What You’re Forgetting When You Set Boundaries with Students

Positive connections and relationships are essential to the work that you do.

This is especially true for student affairs professionals who serve as mentors, advisors, supervisors, or inspiration models. Those quality connections are extremely important because a great portion of your time and energy is spent with the students you serve. More often than not, that time is spent in small or close-knit spaces.

One of the most important duties that comes with serving as an educator is being readily available to the population of students that you serve. But sometimes, being so readily available can create problems.

This difficulty leads student affairs professionals to question how they can maintain a close and healthy relationship with the students they serve without students crossing the line of comfort.

Setting Boundaries

When talking about boundaries, we must acknowledge how much more connected (in ways that other generations of students never have been) today’s students are. This can often make setting and maintaining a boundary much more difficult.

Many student affairs professionals have been taught that the best way to serve a student is by being overly present in their academic journey, leading students to believe that it is the professional’s sole job to be readily available at all times.

When later wondering what could possibly cause a student to feel comfortable enough cross a professional boundary, remember that much of that comfort comes from the culture of staff and faculty “always being on” in higher education.

This standard leads students to be ignorant to the fact that they’re crossing professional boundaries. Or, some students may see student affairs staff as a resource that should always be there for them — no matter the time of day or the medium of communication.

You can’t pour from an empty cup and in order to best serve a student, your relationship must be equitable.

Where lines begin to become a bit blurry begins with the word “developmental.” In most cases, this word is used to ensure that a student has everything they need in order to have their best overall academic experience. However, development can be misused and lead students to rely on professional guidance rather than using their own critical thinking skills.

When thinking about Generation Z or the iGeneration, much of their developmental process rests in the hands of those in leadership positions. They might rarely have the opportunity to make decisions without fear of them being judged or questioned.

Students are often taught what to think rather than how to think, leaving them to rely on the decisions of those whom they look up to.


As the needs of our students change, a common question that comes up is how much access to our personal and professional lives a student should have. This conversation is often more salient for those who live where they work, considering that living where you work often makes it extremely difficult to have a personal life that feels separate from your job.

Should you allow students to follow you on Instagram or Snapchat? Should you accept their friend request?

The boundaries we are trying to create in-person are directly affected by the boundaries we set online. Sending them a friend request on social media might lead to them sharing more with you than is appropriate for your professional relationship. Going off campus with them after typical work hours could make it hard for them to follow your direction during business hours.

What message are you communicating to your students?

Students must be given permission to show up in any of your spaces and it is up to you to be clear about how students may show up in your life.

If we give too much access to the things we do and say outside of work hours, some students might consider your relationship to be more personal than professional. This mixed messaging leads to confusion and frustration for everyone.  

Communication Is Key

One of the many reasons why students cross boundaries is because we haven’t actually talked openly to students about our boundaries. Creating and setting expectations about what is considered okay and not okay in a professional relationship is the most important thing student affairs professionals forget when navigating their interactions with students.  

What expectations for boundaries do you have? What are you comfortable or not comfortable with? How do you want to share those expectations?

Creating healthy boundaries with students begins with creating trust which includes creating space for students and you to be seen and heard.

To set effective and healthy boundaries, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you clearly communicate what your working hours are to your students?
  • How do students contact you (e-mail, work phone, personal phone?)
  • How much time do you spend talking about things in either of your personal lives compared to the amount of time you spend talking about their success?
  • Do you set limits on where you go and what you do with your student?

Setting these limitations can help you keep a healthy balance in the relationships with your students.

Know Your Limits

At this point, you might be asking yourself how you can maintain a healthy relationship with students when you’re understaffed and underfunded. Because student affairs professionals are balancing not only the needs of their departments but the needs of their student, balance is essential to the work you do.  

It is vital to your overall wellness that you make sure students know that you work for the institution, not for them as an individual.

We can’t always meet the needs of each student. It just isn’t possible. We must clearly communicate this to students, reminding them that while we are there to support them in their journey, we are not able to support them in everything.

This is where high-quality relationships with other departments come in. We need to recognize what we can and can’t do and which other departments can help us in the spots where we aren’t able to fully show up. One of the most helpful practices you can model for your students is saying “I’m not sure” or “I’m not skilled in that area” and then connecting them with someone who is.

Adjusting Your Boundaries

Overall, the most important thing to remember is that is that if a student doesn’t know, they won’t know. In moments when students cross your boundaries and make you feel uncomfortable, make sure you call them in. Being angry, resentful, or mean to a student will not help to make the relationship fruitful.

Defining what you find to be appropriate and not appropriate, your expectations, and what you need from them so you can help them is vital. Creating a culture of open communication will build trust and balance in your relationship. Boundaries are not a way to separate yourself from a student, but a way to make sure that they understand your role in their development. It can be an uncomfortable practice at first, but it is an essential one.

In all, being a quality advocate for any student’s growth is by advocating for your own needs, boundaries, and most of all, relationships. How is boundary-setting going for you? Let us know on Twitter @themoderncampus and @DoctorJonPaul


Dr. Jonathan Higgins

About the author: Dr. Jonathan P. Higgins (he/him) is a speaker, writer and activist with more than 10 years of student affairs experience. Their work focuses on race & identity and ways to better support marginalized students while eradicating oppression. Learn how we can help get your students involved.