When you are carrying out support, possibly with much of it on a one-to-one level, you are nurturing individual learners and you can be closely involved with their emotional well-being. Whilst this kind of support is undoubtedly what will make you most effective, it does come with a ‘health warning’. It opens you up to the danger of getting ‘too close’ to the issues and by implication, at times, the learners themselves. Also, it can mean that your role feels as though it is crossing over into the realms of the social worker or counsellor.  As one teacher said, ‘I have three roles in my classroom: teacher, parent and social worker. Sometimes, the actual teaching part is the least important of all’ (The Guardian, 2015, online). You may also be able to relate to this point from a head teacher, particularly if you have been in education for some time: ‘”We take away the barriers that are getting in the way of a child’s learning. A lot of the social-work stuff has been absorbed into the school day.”’ (Bloom, 2014, p 26).

The health warning is for both sides; in other words, for the good and protection of both the learner and yourself. On the learner side, recognising boundaries can avoid over-dependency when the aim is to provide comprehensive support but at the same time get the learner to take responsibility and to be independent. On your side, boundaries can help in ‘looking after yourself’ and being able to compartmentalise the personal and professional which can be crucial when faced with learners with varied, complex and challenging issues.

It is necessary then, for you to know where support begins and where it ends. This is not always easy to establish and there will sometimes be subtle judgements to make. In our experience, when excellent individual and holistic support, which deals with underlying issues takes place, it can raise another set of concerns which can become further problems if certain boundaries are not recognised.

The 4 Principal Boundary Types

1 – Expertise Boundary


You don’t have the expertise or training; other people in your institution are employed for these purposes.


Mental health

Specific example: A learner making suicide threats.


Specific example: A learner who has suffered a bereavement.


Specific example: A learner who you think may be the victim of sexual exploitation by things they have said to you.


Specific example: A learner who has had to leave home and seeks advice from you about what to do.

2 – Temporal (time) Boundaries


You, as a resource for your learners, are not a limitless resource; equality and fairness to all your learners needs maintaining.


Specific example: A learner with complex individual needs who could take up an increasing and excessive amount of your time.

3 – Behavioural Boundaries


Your responsibility is to influence learner behaviour but you are not able to control learner behaviour; there is the structure of a disciplinary process behind you.


Poor learner behaviour.

Specific examples:

  • Repeated ‘low level’ disruptive behaviour from a learner over a period of time without any sign of improvement.
  • A learner who displays violent behaviour.

4 – Peer Boundaries


The promotion of respect and professionalism amongst your learners.


A learner who does not recognise and apply boundaries with their peers.

Specific example: A learner disrespecting the views of a peer or peers through repeated mocking and what may be deemed ‘bullying’ (both verbal and through social media).

The key point and, indeed, the over-arching rationale for setting boundaries, is for the learner to take responsibility and to be independent. It is easy for support to slip unnoticed into becoming ‘doing everything for the learner’. However, the key purpose of good boundary setting is actually its opposite. Gomez et al (2004, p 483) state that ‘the caring work of teaching is premised upon having a reciprocal relationship between students and teachers’. We need to remember this reciprocity and that it’s a ‘two-way’ relationship.


Bloom, A. (2014) Sometimes You Just Want to Cry. Times Educational Supplement, No. 5114: 24-28.

Gomez, M. L, Allen, A. and Clinton, K. (2004) Cultural Models of Care in Teaching: A Case Study of One Pre-service Secondary Teacher. Teaching and Teacher Education, 20: 473-488.

The Guardian (2015), Secret Teacher: I Feel Like More of a Social Worker Than a Teacher. [online] Available: www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2015/jan/10/secret-teacher-social-worker-emotional-students [10 November 2015].