Love and Limits: How to set limits while preserving loving relationships with students

Reference & EducationEducation

  • Author Melanie Lane
  • Published January 31, 2024
  • Word count 1,453

Teaching is the kitchen of minds. It is where the finest ingredients are mixed together to hopefully raise knowledge and grow character. Sixteen years as an educator, specializing in working with students with behavioral needs has taught me that every recipe needs careful adjustments along the way.

Every student needs a pinch of this and a dash of that, but what really makes the difference in the management of your class? Let us start with the tale of two teachers.

Teacher A gives out smiles and high fives like she drank sunshine for breakfast. She has engaging conversations with students about their interests and loves to spend her lunch time checking in with those kiddos who may need some extra attention. She believes that if the students know that she loves them, they will want to stay in line because they like her. This belief often causes her to refrain from correcting kids because she fears it may jeopardize her relationship with them. Students will often sit in unassigned seats, talk during instruction, and turn their work in late, but they know they can always go to Mrs. A to talk about what matters most to them.

Teacher B believes the world requires discipline, so she intensely establishes limits and has a very structured classroom. Rules are posted in a non-pinterest way and will be followed. Mrs. B holds on to the perception that being “nice” will be detrimental to the balance of her relationship with students. If she is too nice, they will try to take advantage of her, and she will lose control of her class. She firmly believes that teachers must be established authority figures, not grown-up friends, so small talk with kids is a no go. Students have many unflattering nicknames for this teacher and avoid her at all costs, but in class they keep quiet and complete work.

Two teachers with two different approaches both leave an unwritten balance unchecked. Neither right, neither wrong. You see, in education and in life, we must hold two ingredients sacred: love and limits. We must have the courage to be the constant, predictable adults with high expectations, while being vulnerable enough to connect with all kids on a real level. Within love is accountability. We have an obligation to set clear lines for kids, while accepting that they each may need something different to successfully honor those boundaries. (That is where the real Rachel Ray chef work begins.)

So how do we set limits for kids while maintaining meaningful relationships?

Provide non contingent attention. Conditions breed frailty in relationships because they rob people of trust. If I think I have to do something just right or fear that a mistake will lead an adult to “not liking me”, I will question myself, avoid interactions altogether, or sabotage the relationship that I felt was already doomed from the start. Many teachers feel that they “don’t have time” to make sure every kid gets that kind of attention. To reduce the feeling of being strapped for time, create a structure or routine that lends itself to providing strategic non-contingent attention. Keep it simple; this does not mean you have to spend 15 minutes talking about Billy’s baseball team. Non-contingent attention can look like high fives, smiles, greetings, and other brief interactions. This can be done during independent working times, upon entering class, or during transitions. Some teachers use seating charts or Post-It notes to track interactions so they can make sure they connect with every student every day.

Be consistent. How in the hell do I operate the same way on Monday in February as I do on a Friday in May? Practice makes perfect. If you personally define your limits and identify what is a must in your room, you are more likely to follow that even when you are tired, stressed, or emotionally fried. More importantly, this requires us to also come up with a clear plan of how we will react when boundaries are crossed. Plan, not only for the outlier student that delivers constant infractions, but also for the celebrations that should come when students make connections and demonstrate character. If you ever wonder if your limits are clear to students, ask them. If they cannot define or communicate the expectation and what it looks like, then you need to double back and make sure you are effectively outlining your limits.

Don’t take it personally. It is never the action or infraction that make us upset, it is the meaning we attach to it. We actually get to decide what a student’s behavior means to us and how badly it is going to “hurt our feelings”. Student misbehavior can bring out intense emotions of inadequacy or insecurity in teachers. This often happens because there is a common misconception: Student behavior is directed at a teacher to disrespect or hurt them. The behavior itself transforms into a tangible item, like an arrow or a weapon that is aimed and fired. However, the truth is that behaviors are a form of communication. They are a way for a person to meet their individual needs. A disrespectful response to a redirection is not because a student just wants to make your day hell; it is a retort that is aiming to calm an inner need such as building up a fragile ego, communicating their insecurities, or avoiding exposure of failure. Kids bring their hurts, needs, and insecurities into our classrooms and will protect these feelings at all costs. Addressing behaviors through limit setting is crucial, but we also need to get down to the “why”. When we discover the purpose behind an action we can meet that purpose in a more meaningful way. This meets the student’s need and therefore diminishes the behavior.

Beware of the compromise. Humans are gamblers of behavior by nature. They hit the triple cherries one time and they will keep playing the odds. That is why compromise can be a tricky pitfall for educators or parents. Compromise can be done but should be done in isolation of the event, either when originally establishing a limit, as a next time piece, or through explicit understanding of why the limit is changing. If you set a limit that ends up being too restrictive or too loose, remember to follow through and adjust after the infraction has occurred. For example, if you have set the expectation that students are to be silent during a routine seat work activity, but they continue to talk, follow through on your response procedures to eliminate talking, but consider adjusting the activity to include academic conversation opportunities as a part of this activity in the future. If there is an incident where you immediately understand that your limits are unrealistic or need to be adjusted, be honest and communicate clearly why this limit is being changed. This is a good learning moment for both you and the student as you acknowledge that something was either unclear or not well thought out and collectively you all can adjust for next time. Remember that in every interaction someone is getting shaped: you or the student. Students can wear us down and we may fall back on our original limits, shaping the way we run our classroom. Preventing this means being aware of long term effects from our consistent responses to student behavior.

Focus on what you can control. A master chef cannot tell the bread to rise; she must have the right ingredients and create the right environment for the transformation to occur. In your classroom, there are only two elements always under your control: your attitude and your actions. Creating a classroom environment that transcends into a learning community takes patience and even a little fumbling around to learn what works best for your students. Every year your group of students will require something a little different so seek to understand your students and care enough to have your limits understood by them. Respect their boundaries while communicating yours. Be brave enough to admit when something is not working and tolerant of the time it may take to get your classroom culture where you want it. Above all, practice compassion of self and others. Be kind to yourself and accept that some days will be a win and others will be a “try again tomorrow” day.

No matter what kind of day it may be, learning will happen if you are willing to accept the bumps along the way as victories of mind and triumphs of heart.

So roll up your sleeves and dare to dive in to the beautiful mess that makes the students in your care RISE to their potential.

My name is Melanie Lane and I have been a special educator for over 20 years. My time working with kids with emotional disabilities opened my eyes to the research, tools, and philosophies that can support not just my students, but myself as well. I now write to build resilience, self care, and hope in the adults I support. May my writing offer you meaningful words and insight during difficult times. You can read more on my website:

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