Safeguarding: Maintaining professional boundaries

Written by: Sarah Morgan | Published:
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Do you feel professional boundaries are different depending on the age of the students you work ...

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Maintaining personal, professional and protective boundaries is a crucial consideration for those working in our schools. Sarah Morgan offers her guide for teachers and education professionals

Professional boundaries are an essential part of our work as teachers. How we present ourselves, our interaction with others and our general conduct are highly significant when working directly with the pupils in our classroom. Our personal presentation and professional conduct reduces the risk of allegations and keeps pupils safe from harm.

The report, Allegations of Abuse Against Teachers and Non-Teaching Staff (DfE, 2011) presented findings suggesting that the number of allegations made against teachers between April 2009 and March 2010 was 2,827, and that almost a fifth of teachers were suspended while an allegation was investigated. Data is patchy and there is no central mechanism for recording allegations and the outcomes.

Safeguarding pupils, and protecting yourself from the risk of allegation, is a key professional priority. Personal and professional boundary setting should seamlessly flow through all interaction and intervention within the school. Boundaries shape our relationships with children, families, care-givers and professional colleagues.

We know that pupils can often arrive in our classrooms from a range of backgrounds. They may have experienced differing and complex home lives, varying styles of parenting, and often differing, and sometimes-confused social expectations, norms and inconsistent boundary-setting. This inevitably brings professional challenges.

Boundary “holding” does not mean that your relationships should be cold and detached. You can and should offer authentic warmth to support and build professional relationships with pupils, and their families, without placing them or yourself at risk. In this article, we have drawn together some key areas of boundary-setting that teachers should be sensitive to.

Duty of Care

The Education Act 2002 imposes clear duties to provide acceptable levels of care and to protect children and young people from all reasonably foreseeable risk of harm or injury. Duty of Care refers to the responsibility of those staff members, employed within a position of trust, to provide pupils with adequate levels of protection against harm and to safeguard their welfare at all times. What constitutes “reasonable and acceptable care” in any given case will be determined objectively by the court and will depend upon the circumstances of each case. The standard of care expected from schools is understandably very high.

Shared and agreed boundaries

The teacher-pupil relationship is not equal. Teachers and all education professionals are in a unique position of trust, care, responsibility, authority and influence with their pupils. This means that there is always an inherent power imbalance within the teacher-pupil dynamic. With this in mind, you may wish to explore the following suggestions openly and reflectively within your school. The examples are given as a guide, and are by no means exhaustive. You may wish to add to the listings provided, as you collectively explore and reflect upon boundaries within your school.

Appropriate language

You can and should develop good strong trusting relationships with the pupils that you teach, but you are not “friends” with them. On this basis always be thoughtful about the language that you might be using. Sensitive thought and challenge should be explored in relation to inappropriate language or terms. Examples to avoid include:

  • Use of inappropriate names or terms of endearment.
  • Inappropriate conversation or enquiries of a sexual nature.
  • Inappropriate comments about a child’s appearance, including excessive flattering or personal criticism.
  • Disrespectful or discriminatory treatment of, or manner towards, young people based on their perceived or actual sexual orientation.
  • Humiliation, profanity or vilification.
  • Suggestive humour, “banter”, jokes or innuendo of a sexual nature.
  • Obscene or inappropriate gestures and language.
  • Names such as buddy, mate, pal, friend and so on may give confusing messages.

Information-sharing

Avoid sharing personal information. Your online boundary-setting is equally as important as your school and classroom-based boundaries. Remember that social media is just that – social. Examples to avoid:

  • Discussing personal lifestyle details of self, other staff or pupils unless directly relevant to the learning topic and with the individual’s consent.
  • Correspondence of a personal nature via any medium (phone, text, letters, email etc) that is unrelated to the staff member’s role. This does not include class birthday cards and the general acknowledgement of other celebrations – warmth and thoughtful modelling remains important.
  • Adopting an on-going support or welfare role, beyond the scope of your position, or a role that is the responsibility of another staff member (e.g. a school counsellor, designated teacher, designated safeguarding lead) or external professional, that occurs without the permission of senior staff or the headteacher.
  • Photographing, audio recording or filming pupils via any medium without authorisation from the leadership team or without parental consent.
  • Using personal rather than school equipment for approved activities, unless authorised in writing by the leadership team.
  • Correspondence or communication (via any medium) to or from pupils where a violation of professional boundaries is indicated and where the correspondence has not been provided to the school leadership team.
  • Facilitating or permitting access to pornographic or sexually explicit material.
  • Failing to intervene in sexual harassment of pupils.
  • Still/moving images or audio recordings of pupils on personal equipment or kept in personal locations such as car or home that have not been authorised by leadership team.
  • Uploading or publishing still/moving images or audio recordings of pupils to any location without parental and leadership consent.

