Firm but fair - setting boundaries

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Adults become uneasy about unclear boundaries and irritated by inflexible rules in working relationships. Yet we have the words and ideas to express those feelings, saying, for example, 'You know where you are with Sajida, but David is so inconsistent'.

Adults become uneasy about unclear boundaries and irritated by inflexible rules in working relationships. Yet we have the words and ideas to express those feelings, saying, for example, 'You know where you are with Sajida, but David is so inconsistent'.

Young children may not express their emotions in words, but their actions sometimes say just as loudly, 'Isn't it about time somebody stopped me!' or 'It's so reassuring to know you'll step in and help us'. Children need to know 'where they are' and to have a sense of their boundaries  that is, what is and is not allowed in any setting.

What are boundaries?

Boundaries are set and communicated through:

  • Ground rules about what is allowed in a particular setting and what is off limits; 
  • How the day-to-day routine works, and children's involvement in it; 
  • Expectations for how children will handle everyday situations;
  • Expectations for how adults will behave, including how to intervene in sensitive situations between children.

Boundaries work well as long as the following behaviour is followed:

  • Adults are consistent about the details of limits, such as 'only one person on the slide at a time', or policy guidelines about 'how we handle arguments here'. 
  • Boundaries are communicated clearly to children through adult actions as well as words, and when adults are patient in repeating the guidance and explanations, perhaps many times. 

It is vital that adults' own behaviour is in line with boundaries set for children. For example, even young children notice if adults behave as if they are allowed to interrupt but children should not. Older children will soon voice their sense of unfairness and irritation with the message of 'do what I say, never mind what I do!'

The expectations built into boundaries have to be realistic for the children's age and experience. Over time, boundaries can be renegotiated and will acknowledge children's learning so far. You can share with children your pleasure, for example, that they can now resolve most disputes between themselves.

Adults need to talk with each other. Children's learning is supported through a friendly working partnership between early years practitioners and parents. Consistency and realistic expectations for children also depend on regular communication among colleagues within a group room.

Good teamwork matters within the whole nursery or pre-school. It is very difficult for practitioners to create a positive atmosphere for children if their own working environment is disrupted by inconsistent rules, lack of consultation or even bullying from colleagues or senior staff.

The best role

Many adults struggle to establish a suitable role in their relationship with children. It can feel hard to find a sensible middle ground between the risk of being too permissive or that of turning into a fierce disciplinarian. A positive approach is to find not an authoritarian but an authoritative role, also known as 'firm but fair'. 
n Adults who behave in an authoritative way accept that they have responsibilities towards children: to guide them, to set clear boundaries and to help them learn through explanation and example. 

Positive adult responsibility is balanced with a focus on children's need to learn and their ability steadily to take on the skills of guiding themselves (self-discipline). Authoritative adults are ready to answer the 'why?' questions with much more than 'because I say so!' 

With a firm but fair orientation, you are alert to those times when children need a caring adult to intervene and mediate, to help children sort out a difficult situation. But you are also aware that sometimes an adult has to say in words and actions, 'I'm not going to let this happen'.

The authoritative approach combines appropriate control by adults with warmth expressed towards the children.

In contrast, adults with an authoritarian outlook take the stance that adults are the only ones with rights, that they are owed respect and obedience and do not have to offer explanations to children. This approach, characterised by 'just tell them what's right and wrong', will simply not work in our current society, and it tramples over any understanding of how children learn. (See also the earlier feature in this series, 'All in good time', 23 March 2000.)

Adults who take a permissive role towards children, on the other hand, are uncertain about their rights and responsibilities as the grown-ups in a situation. They are unwilling to set boundaries, perhaps in a wish to avoid becoming like a highly authoritarian figure from their own childhood.

However, children become weary if they have to make choices about everything, and young children do not have the knowledge to understand the risks of some courses of action.

Children, too, like to know where they stand, and a dithering, overly permissive adult can be as much trouble to them as an authoritarian one. They want adults whom they can trust to take charge when necessary and hold the boundaries that mean that nobody is hurt, emotionally or physically.

Setting limits

Boundaries have to be appropriate to the setting and to the children, who are able to handle slightly different ground rules between home and nursery, so long as there is internal consistency in each.

Any ground rules for children should be simple and the reason behind them should be straightforward to explain. Keep the list short and work to phrase every rule as a positive 'do', avoiding a list of 'don't's.

If a problem situation in nursery or pre-school makes you think another ground rule is needed, then explore ways to find a resolution with the children's involvement. Three- to five-year-olds can have some good ideas and are able to talk around the options in a non-stressful atmosphere of 'what can we all do about this?'

Adult expectations need to be clearly communicated to children through actions and words. Younger children sometimes need to be physically guided away from temptation and offered a positive alternative.

  • After children's spoken language has become more fluent, it is still unwise simply to depend on telling.

Your actions and your body language can make a significant difference in how positively the boundaries are communicated. For example, your own self-discipline in talking at normal volume will be a key to help re-direct a group of children whose dispute is reaching screaming pitch.

Making it easier

If children find it hard to behave within your boundaries, then sometimes the problem may lie more with an inflexible routine or unhelpful organisation of the play resources. Take a fresh look and discuss with your colleagues how you could make changes  for example, to avoid the log jam in the toilets, a boring waiting period before lunch or a construction area that is disrupted by children who have to cross it to get
to the book corner.

Consider different channels of communication so that you do not have to keep telling children. For example, a London nursery class I visited had taken the time to produce several photographs of possible ways to stack the large foam wedges. Consequently, the tidy-up team of children was able to choose how to stack the wedges that day and to check their progress against the relevant photo. When the pile looked wobbly, the teacher suggested the group look again at the photo.

Children like to be trusted and enjoy organising themselves within realistic boundaries. A nursery school that I visited in Stoke-on-Trent had a system of self-registration where children, helped by their parents, matched their own separate photograph to the one on a registration board. The same nursery school also had self-service milk and biscuits so that children took their refreshment when they needed it and chatted with friends at the table. Judy Miller offers many similar ideas in Never too young (see panel).

As adults we need to be ready to hone our skills and continue to learn. If we want children to handle disputes within boundaries that exclude screaming and hitting, then we will have to intervene sometimes. It is possible to help children learn to express themselves in words, if we mediate in a dispute with fairness and give the time to bring out everyone's point of view. There are more ideas on this topic in Sue Finch's An eye for an eye and a video from High/Scope (see panel). NW