Boundaries and Supports

Last week, we were lucky enough to have Kristina Hulvershorn from Peace Learning Center come visit our school to lead us in a Level 1 Training on Restorative Practices. I have attended this training before, but was excited to participate with the teachers in my building so that we could have a shared understanding of what Restorative Practices are, why we want to integrate this way of thinking into our classroom setting, and have some support on the role of proactive circles in developing a classroom community.

While there were many aspects of the training that were valuable, one of the things that really resonated with me this time was this chart:


As I have reflected on the training, this chart has come back to me several times and got me thinking about the person I have become, as well as how I got here. All of us have had people in our past who helped us to get to where we are now. As I think back on the mentors who helped shape me, many of them offered me support in the form of encouragement. But along with that support, there were definitely boundaries, that put limits on me and created guardrails that helped to keep me on the path. This combination of boundaries and supports are what I credit in leading me to where I am today and continue to push me to be on the growing edge where I feel a little bit uncomfortable. I’m ok with that feeling though, because I know I still have mentors and colleagues that will offer support as I travel my path. If you think back on what has molded you into the person you are, you’ll probably be able to identify examples of boundaries and supports that helped you grow.

Our students need the same thing to be able to learn and grow. Each child needs someone (or many people) who can offer them support so that if they fail, there is someone to help them. At the same time, there have to be boundaries too, expectations for all our students that push them to be their best self. In our training, Kristina used an analogy that really allowed me to think about this combination of boundaries and supports. I wanted to share it with you.

Imagine that it is a school morning, and you are running late. As you approach school, you see the flashing yellow lights to signify the school zone, but you’re running late. You keep right on at the speed you were going. As you crest the hill by school, you see a police officer. Let’s look at the four different quadrants of boundaries and supports and imagine an officer from each one:

Neglectful: This officer is in position, but he’s got better things to do. He sees you speeding but doesn’t bother to chase you down. No boundaries, but also no support! So, what happens if you’re running late tomorrow? No lesson learned, so you might as well speed again!

Permissive: This officer actually pulls you over, but when you share that you’re a teacher who’s running late, he puts his lights and sirens on, escorts you to school, and then calls your principal to let them know that it’s his fault you were late. This time you’ve got lots of support, but no boundaries. When you’re running late the next time, you’re hoping that he’s the officer on duty! Again, no lesson has been learned.

Punitive: This is the officer who pulls you over, asks for your license and registration, but doesn’t want to hear anything about why you were speeding. He doesn’t care you were running late, or anything about why. He’s writing a ticket, and all you feel is mad and unheard. When this guy lets you go, all you’re doing is fuming about what happened, and seeing the experience as his fault. There are strong boundaries, but no support. Since you’re so caught up in being mad at the officer, you aren’t going to learn anything about the experience. Tomorrow you will probably speed, and hope that he’s not the officer on duty.

Restorative: Like the punitive officer, he pulls you over, but this time the experience is completely different. He approaches the car and asks if you knew you were speeding. When you say yes, he asks why and listens compassionately to your story. This officer starts asking you questions like: What time did you get up? What time did you leave home? In the process of the conversation, the officer talks to you about setting your alarm earlier, and actually asks you to set a new alarm on your phone for 15 minutes earlier so that you don’t have to be in such a rush tomorrow. Finally, the officer talks to you about a family he knows that was impacted by someone speeding in a school zone. In the end, the officer still writes you a ticket, but unlike last time, you feel that you were heard, you have some strategies to avoid being late tomorrow, and you better understand why there are lower speed limits in school zones. There are definitely boundaries here, but you also have lots of support. After this experience, you make a commitment to be sure to be out the house earlier so that you don’t have to speed.

So, what might these quadrants look like in a classroom setting? Let’s take a look:

Neglectful: In this classroom, there are no boundaries, and no supports. If you were to walk into this classroom, it would probably appear to be in chaos. Students are doing what they want, but it’s probably not got anything to do with the content they are supposed to be learning. The teacher probably has the best of intentions but doesn’t understand how to provide more support or appropriate boundaries for their students. When problems arise, this teacher looks the other way, or simply ships the students causing the problem out to someone else to deal with. Chances are, everyone walks out feeling stressed at the end of the day, and very little learning has happened for anyone.

Permissive: You might hear this teacher say something like “My sweet babies just can’t handle anything more.” The students feel like they are supported. So much so, that they don’t really accomplish anything. They are never pushed out of their comfort zone, and as a result they don’t learn much either. In this classroom, the teacher does all the work. When you walk in, it may appear that students are engaged in learning, but the learning that is happening is simply surface level. And when problems arise, this teacher steps in the middle and works to solve the problems between students. The efforts may lead to short term solutions, but in no time at all the problems are occurring again. At the end of the day, students walk out of the room feeling mostly happy, while the teacher probably walks out feeling tired.

Punitive: I think any of us who have been in education have a memory of this type of teacher in their past. I’m not going to name anyone here, but some examples from my past: The teacher who took away the baseball cards that I brought to school because someone else took them out and was looking at them. They were never returned. Or the teacher who would throw chalk at anyone who did not appear to be paying attention. One time I was writing notes about the class in my notebook, but he threw chalk at me because he thought I was drawing. These are the classrooms where students are living on the edge of fear. The only kids that are successful in this classroom are the ones who “play school” well. Kids may appear to be well behaved and on task, but really, they are living on the edge, waiting for the next moment that the teacher will yell. When problems happen in this classroom, they are handled quickly by the teacher with severe consequences. Students may not understand the why behind what went wrong, which means that the problem may occur again. Learning may happen, but again it is probably surface level because students are more concerned about not upsetting the teacher than focusing on learning the skills in the class. At the end of the day, the teacher probably feels pretty good about things, but the students probably are still in fear of what might happen tomorrow.

Restorative: In this classroom, there is a different feel in the air. When you walk into the class, you can feel a sense of community. Problems are rare, but when they arise students are able to try to work it out with their own conflict managements strategies. When these don’t work, they may get help from peers or the teacher. Students trust their peers and teacher because of the community they have created. When a major problem happens, the class is able to circle up and talk about it. It may sound like this is time consuming, but the time invested in early community building saves so much time later in the year. This teacher intentionally chose to not begin content work until the second full week of school, devoting all the earlier time to community and team building strategies. Since students have learned to solve their own problems, things that happen at recess or during unstructured time are less likely to take time away from classroom because the teacher can allow students to hash it out on their own or with the help of a peer mediator. At the end of the day, people walk out of the room feeling happy about their experience. Learning has happened, and the community has continued to be strengthened.

So, take a moment to think about where you fall as a teacher. Which quadrant are you in? As with any continuum, you could fall in lots of different locations, and it may be that you feel pretty comfortable with where you are and what you are doing. But remember what it was that helped you become the successful person you are. It took boundaries and supports to be successful. Keep looking for ways to make those boundaries and supports clear to your students. Everyone will benefit from it!

What are your thoughts? Have you thought about integrating Restorative Practices into your classroom? What do you see as the benefits? What are the potential hurdles? Share your ideas in the comments below!

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