Maintaining boundaries as an academic or personal tutor can be difficult because of the inter-relationship between learning and wellbeing (1-3). It is inevitable that conversations with some students, about their learning, will turn into conversations about their life circumstances and wellbeing. When a tutor asks a student how their studies are going, the student may respond “I’m behind because…” and the conversation immediately turns to non-academic aspects of the student’s life. For this reason, it is impossible to draw hard and fast lines between academic and non-academic issues.
One of the consequences of this inter-relationship is that the boundaries between an academic and a student can incrementally drift (4). The borders of the relationship can become confused, and the academic can find themselves providing ongoing support to a student who may be in difficult circumstances or is significantly ill. This can be exacerbated if the student presents in mental health crisis to the academic, with an expectation that the academic will support them and not report their conversation to anyone else (2, 5). Research has shown that this can have a negative impact on the academic and create risk for the student (2, 6). Despite the difficulty of separating wellbeing and learning, it is important that students and academic staff understand the boundaries of the relationship and that these are maintained (7).
Clear boundaries mean that students can make informed choices about where they can access appropriate and effective support. They protect academics from being drawn into providing support that is beyond their role and competency (4). Boundaries also mean that students can maintain a consistent relationship with an academic – if students reveal personal details to an academic, when in crisis, they may be reluctant to step back into the classroom, knowing that the academic is aware of this personal information.
There are a number of steps academics can take to enable them to maintain boundaries.
- It is easier to maintain boundaries if the student is aware of, and understands them, in advance of encountering problems. This can be done by explicitly explaining the purpose of the relationship and any boundaries in the first meeting/class.
- It can be easier to maintain boundaries if the staff member has a clear conceptualisation of what their role is (not just what it is not). This provides a structure to adhere to, rather than just things to avoid. For example, being a tutor could be conceptualised as a teaching role. This would allow the tutor to support wellbeing by developing the student’s understanding of the process of completing academic work, including the importance of self-management and accessing appropriate support.
- Boundaries are maintained through consistency. Over time, students will be able to predict an academic’s responses. This predictability will give them a sense of certainty and security and make it less likely that they will overstep the boundaries of the relationship.
- Part of maintaining consistency is being aware of, and avoiding, behaviour that unconsciously indicates a change in a relationship. This can include giving students a personal mobile phone number, interacting on social media outside of the professional role, physical contact or responding to emails and messages late at night.
- When students present with problems or in crisis, it is important to remind the student what the boundaries are – both what the academic cannot do and what help they can offer (which may include supporting the student to access services).
- Effectively signpost in a way that demonstrates belief in Student Services.
On occasions some students may, despite these actions, overstep boundaries and seek more support from their academic. When we are in difficulty we tend to turn to those we know, trust and like – for many students this will be their academic. While it can be tempting to make an exception in these cases, particularly if the student is distressed, it is likely to create greater problems in future. If an academic is concerned about maintaining boundaries in these circumstances, it may be sensible to seek advice from academic colleagues, colleagues in Student Services or from a staff counselling service.
- The inter-relationship between student learning and student wellbeing can make it difficult to define and maintain boundaries. This can result in academics being drawn into supporting students beyond their role and competency.
- Maintaining boundaries protects students, staff and the university.
- It is easier to maintain boundaries if they are explained in advance of students experiencing problems and if they are consistently modelled.
- If academics are concerned about a student and how to maintain boundaries, they should seek support from appropriate colleagues.
- Explain boundaries of the role in the first class/meeting.
- Have a clear concept of the purpose of the academic/tutor role and where that purpose ends. This conceptualisation can help guide what to do and not do.
- Be aware of, and avoid, behaviour that unconsciously indicates a change in a relationship such as sharing personal phone numbers, interacting on social media outside of the professional role, physical contact or responding to emails and messages late at night.
- Seek advice from colleagues if concerned about maintaining boundaries; don’t continue alone in a relationship or situation with a student that is causing you concern.
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