Setting boundaries in the ESL classroom and at home: Stone or Sand?

One of the most frequent issues that both parents and teachers are confronted to on a daily basis is how and where to set boundaries with their children/students.

Examples of boundary-setting situations range from eating habits (subjects like what to eat –e.g. Vegs or no Vegs- have become almost ‘stereotypes’ in today’s popular cutlure), to sleeping habits and study habits, in the home context. In the school context, cases that may pose the issue of boundaries can be: homework and delayed submission of assignments, use of the mother tongue in the ESL class, latenesses and absences…etc.

Some would argue from the outset that the discussion may take further scope and perspective depending on the age categories as it may widely differ depending on whether we are dealing young kiddos or adult students at university. I would like to make the point that this article discusses the “HOW” of setting boundaries and not the “WHAT”, or boundaries themselves.

According to Dr. Shefali Tsabary & Susy Lula (2017), adult people with children around them oftentimes have to set regulations or rules to go by for a certain unit, such as family or school, to operate well together. These rules can be categorized into the stone ones, which basically refer to those rigid lines that red-flag to kids the “do not cross” line, while sand boundaries refer to those where flexibility is tolerated, and the limits of what is permissible could be pushed around and negotiated between the adult and the child.

In our collective mind in mainstream everyday life education as well as in traditional schools of Psychology, setting boundaries for kids is oftentimes considered a pre-requisite for conditioning the child’s behavior and a precursor to acquiring good education and social success.

A well-aligned child is viewed as one who is capable of successfully functioning by the rules of the family, school and society.

For ESL teachers (or any teacher), classroom management skills is looked upon as a pillar in ESL education: a teacher should be able to establish a classroom environment that is conducive to learning, and the teacher who is able to harness a rampant bunch of kids in class and have them obediently follow the class rules is often perceived under a good light.

Theoretically this all sounds great and speaks to the parents’ ability to discipline the child, and also to the child’s ability to ‘play’ the game of life and society, to abide by the boundaries inherently set by the adults around him. In practice, in real-life contexts and in classrooms, not all children/students are readily and willingly able to fit in the mold that the adults around cast for them. The daily wars waged to have the vegs consumed, to have the time for bed observed, to have screen time duly respected, to have the homework done in a certain way, to have the grades no less than the A, B categories…etc are all instances where we as parents and teachers are invited to stop and


What is the message being communicated here other than ‘hear me out…can we re-think the boundaries you are setting for me?’

I believe that it is not the role of education whether at home or at school to ‘produce’ carbon copy, robotic-like clone students, who do the same things day in day out: wake up and come to class at the same time, carry out the same activities, spend comparable times doing homework, land in similar preferably highly paid- jobs (read this as ‘get out of our hair as parents’); it is at the heart of the educational mission to open minds, and allow and give space for each kid and student to express their inner voice, figure out their “WHY” and purpose, and find their way towards achieving that. It is only by doing that that they can feel accomplished and fulfilled. Currently, there is a huge overdue focus on ‘outcome’ rather than ‘process’, on ‘result’ rather than ‘journey’. This may to a large extent accounts for the tremendous pressure kids and students grind under to ‘finish’ their studies , and the high level of demotivation and reluctance to do so. It is essential we bring back to our education whether at home or at school the sense of enjoyment and appreciation of the journey as much as of the process.

In the ESL classes, we need to be cognizant of differential learning styles and preferences enough to accept and encourage the studious student who is spot-on at all times: always on time, always performing inside and out of class …the achiever.

But, we also need to accept, embrace and celebrate the genius in the one who may be your daily late comer to class yet figures out the activity on the board at a glance and produces a masterpiece of work in no time.

We also need to leave some space for the ‘dreamers’ …the ones who simply are not inspired by the lecture/lesson we are giving or the activity we are doing. No ego, no hurt feelings, teachers, this is not about you or about your teaching. This is about the student going through his own learning curve, finding his way through the developmental stages, and who may need an allowing, understanding adult in their lives and some ‘cushioning’ to reach their Aha moment to unfold and flourish into the amazing creative human beings they are meant to be, and live their purpose to the fullest.

Establishing rigid rules of ‘no-day dreaming in class’ and ‘get back to work’ is not going to cut it.

When our kids fail or poorly perform within the context of traditional school-based education, we as teachers and parents need to be able to be open and courageous enough to accept to look at this not form the onlooker’s perspective but from an insider’s perspective and examine our own role and contribution (or lack of) in the equation: have the boundaries (stone or sand) I have  established at home been serving or disserving my kid? how do these relate to the boundaries s/he will encounter in the outside world? At school?

How empathetic have we been with our children and students navigating their way between different environments where the stone/sand boundaries are constantly shifting and moving?

As parents have we prepared our kids well since early pre-school age to operate within the framework of slightly, relatively, or radically different environments governed by a different set of boundaries?

As teachers, what do we do to know a bit more about the background of the students that come to our classes, and the boundaries they come to us with? How often do we create space in our classes for us to discuss and negotiate boundaries with them? Or do we, after a while just create an avatar for the typical student and set classroom rules based on that? Have we asked ourselves: what role could my own boundaries as a teacher be playing by in this equation?

In other words…

Are we willing to revisit the recesses of our own paradigms as parents and teachers, examine them and explore their inception and origins, review them in light of a fast-moving, tech-driven world? Accept their relativity?

Are we willing to step down from a heavily patriarchal pedestal, where the teacher or parent is the absolute ultimate decision taker, and embark with our kids/students in a more symmetrical reconciliatory relationship, where we are willing to own our own vulnerabilities and mistakes as parents and teachers and adopt the path of negotiation and shared journey with the little women and men in our lives.

In a Nutshell, are our boundaries mostly stone or sand?




Tsabary, S. & Lula, S. (2017). Webinar for “Evolve 2017”. August 23, 2017.