“Did I go through that yellow light officer?”
If you were driving down the street and noticed a yellow traffic light about 50 yards away, what would you do? The adventurous driver would blow through that light quickly looking both ways to identify whether or not a cop was sitting on either side. The more cautious driver (or the driver with points on his/her license) would come to a complete stop.
Much like our drivers, we must help students understand when to blow through the yellow light and when to come to a complete stop. Establishing healthy boundaries is easier said than done. Students on our college campuses require a lot of support and encouragement. The real test comes when we must analyze when the support we provide is encouraging, and when it is enabling. As staff members, we must establish boundaries to help ourselves, as well as the students in our communities. This article will identify what boundaries are, outline the typical challenges that RAs face, and present the four steps to developing boundaries and balance.
Boundaries are limits we must set with others and ourselves. A person may overstep a boundary by taking too much time, energy or space. So often our society promotes the need within us to constantly please others. However, this pleasing behavior may not enable us to fulfill our own daily responsibilities. Depending upon the role you play, this challenge may be an occasional occurrence, or may occur more frequently. An RA may often find her/himself battling boundaries at all times of the day and night.
According to Kouzes and Posner, “…to find the proper balance between action, opportunities, and individual skills, leaders must know the abilities of their constituents. They must:
- know what others can do
- recognize what others find personally challenging.” (The Leadership Challenge p. 42-43)
This is an initial challenge for all resident assistants. RAs are introduced to a new set of constituents each year. The floor that a RA has this year may not mirror the previous semester. The first step in developing boundaries for a RA is to Challenge the process and to encourage their residents to do the same. That first step must be established at the first floor meeting. This is the time for a new RA to establish his limits and for returning RAs to make a fresh start.
There are four steps in developing boundaries and balance:
1. Identification of low boundaries. This simply means to identify what limits you feel are appropriate in the community you supervise. One example would be your definition of an open door policy. Does open door mean a student can bang on the RAs door at 3 am when he or she has a fight with a significant other? Clearly, this would be a boundary you would like to establish with your community. My first and only hall director at the University of Connecticut stated: “An emergency is a fire, flood, blood, or death.” Anything that would cause disruption or harm to our community or community members is an emergency. A need to borrow my vacuum at 3 am is not a valid emergency. It is important to give your students concrete examples of what you expect from them at the beginning of the year, and remember that boundaries can always be revisited.
2. If a boundary keeps being crossed, inform that person of the boundary issue. Speak to the person directly. By confronting the student, you are helping them to develop appropriate boundaries and at the same time, you can practice your confrontation skills. It is important that you speak to that person in the manner in which you would want to be addressed. For example: “Jennifer, I really am sorry that you and John keep breaking up and fighting. I do empathize with your situation and I would like to be there to listen to you, however, I cannot keep talking until 3 am every night – it is affecting my grades. Could you please talk with me before 10 pm?” Sometimes people do not realize that they are crossing boundaries. The only way to help students with boundary issues is to identify the behavior that the person is exhibiting.
3. The third step is to ask for what you need from the other person. It is often hard to ask for what we want or need but, in doing this, we will be assisting ourselves, as well as the other person. For example, “Jennifer, could we set up an appointment when you need to talk to me about your relationship?” or “Jennifer, could I introduce you to a wonderful counselor at the counseling center who helped my friend who was having relationship difficulties?” By specifically requesting what we need, we are helping our students and ourselves.
4. The last step is to follow up with our students who may have crossed boundaries. “Jennifer, how have you been doing? Did you make an appointment with the counseling center? I have noticed that you appear happy and that you have not talked with me about your relationship. I am proud of you and I thank you for respecting my academics!” By following up, you are indicating to that person that you do care and that they have done a good job respecting the boundaries that you have set.
Establishing boundaries is not an easy task and will take practice. Start at your first floor meetings and remind students of what you need to be successful academically. One idea is to make a stoplight for your door. A green light would indicate that it is an appropriate time to knock, while a red light would let students know that you are available only for emergencies. A visual display such as this can help students identify when you need space and time to accomplish your own goals. Some may understand immediately, while others may need reminders. Remember that we can only role model boundaries. Yellow means caution but to some students it means step on the gas. Teach your students to drive cautiously and you will have a successful year!
Submitted by Tamara Stevens, Director of Residential Life and Housing, Saint Joseph College