. Its impact reaches from successful personal relationships all the way to positive self-esteem and awareness, financial wisdom and stability, career-life balance, and physical and mental wellness (just to name a few). As a consistent presence in their daily lives, you have the opportunity to empower students to love themselves and to take responsibility for creating a life that they choose versus one they are simply at the will of. That’s the most rewarding outcome of a lifelong habit of establishing clear and healthy boundaries. What a gift to give your students.

Brittany Williamson is a Mental Health Counselor at Florida Children’s Institute based in Jacksonville, Florida. She works closely with children and their families taking a Cognitive-Behavioral approach and is passionate about building emotional intelligence and teaching coping skills that will promote resilience throughout her client’s lives. She is also a certified yoga instructor who uses that knowledge to treat anxiety and depression and to model self-care within her practice. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, staying active, traveling, and spending time with her family and beloved yellow Lab, Reagan.

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