Children are naturally curious. It’s part of their nature to break rules simply to find out what happens when they do. They are hard wired to test the limits of the world that they live in. This inquisitive spirit is something to cherish in the child, and their explorations are a crucial part of their healthy development.
No matter how many times we say, “Do not touch the stove,” there is always going to be something in the child that asks, “But what will happen if I do?” Anyone who has spent any time around children will know that often that urge to find out is stronger than any threatening warning we can give. We know the stove is not safe to touch, but the child doesn’t really know until they test it. Thankfully, the majority of these situations are not a major danger to the child’s safety, and we all get by just fine in the end. Adults give the warnings, and kids do the thing anyway.
This back and forth between adults and children is as old as time, and you shouldn’t be too surprised when the game extends to your classroom. When a child inevitably challenges your expectations, you should simply transition into the next phase of classroom management: enforcing boundaries.
Why Boundaries Matter
As teachers, we are blessed with the opportunity to model expectation (or boundary) enforcement for our children. You create and enforce boundaries for yourself every day within every relationship. Your boundaries include things like:
- How much energy you’re willing to give someone else’s problems
- What kind of language you’ll allow someone to use when speaking to you
- How far someone can move into your physical space
- How much responsibility you’ll take on for how others feel
- What you’re willing to do to gain someone’s favor
Many of the students we teach live in homes where boundaries are constantly disrespected. The cycle of abuse persists because the victim does not know what’s going on. Children are not mature enough to know what healthy boundaries are, much less to be able to enforce them with the adults in their lives. It’s very likely that you have children sitting in your room every day who are being broken and helpless in their own homes.
The best thing you can do for these children is to show them that there is another way. Your classroom expectations are your boundaries, and you do not ignore breaches. You clearly draw your line in the sand, and when someone steps over it, you address that situation with them immediately.
How to Enforce Boundaries
When the first child crosses your line, the whole class will go silent. Everyone will be on pins and needles waiting to see what happens next. Every move you make after that moment will be downloaded to the brains of all 25+ children who witness it, and they will use that information to inform their next decision. The answer to the question, “What happens when someone doesn’t comply?” is an important one that all students will find the answer to early in the year.
Fortunately, it’s possible to stand your ground and respect the natural inquisitive nature of the child. You do not have to let the class walk all over you. You do have the ability to provide consequences that will sting. In these instances, you have the opportunity to reinforce expectations with that child and the rest of the class which will hopefully limit the number of times this process must be repeated.
What to do the first time a boundary is crossed:
- Remain calm. Don’t panic or act surprised or become furious. Remember that this is what children do. You make the rules, they break them. It’s ok!
- Calmly describe the expectation that was broken. Without using a demeaning tone, say, “Brandon, it’s an expectation in my class that students do not talk during tests. That’s one way that I ensure a fair testing environment for everyone.”
- Consider apologizing if that expectation wasn’t clearly described. Perhaps this situation was one of the few scenarios that you couldn’t have predicted. On the spot, add the new expectation to the class’s collective consciousness. Say, “I apologize for neglecting to mention that backpacks should only be worn or hung on the back of the chair. Throwing them is not acceptable.”
On the second offense:
- Remain calm. Again, this is going to happen. There is no need to freak out.
- Take them down. Depending on what has happened, try to remove the student as the focus of attention as swiftly as possible. Do not argue in front of the class. Meet the student in the hall or approach them, get on eye level with them by squatting or sitting next to them, and having a short whispered conversation.
- Provide a Consequence. This is now a must. You don’t have to know what the consequence will be right away. You can say, “I will need some time to think of a consequence. I’ll get back to you when I’ve decided.” You can also ask the student what they think an appropriate consequence will be. They will not deny that there should be one if you’ve been going over your expectations as often as I recommend.
- Follow through. Whatever you decide the consequence will be, it must be followed through on. Failing to do so will undermine your authority and the students can smell this happening from miles away.
What not to do when enforcing boundaries:
- Entertain the class by teaching them a new way to get a reaction out of you. Show no emotion! Your students might just be bored enough that “Make the Teacher Mad” becomes a new pass time. This will be devastating.
- Expect students to know expectations you haven’t taught. Dig deep and ask yourself: Did I make it clear that this behavior wouldn’t be acceptable? If the answer is no, you can’t really be surprised that you’re in this situation. In society, kids are not given the same privileges as adults because they do not yet know many of the things that we take for granted. You must teach them how to act.
- Launch a passive aggressive campaign insisting that the child figure out what they did to upset you and fix it. The child is not mature enough to know what you want if you do not tell them. The child is also not mature enough to understand your needs when it comes to making amends. If you would like an apology, ask for it. Afterwards, move on. The kid is doing what kids do!
Remember, kids are always just doing what works for them. They want, maybe even need, to see what they can get away with in your room. This fact is not a disrespect to you. Take the opportunity to show them something they may have never seen before: an adult who will not tolerate behaviors that have been clearly defined as inappropriate.
Respectfully draw your line and stick to it. Over time, the students will begin to feel a sense of safety with you. You don’t surprise them with rules that weren’t defined in advance. You don’t give out consequences based on how much you like or dislike a particular student. You simply come to work every day with your boundaries intact, and you handle anyone who interferes. Is this not the kind of adult we’d like all of our students to grow up and become? Let’s model it for them.
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