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Boundaries Are More Effective Than Rules

EducationWorld is pleased to present this professional development resource shared by Dr. Jane Bluestein, an expert in relationship-building, positive school climate and effective instruction.

Rules certainly are familiar in a classroom setting. But there are simply too many places where the methods and dynamics of rule-making and enforcing just don’t fit in with my idea of win-win.

So what's the alternative? Is there a way for teachers to truly get what they want from their students without creating additional conflicts, resorting to traditional authoritarian power dynamics, or somehow compromising the emotional climate of the classroom?classroom management

I've discovered that the promise of positive outcomes is less destructive than the threat of negative consequences. And I've found that the most successful teachers are those able to ask for what they want with clarity, assertiveness, and great respect for the needs, preferences, and dignity of their students.

In many classrooms, the rules are invariably negative. Often the rule itself is stated negatively: “No hitting,” “Don’t call out,” “Eating in class is prohibited.” However, even when the rule is stated positively (“Turn in work on time,” “Speak respectfully,” “Raise your hand to speak”), the result of an infraction is typically negative. In some instances, the punishments— often called “consequences”—are listed right along with the rules.

Rules and penalties depend on the students’ fear of the negative consequences. If the child is afraid of a bad grade, missing recess, or having her name written on the board (which for most kids, simply reinforces attention-getting behavior), she may do what you want, often at a cost to her emotional safety and to the general stress level in the class.

In contrast, boundaries do not depend on fear or power, other than the teacher’s power to allow a positive consequence to occur when the students have done their part. This positivity represents an important characteristic of a boundary, as well as a significant difference between boundaries and rules. As a management tool in a win-win setting, boundaries are always stated positively, as promises rather than threats. Likewise, boundaries offer a refreshing change from punishment-oriented strategies to a reward-oriented approach to behavior management. Boundaries allow us to think of consequences as the good things students get (or get to do) as a result of their cooperation, changing the prevailing connotation of the word “consequence” from negative to positive.

classroom boundariesIn addition to being positive, boundaries support win-win power dynamics because they are themselves win-win. Even the most reasonable rules are oriented to the power needs of the adult, providing information for the students how not to “lose.” Rarely do rules communicate how students can “win” in any other, more positive way. Boundaries, on the other hand, take into consideration to the desires and needs of the students they attempt to motivate.

Additionally, boundaries are proactive, attempting to prevent problems in positive ways. Rules typically focus on the negative or punitive reaction of the teacher (or the system) when a student gets caught. Both rules and boundaries can prevent misbehavior, but because with rules the payoff to students for compliance is simply avoiding a negative consequence, the process of enforcement becomes unavoidably reactive. (This is why simply posting a bunch of rules, penalties, or punishments before kids misbehave is proactive only in forewarning of impending reactivity!)

With a boundary, a positive outcome simply does not happen unless the desired behavior occurs. The absence of the positive outcome— pending the student’s cooperation— is, in most cases, the only “teacher reaction” necessary.

The subtlety of the differences between boundaries and rules makes it easy to discount the impact each can have on the emotional climate in a classroom and the quality of the relationship between teachers and students. However, teachers who endeavor to shift from the win-lose familiarity of rules to the win-win prospects of boundaries report a significant decrease in conflicts and power struggles in their classes, and far greater success in reaching kids previously deemed difficult, unmotivated or, in some instances, even dangerous, than with any strategy previously attempted.

This information was adapted from The Win-Win Classroom (2008) by Jane Bluestein, Ph.D. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Publishing.

Related resources

Also from Dr. Bluestein:
Is Your School Emotionally Safe?
Accommodating Student Sensory Differences
Tips for Positive Teacher-Parent Interaction
The Art of Setting Boundaries
The Beauty of Losing Control, Part 1
The Beauty of Losing Control, Part 2
Stressful Student Experiences: What Not to Do

About Dr. Bluestein

Dr. Jane Bluestein is a speaker, trainer and specialist in programs and resources related to relationship building, effective instruction and personal development.

She is an award-winning author whose books include Creating Emotionally Safe Schools, High School’s Not Forever, 21st Century Discipline, The Win-Win Classroom and many others. In addition, she has appeared on CNN, National Public Radio and "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

Dr. Bluestein, formerly a classroom teacher, crisis-intervention counselor and teacher training program coordinator, currently heads Instructional Support Services, Inc., a consulting and resource firm in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Visit her Web site to access free resources, order books, read her blog and more.

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