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Four Guideposts for Maintaining Healthy Relationships with Students

By Net Assets posted 05-28-2020 08:54 AM


Risk Management |

Behavioral standards regarding faculty roles, boundaries, power and accountability can catch missteps at an early stage, before rules are violated and damage is done.

By David Wolowitz, McLane Middleton, and Tara Kosowski, NBOA

A faculty member is coaching varsity lacrosse practice and uses foul language when addressing a student. The student leaves practice crying, and the school receives a complaint from her family the next day, demanding the faculty member be fired. When speaking to the school’s business officer about the incident, the faculty member admits he acted poorly in response to the student’s attitude but says he never intended to make her cry. Besides, he adds, there’s no written policy prohibiting employees from using foul language.

This isn’t the first time the school has had to navigate behavioral concerns that fall outside the margins of its written policies, and it wants to make sure the concerns are swiftly addressed and the behavior is not repeated.

It’s clear that rules-based protocols have practical limitations. The school above – and your school – might consider adopting a behavioral approach. It helps faculty and staff promote healthy childhood development while avoiding missteps that can harm the student.

So how does it work? The school develops a short list of behavioral standards, which like the school’s value statement, should be aspirational and directive. A behavioral standard could be something as simple as “Strive to be a role model at all times” or “You are responsible for the impact of your actions.” Brevity will make both training and recall easier. When the standards align with the school’s values and culture, the community is more likely to support them.

School administrators can refer to the behavioral standards when addressing behavioral concerns at an early stage, before missteps do harm or violate a rule. A behavioral standard could, for example, help the school above point out that using foul language is not consistent with the school’s values or expectations. An administrator might ask the coach, “Were you acting as a role model in that moment? Did you have the student’s best interests in mind?”

Behavioral standards usually address four areas of behavioral dynamics: roles, boundaries, power and accountability.


Faculty and staff have professional roles at school and personal roles outside of work. Teachers should stay in their professional roles whenever they are interacting with students. Social media, for example, is inherently a peer-to-peer activity. Being friendly with students is appropriate, but being their friend is not. Advising students on intimate and personal matters is also inappropriate, and teachers must be alert not to fall into the role of alternative parents.


Interpersonal boundaries exist in many forms, including physical, spatial, temporal, emotional and even technological. Effective teaching involves the development of a positive, impactful connection between teachers and students, which inevitably involves crossing these boundaries to some extent.

When this conduct promotes a student’s healthy childhood development, it is referred to as a boundary crossing. However, when a teacher’s conduct appears to serve the teacher’s interests, it is referred to as a boundary violation. In short, boundary crossings are student-focused whereas boundary violations are self-serving. Boundary violations can include a wide range of professional misconduct, including inappropriate self-disclosure, teachers gossiping to their colleagues about students, and grooming behavior, explained Kevin Hicks, president of Stevenson School, a 750-student preschool-grade 12 day school in Pebble Beach, California. Stevenson runs scenario trainings during professional development days so faculty and staff develop deeper understanding of the guideposts.

What makes boundaries appropriate depends on the circumstances. The teacher always has a responsibility to set and maintain boundaries appropriate for particular circumstances, regardless of a student’s conduct. Setting and respecting healthy boundaries should not interfere with the formation of close, supportive relationships with students but rather reinforce them. While minor boundary violations are unavoidable, boundary awareness should help teachers recognize and learn from minor incidents and avoid more serious missteps.

Isidore Newman School, a preschool-grade 12 day school in New Orleans, Louisiana, also uses behavioral standards to drive employee trainings and foster a culture of safety. “We continue to focus on the importance of healthy relationships between not only students and teachers but among all constituencies — including students, colleagues and parents,” said Head of School Dale Smith. “We discuss boundaries regularly with supervisors, and use case studies to help teachers set and maintain relationships with students.” The school also provides training from local legal professionals to ensure that faculty and staff are current with the law, including the responsibilities for mandated reporting.


Teachers are in a position of perceived and actual power over students and should always be alert to the potential impact of this inherent power differential. Students often idealize their teachers and put them on pedestals; they may even develop a crush. It is normal for a teacher to enjoy the admiration of students. However, it is the responsibility of teachers to use their influence to promote healthy childhood development, not to meet their own needs. Teachers should:

  • Always put students’ interests ahead of their own.
  • Be alert to how their conduct impacts students and how it might appear to others, regardless of the teacher’s intentions.
  • Avoid conduct which contributes to the development of an unhealthy dependency due to the power imbalance.


Missteps are inevitable and to be expected when educating children. Minor issues can be addressed and handled as professional development opportunities. Learning from mistakes, however, is most likely to take hold if missteps are addressed at an early stage. Therefore, it’s imperative that teachers raise and discuss concerns about a colleague’s behavior that may adversely impact students. Serious misconduct in a school rarely occurs without some early warning signs.

It is not uncommon for individuals who have violated behavioral standards to attempt to deflect responsibility by pointing to their good intentions. But good intentions do not excuse conduct which adversely impacts a student.

All conversations regarding behavioral standards should be documented. Describe the behaviors that are inconsistent with the school’s standards and include a written acknowledgment from the employee. Should the employee violate expectations again, the school may determine the behavior to be a pattern of noncompliance and a basis for non-renewal.


After creating a list of behavioral standards, it is important to incorporate them into the everyday life of the school community so that they become the norms for appropriate conduct. The standards will reflect and summarize existing values and expectations, so getting buy-in from key constituencies should not be difficult. In fact, resistance to the standards may indicate underlying school culture issues. If employees want more detailed guidance, explain that behavioral standards are guideposts or quick reference points for hiring, training and feedback, and that greater detail can be found in handbooks or elsewhere as appropriate.

Scenario-based training exercises can help define the guideposts and clearly identify the factors that most often lead otherwise well-intentioned adults to engage in peer-like or self-gratifying behavior with students. In addition to training, Stevenson conducts extensive background checks as part of its hiring process, and provides all employees with a Code of Ethical Conduct that they sign annually as a condition of employment. School leaders also explain to students — recurrently and in a range of developmentally appropriate ways — what to do if and when an employee's conduct makes them feel uncomfortable or threatened, and address such matters in the student handbook and student orientation practices.

As for Isidore Newman, Smith says, “Because the framework is embedded in our school culture, we organically refer to the ideas of roles, boundaries, power and accountability in conversations with students and families.” At faculty meetings, teachers are encouraged to discuss complex case studies without the awkwardness that often accompanies discussions around these topics. “I consistently express my belief in the importance of this critical framework, and emphasize the most important role for our educators — keeping children safe,” Smith said. 

David Wolowitz, J.D., is a senior director and co-chair of the Education Law Group at McLane Middleton. Tara Kosowski is NBOA’s manager, editorial content.

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