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By Jerry Fest  

Young people need structure and boundaries, and we often judge the success of our efforts to create and teach boundaries by how well they work in a specific situation. But judging our efforts by situational success may not always be in the best interest of the child. A better yardstick may be the effect that our efforts have outside of the immediate situation; by how well it works with the child in the context of the child's life.  

I have a friend who is a 3rd grade teacher who was telling me about some of the behavior challenges she faces in her classroom. The most interesting part of the conversation was when she told me that the young people who present the greatest challenge to her are the ones who get hit at home. That's not to say that there's a correlation between being hit and disruptive behavior (equally, that's not to say that there isn't one, but that's not the point being made here), it's simply an identification of what the child has learned to interpret as the boundary.  

Here's the job description of the developing child: Find the boundaries, walk up to them, and stick your toe over the line ... see what happens. This is how we grow and learn; not by respecting boundaries, but by challenging them._ And we learn to identify where the boundaries are by the responses of the adults in our life._  

Children who have found the boundaries by getting knocked upside the head have also learned to identify that they've hit the boundary by being hit. The reason why they present a greater challenge to my friend in her classroom is because, in this school, they don't hit the kids. Striking a child is neither a form of discipline available to the teachers, nor is it allowable as a form of communication to let the child know that they've gone as far as they can go and need to stop now. It's not that they are worse behaved than other children; it's simply that they are not as skilled at receiving other boundary messages. They don't know that they've gone too far until they get hit. Until then the message they get is that they have not yet reached the limit of acceptable behavior.  

We spend a lot of time identifying where we should set boundaries with young people, but we should also realize that how we set boundaries is equally important ... and our method needs to be transferrable to other life domains. When boundaries are enforced by hitting, it may become the only way a child learns to recognize when a boundary has been reached.




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