Boundaries - The Point of Contact
In the previous Newsletters we discussed the impact stress has on our ability to ‘control’ our behaviour. As explained, stress occurs when the conditions of the outside world threaten our survival either from attack or the denial of needed resources; the level of threat determines the level of stress! This ‘point of contact’ occurs in the cerebellum where the perceptions of the environment, arriving via the purkinje cells are compared to learned effects assembled in our memory and communicated by the granular cells (see The Importance of Stress - Tuesday, March 1, 2022 for more details). This is the biology of our boundaries, the space between our physical and psychological sense and the outside world. Our boundaries define where we begin in relation to all others.
We have determined in the previous Newsletter that as the level of stress increases your ability to control your actions decreases. Therefore, it stands to reason that the way to control your behaviour is to control the stress which is generated in the cerebellum. In regard to classroom management the level of stress experienced by the students will determine the level of cognitive control, the potential learning that is available to all members of the class. This is the biological explanation of why calm classrooms have always been recognised as being the most effective.
From the above, it becomes clear that boundaries are the place teachers should concentrate to control their own levels of stress and to limit the opportunities for students to violate each other’s boundaries. Within the classroom boundaries are the point of contact between everyone. When any of these ‘relationships’ become threatening there will be an increase in the levels of stress, boundaries are being violated.
So just what are boundary violations? These can be both physical, external and psychological, internal described below.
External Boundary Violations
These are the assaults on our physical sense of safety and include:
- Standing too close, or any type of touching without permission. This includes being hit, sexually violated or even tickled against your will.
- Others violating your rights to privacy. For example, someone going through your bags or wallets, eavesdropping on your conversations, looking at the data on your smart phone
- Others exposing you to risk (i.e. Exposing you to their illness, they smoke in a no smoking area, not isolating when infectious, driving too fast for your comfort)
Internal Boundary Violations
These are the attacks on our psychological wellbeing. Examples of these include:
- Being yelled or screamed at
- Someone lying to you or breaking a commitment they made
- Calling you names
- Patronising or telling you what you should do without being asked
- Being sarcastic
- Shaming you or your community
- Rejection from the group
Any interaction that creates stress is a boundary violation.
What is important to the strength of any boundary violation is the closeness of the relationship. In the illustration below you can see how this operates.
There is a gradient of potential stress from a high propensity to be aroused through the interaction with intimate others. That is the closer the relationship the more potential for elevated levels of stress and the more need for honest communication.
The most important yet the most difficult is the relationship you have with your ‘self’, Level 1 on the diagram. This is critical for teachers to ‘get right’ when they question their own practices.
In a later essay we will deal with the need for honest reflection on your own behaviour in any stressful situation. The reason self-evaluation is difficult is because your sense of self is really an amalgamation of your beliefs, in a sense you are trying to evaluate your performance using the same set of personal values that led to the behaviour. Also, we can only interpret the behaviour of others when we reach the stage of development identified as acquiring a ‘theory of mind’, that is when children become aware that others are separate form ourselves. But, just as we have difficulty in evaluating our own behaviour our evaluation of others is created by projecting those values on the ‘other’ and using these as the ‘reference point’ for our decision.
Another important fact is that we are hard wired to evaluate the external environment, this is how we predict the potential action of others in our group. As Louis Cozolino in his excellent book ‘The Social Neuroscience of Education (W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2013) points out, if we put a person in a brain scanner and ask them to analyse the behaviour of others, all sorts of neural networks become activated. However, if we ask that same person in the same scanner to analyse their own behaviour there is much less activity. Analysing others is most often reflexive and automatic while self-awareness requires concentration, effort and runs the risk of triggering anxiety.
We progress through the descending threats to our boundaries with Level 2 being the most important relationship. For a child this begins with the primary caregiver exclusively up until birth and most likely from then on. In the early years any boundary violation of an infant is most probably involving the parent and this contributes to the destructive nature of the early abuse. As we get older we expand our circle of relationships increasing the potential to have our boundaries violated but reducing the intensity of a lot of these violations. For example if your very best friend criticises say your hair that would be more stressful than if a stranger said something about your hair. In the first instance you would be really hurt but the same comments from a stranger might just mildly annoy you.
In the classroom the relationship between the teacher and the students should be, and most usually is very strong particularly relative to the stage being taught. Most parents have experienced that time when their five-year-old corrects you because their primary source of information, the truth is their teacher! By the end of their schooling the relationship is still important but not nearly as powerful. This is why teachers must present themselves and the classroom as being non-abusive but rather safe, calm, consistent and predictable and where they are all highly esteemed.
Unfortunately, too many children come to school with highly damaged boundaries or no ability to construct a boundary, this is the subject of our next Newsletter. Providing the environment that supports the development of healthy boundaries can be achieved is one way we can assist those damaged children to get some sense of their ability to control their own behaviours and that is all any of us can do!