Personal space

Respect the personal space and privacy of all pupils. Remember that children can read different interpretations into our actions. It is also very easy for these situations to escalate if we are not sensitively, proactively and dynamically challenging and managing boundaries. The exception to this will always be related to safeguarding and the safe management of risk. Examples to avoid:

  • Unwarranted or unwanted touching of a pupil personally or with objects (e.g. pencil, book, ruler etc).
  • Corporal punishment (physical discipline, pushing, shoving, smacking).
  • Initiating, permitting or requesting inappropriate or unnecessary physical contact with a pupil (hugs, kisses, tickling, play fighting) or facilitating situations which unnecessarily result in close physical contact.

Work and home

Work and home or the personal and the professional should be held separately. Remaining “in role” at all times minimises the likelihood of false, or unfounded allegation and ensures that professional codes of conduct are adhered to. Examples to avoid:

  • Inviting, allowing or encouraging pupils to attend your home.
  • Allowing pupils to access to a staff member’s personal internet locations and personal devices (e.g. social networking sites).
  • Attending pupils’ homes or their social gatherings.
  • Being alone with a pupil outside of a staff member’s responsibilities unless agreed by a senior leader.
  • Entering changing rooms or toilets occupied by pupils when supervision is not required or appropriate or using toilet facilities allocated to pupils. Undressing using facilities set aside for pupils, or in their presence.
  • Transporting a pupil unaccompanied without prior permission.
  • One-to-one tutoring, mentoring or coaching of pupils without the prior agreement of the headteacher.
  • Giving personal gifts or special favours. Singling the same pupils out for special duties or responsibilities. Offering overnight, weekend or holiday care as respite to parents without the prior knowledge of the headteacher.

Collusion

Be careful not to collude with pupils. Be aware that children and young people can draw adults into conversations and situations. We should always remain within the boundaries of our professional role.

Modelling behaviour

Challenge anti-discriminatory language/jokes. We are role models to the pupils that we work with, and it is important that we promote and respect difference. We also have a responsibility to challenge negative ideas, assumptions, behaviour and language whenever it occurs. This is how children will learn new ways of thinking about themselves and others.

Confidentiality

Avoid discussing information regarding other pupils or members of staff. Be aware of being overheard while on the telephone or your mobile phone.

Gifts, loaning and borrowing

Avoid giving pupils gifts and lending or borrowing items. There are issues of power, control and equality involved in these areas. Pupils should be discouraged from offering gifts to staff.

Personal appearance

Maintain high levels of appearance and personal self-care. We are professionals at work and as such represent the school. You are modelling self-respect, core values, expectations and consistent approaches.

Non-verbal communication

Our moods and feelings affect our thinking and most importantly our communication. This is also true of our non-verbal communication; body language, eye contact and facial expressions. This can have a huge impact on our interactions with pupils and colleagues alike.

We are all human and we may have things going on in our lives at work or at home that will affect our mood, attitude, judgement, emotional presentation and possibly our demeanor. As professionals we must learn to separate these issues when we are working directly with pupils.

Our personal issues are not problems for pupils to be party to, and they should be protected from unhelpful exposure to our personal or professional challenges or emotional difficulties.

Suggestion: Educational Supervision Framework

Introducing an Educational Framework for Supervision, Support and Containment will give a clear structure for separation and reflection. Teachers are more exposed than ever to emerging social welfare concerns and an independent educational supervisor will offer clear separation of role and boundary, particularly within small schools.

Designated and deputy safeguarding leads, senior leaders and governors can often be involved in complex welfare and child protection cases, without access to a protected space to share, off-load and debrief through supportive opportunities for reflection or emotional containment. Supervision can offer a supportive opportunity, through an organisationally agreed contract of supervision, held between the identified educational supervisor and the supervisee. The discussion should always be recorded and mutually signed.

Access to 1:1 structured supervision should offer time-protected and reflective space for the sharing of information, and should provide appropriate channels for discussion. Talk to other schools and education professionals about how they access help to ensure that boundaries are maintained, while also accessing appropriate channels of support to balance their emotional health and personal wellbeing.

Suggestion: Supportive and reflective space

Separation between home and work and personal and professional is paramount. If not already established, consider introducing “team time” to share and reflect upon common themes and any emerging concerns.

Suggestion: What you say and do

Create a warm and welcoming environment and atmosphere based upon unconditional positive regard for pupils and colleagues. This supportive and inclusive environment is successfully created through what you say and what you do.

Building relationships can be about you sharing and explaining to a child the thoughts and thinking behind your words and actions. This is how we build mutual trust and respect.

Suggestion: Share, reflect and learn

Explore these suggested areas together and revisit them regularly, as individuals or as teams. It is especially helpful to revisit them when there has been a concern or an incident to learn from, and also when new teachers start, or perhaps when the leadership structure changes.

  • Sarah Morgan is specialist advisor, safeguarding lead and principle trustee of SALT, a new not-for-profit social enterprise specialising in services to support young people, professionals, families and care-givers. Visit www.shropshirealt.org.uk


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Do you feel professional boundaries are different depending on the age of the students you work with?
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