8 Easy Ways You Can Teach Students the Power of Boundaries and Self-Advocacy

Boundaries We know they’re essential for living and working on campus.

In fact, student leaders need these or else their roles can become so overwhelming that they forget they’re students first. (Can you tell I’ve been there?)

But boundary-setting is so much more easily talked about than done.

So that’s where you come in. Your relationships with student leaders can make a world of a difference to their comfort with boundary-setting, as well as with self-advocacy skills more broadly.

Reflecting on my own journey as a student leader, I’m excited to share with you some advising strategies I’ve found particularly helpful.

Encouraging self-advocacy

1. Encourage affirmations

They may sound simplistic, but repetitively saying things that affirm students’ worth can be incredibly powerful.

My first semester as a resident advisor was full of challenges. I wanted to support everyone 24/7, so I frequently invited residents into my space and we’d stay there for hours. The job quickly consumed my life.

Because people knocked on my door so often, I put affirmations around it — phrases and sayings that empowered me to hold onto my boundaries. They reminded me of things I deserve to do: Delegate, make appointments, meet in spaces outside of my room, and work on loving myself.


In order to craft these empowering little signs, I had to unpack my worries and challenges.

You can help your student leaders search for positive affirmations by theme, encourage them to find quotes from inspirational people (maybe even you!), or write their own.

Students can design them online or by hand. Perhaps you can organize a time for all your supervisees to work on these in a shared space. That way, they can inspire each other while doing something social and creative.

2. Teach the value of “no”

You’ve likely heard that you should avoid being a “yes person”  — someone who says yes to every request made of them. But it might also feel scary to become a “no person.”

Even though we’re told that self-care isn’t selfish, students often fear that dialing back our contributions — even just a tad — will hurt people and let them down.

So, as their supervisor, you can clear the air by establishing specific expectations. This helps students like me identify which tasks we can cut back on.

And in your own work, you might find yourself looking for volunteers for special projects. But despite loving your awesome ideas, student leaders may not have time or energy to assist, given everything we have on our plates.

You can demonstrate that you understand how busy we are by giving students a choice to opt in, rather than “voluntelling” them. Plus, make it known that it’s okay to decline. Just make sure that you’re not disappointed if no one volunteers.

3. Role play and reframe

Because it’s so hard for student leaders to enforce boundaries when we most need to, we can gain a lot from acting out scenarios that we’re likely to face.

(Hint: If you host a regular Behind Closed Doors activity, consider holding a similar event specifically focused on boundaries.)

With this, you give us space to get comfortable with asserting our limits. Coming out of this exercise with some rehearsed statements and questions to have in our back pockets can really take the pressure off. That way, we won’t have to evaluate a situation and formulate the exact right response simultaneously.

A super useful framing tool, as suggested by one of my mentors, is to think of people crossing boundaries as conflicts of interests to resolve.

I could see the words “conflict resolution” scaring some people away. But I think that RAs (aka expert conflict resolvers) can appreciate just how normal and important conflict is. We understand that, with the help of some skill and guidance, conflict is resolvable. So, thinking of boundary crossing as a conflict empowers us to find a solution for it.

My mentor shared this handout on nonviolent communication with me. I’ve found it useful, and much less intimidating, to approach these situations by breaking them down into smaller components.

It’s also super cool that we can resolve conflicts collaboratively and grow relationships while protecting ourselves.

4. Encourage students to voice their concerns

You can make it a regular practice to have student leaders add agenda items to one-on-one meetings. Rather than taking control of meetings and asking a routine list of questions, give student leaders space to raise their own concerns and ask questions that are meaningful to their experiences on the job.

Parks and Recreation

To facilitate this and make it a more welcoming process, you might ask students to share what they’ve found to be challenging and what forms of support and recognition they appreciate most.

Rather than just giving them the tools you think are valuable, let them ask for your help. This can be incredibly empowering, helping students process their relationship to the job and grow their working relationship with you.

5. Inspire transparency

Encourage your student leaders to be transparent about when they’re feeling burnt out or when they feel incapable of handling a situation or meeting a deadline. In order to support them, you have to know what they’re going through.

Showing you care about their workloads (and their comfort with it) is a great way to do this. You can also require them to fill out a weekly or monthly form with direct questions about how motivated, burnt out, or prepared they feel. Likert scale questions, paired with open-ended ones, can especially encourage students to be boldly honest.

6. Model successful boundaries

It’s no joke that self-advocacy is more easily said than done. And encouraging student leaders to use their boundaries isn’t enough; it can be difficult for students to trust your words if you don’t set boundaries yourself.

Here are some ways you can walk the talk:

  • Set up automatic email replies on nights, weekends, vacation days, and during any other time when you won’t be responding promptly.
  • Occasionally turn down offers to share lunch (or attend social activities) with students or coworkers because you need some refreshingly alone time.
  • When a boundary has been crossed, address it immediately. For example, if a student texts you a non-emergency work question after you’ve told them you won’t be available during that time, remind them of that boundary.
  • If you have an office door, close it whenever you don’t want to be interrupted. Post a sign that indicates when you’ll be available again.

And of course, don’t forget to delegate! Students can feel guilty delegating, so it’s important for us to see our supervisors doing it confidently and effectively.

clapping gif

7. Discuss working relationships

Remember: Student leaders work not just with students and their supervisors but also with other student leaders. Encourage them to reflect upon and chat with you about these working relationships and how they’re evolving.

Helping student leaders identify their leadership styles, personality types, and work habits can give them a sense of their strengths and weaknesses. Plus, it can help them identify when other student leaders have different personalities and styles. Knowing this can help them reflect upon themselves and their team for better collaboration.

8. Refer to other resources

Student leaders are more than that; They’re students, family members, friends, employees, caregivers, and much more. Touching base on their personal well-being is vital to support their overall development.

Don’t be afraid to refer them to other campus resources for support. Look for programs and services beyond the obvious. Chances are, not just the counseling center has programs or run activities aimed at easing the burden on students’ stress.

Also, be sure to encourage wellness practices like self-care. Talk about all the different things that can involve and help them identify a plan for reducing burnout. And of course, though I know this is easier said than done, but sure to model such behavior yourself.

Self-advocacy skills don’t just pop up overnight, but I hope you’ll consider encouraging your students and using your supervisory relationships to encourage boundary-setting.

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Sara Friend

About the author: Sara Friend (she/her) is a former Content Marketing Intern at Modern Campus Presence and a graduate of the New College of Florida. She loved being an RA to first-year-in-college students. She's now a Mentor Manager for Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Sun Coast. Learn how we can help get your students involved.