Holding Space and Boundaries
Our approach to redirecting, drawing boundaries, and encouraging positive behaviors
We take many measures to encourage kind and compassionate behavior. My goal is to nurture the development of age-appropriate positive behaviors, particularly empathy. I support and encourage these behaviors in a variety of ways.
· Naming the desire.
When a child engages in an undesirable behavior, I often start by stating an interpretation of what the child had wanted. This allows for connection and empathy; the child feels heard.
Example: (A child grabs a toy from another child). I begin by stating: “Oh! You wanted that toy so much.”
· Asserting what a child can do as an alternative to the undesired behavior.
I then follow naming the desire by letting the child know what she can do instead to channel her desire for that particular activity.
Example: “You wanted that toy so much! Javier is using it. You may use this one instead.”
· Asserting positively the behavior we expect.
Impulse control is challenging – sometimes impossible – for very young children. One of the best ways they can learn the boundaries for acceptable behavior is through continual modeling of what the behavior should look like.
Example: (A child hits another child). I tell them: “Oh! We use gentle hands.” I then softly hold the child’s hand and guide them to carefully stroke my arm (or the arm of the child they have hit, if that child is ready to receive the restorative action) so that they can embody what a gentle touch should feel like.
· Developing an awareness of who is “allowed” to take up space
Children are socialized from infancy from sources all around us about who they should be and how they are allowed to act in different spaces. So often, members of various aspects of the dominant culture (white, male, cis, straight, etc.) have implicit permission to have free reign in public and many private spaces, while members of non-dominant groups receive messaging about needing to make space for dominant groups – often at the expense of their own comfort/desires/growth/etc.
We work to engage in the process of socializing children to understand that non-dominant groups/personalities should be in/use/take up space in ways that feel empowering, and that dominant groups/personalities need to learn to step back and make space for others. This looks like making sure all of the children have the space they need to engage in their own important work of play. If any child appears to be dominating the space (for example: running around through other’s work in the sandbox; running over and inserting themselves into/taking over the use of the mud kitchen when another child was already working there; jumping in front of others on the slide; etc.), we will pull that child aside and let them know that they absolutely can have space to do their own work; but not by taking it from others.
Example: “You have so much amazing energy today! But I see that your running is interrupting the sandcastle Avery is building. You can run as much as you want over here in the grass.” or, “I see you’re really wanting to use the mud kitchen! But Serena and Maddison are using it right now, and there isn’t room for three children. You can have a turn when they are done. Come – let’s dig in this big pile of mud while you are waiting!” And if the child is reluctant, perhaps followed by, “It’s hard waiting – and you can do this.”
· Drawing clear boundaries
When a child is going through something – whether it be a time of inner growth or a time of upheaval – they may need opportunities for release. Often times this release can come through laughter and play, but sometimes it presents as the need for structure through repeated testing of the caretakers around them. When a caring, capable adult draws firm but kind boundaries (example: you must wear your jacket when it is snowing outside), children have the means to vent their frustration; a comforting space to snuggle in arms and cry as a release, knowing they are loved regardless of the choices they may make and that we are capable enough to hold our (and their!) boundaries when it comes to certain lines. When they are finished with their release, with a space held for them in love, they will often bound right back as though nothing had happened in the first place – having worked through their struggles on their own rather than simply repressing them.
· Using the privileged “May.”
When asking a child to do something they need (but may not want) to do, I don’t phrase it as a question if I don’t want “no” to be a possible answer. Sometimes just stating things with calm authority is enough to provide the boundary that children appreciate.
Example: (A child wants to stay outside and it is time to come in). I might say: “You may come inside now,” or “It is time to come in.”
· Speaking with calm authority.
When our voices waver and escalate to urgency, it shows children that we cannot guide the situation calmly; that their behavior is too much for us. This can be a scary thing for children and can unintentionally escalate things further.
When we speak in a grounded way: calmly, and with authority; it reinforces the notion that the adult is the one who holds the space and who is ultimately in charge. This is actually a relief for most children who want to know that there are boundaries for their behavior; that the adults in their lives are competent caregivers; and that they are not “too much” for their caregivers to handle.