Why boundaries are essential to achieve your academic best

Do you have boundaries about:

  • How you allow yourself to be treated?
  • What you will allow and won't allow in your life?
  • What you are willing to do and when?

Boundaries are fundamental to success, as well as self-respect. Over the last couple of weeks, I've seen lots of instances of people breaching other people's boundaries, or of people not having the right boundaries in place to protect themselves.

At the beginning of this school year, I want to talk to you about setting boundaries so that you're kept safe by yours and supported by them to achieve your best this year.

Boundary breaches

I had an email recently from a client who said that when her son returned to school after lockdown and school closures the messaging he received from school about what lay ahead academically was so stressy it had thrown him into a state of anxiety and panic when he had been doing really well in the six months off school.

It's very easy for a young person to be thrown off course, particularly if they're of an anxious disposition, because of these kinds of messages. However, if you know that you have these tendencies, you need to be even more firm in your boundaries than anyone else.

In this instance, I would encourage both the student in question and their parents to listen to the messages they were receiving from school objectively and ask questions like:

  • What's behind this messaging from school?
  • How much do I need to take on this stress and worry?
  • What is realistic to ask of myself?
  • Will it help me to join the worry club?

My interpretation would be that the school as an institution and the teachers as individuals are very worried about catching up on lock-down learning. Unwittingly they're transmitting this stress and concern to their students because they haven't really thought through how to get the students up to speed without stressing them out – instead, they're transferring the stress to the young people hoping that this sense of urgency makes them take action.

The problem with this is that most young people have got either the study skills or the emotional filters to take this on in a healthy way for themselves.

What can this student do?

Using the objective questions I've highlighted above I would suggest that the student says to themselves:

“OK, my teachers are stressed. But, is it helpful for me to feel this way? No, it isn't. What can I do then? I can look at my work and take it one day at a time. I can focus on my work in study times, and then give myself relaxing time off the rest of the time, doing things that I know make me feel calm, rather than things that increase my anxieties.”

I would also suggest that any parent who sees stressy messaging coming out of their child's school contacts the school and lets them know the impact the tone of their messaging is having on their children. There are ways to get through the difficulties the education system is facing without making everyone in the system into a nervous wreck – that doesn't help anyone.

What kinds of boundaries should students set for themselves?

When I was studying I had lots of boundaries that kept me mentally and physically healthy and enabled me to be very academically successful. Here are some examples:

How much you study

At GCSE level I had a ‘rule' that I studied for 2. 5 hours every weekday evening, finishing by 9 pm at the latest. I would also have Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings off. At A-Level I studied for 4 hours every weekday evening and kept the other rules.

These boundaries made sure:

  • I did the right amount of work to get the grades I was aspiring for
  • Made sure I had time to wind-down at the end of the day to get a good night's sleep
  • Had rest time in the week that was never breached

When I went on to university I switched it around, treating my studies as a job, working from 9 am to 6 pm (with breaks) but always taking the evening off until the final term of my third year. This gave me a structure in which I could work hard and play hard, enabling me to make the most out of all aspects of university life.

You can find out more about how to set these kinds of boundaries for yourself in this blog post, module 3 in The Extraordinaries Club or Steps 3 and 4 in my book The Ten Step Guide to Acing Every Exam You Ever Take.

Not taking too much on

When I turned 17 I started driving lessons. I was also studying four very content-heavy A-Levels and working towards my Grade 8 Oboe. It quickly became obvious that the driving lessons were one thing too many for me to cope with.

I made the decision to park (excuse the pun) the driving lessons until there was less going on. In the end, I learned to drive in the summer after I finished my A- Levels, when I was 18, eventually passing my test in the Easter holiday of my first year at university.

Yes, I would have had more freedom if I'd passed earlier but it would have meant compromising on my dreams. That was a compromise I wasn't willing to make, a boundary I wasn't willing to cross.

There are many other types of boundaries you can set for yourself in your studies. You can tell if you need a new boundary if:

  • You're stressed out or anxious
  • You're falling behind
  • You're not doing the things you need to do to stay healthy and happy e.g. getting the right amount of sleep, eating the right foods or getting good exercise
  • Someone is making you feel bad e.g. a teacher or someone your own age

It's basically if you're feeling bad in some way and you're struggling to cope with some aspect of your life. The biggest sign that you need a boundary is if you are breaching your self-respect in some way.

Parents need boundaries too

When parents join The Extraordinaries Club one of the biggest things I see is that:

  • They have never set strong boundaries or expectations around their children's studies
  • Or, they've let those boundaries drift

The kinds of things I'm talking about include:

  • Leaving phones downstairs overnight to charge so that they don't disrupt their children's sleep
  • Making it clear that they expect homework to be done before their children are allowed to spend hours on their Xbox or social media
  • How they will and won't accept being spoken to

Complications with setting boundaries for teens

Setting appropriate boundaries and adapting them as your children grow up is one of the most challenging things to deal with as a parent. You don't want to ‘over parent' a child who is capable of managing something on their own, but if you give them too much slack to see if they're able to manage on their own, sometimes you find that you have to draw them in again. And, every young person is different which means that you may have to manage your second child differently to how you managed your first child.

There are some universal things that all young people need, however, and if you set these things up early then they will just be established as how things are done in your house. An example from my own life as a parent would be that we've always had the rule of ‘no screens after tea'. This was so that my children weren't exposed to blue light which would affect their sleep after they'd eaten, in the hour they were winding down to go to bed. This was also earmarked as family time that we would spend together.

A few months ago, my son went to play at a friend's house and have tea there. After tea, they watched the TV. When he came home he was incredulous that his friend was allowed screens after tea.

Clearly, this rule will have to change as my son gets older, and it already has changed for my daughter. But it just shows the power of setting up a ‘norm' in your family.

Be strong

When you're setting up boundaries that haven't been in place before you need to be prepared to be very strong and not engage in any discussion about it. For example, if you're now saying that the whole family has to plug their phones in downstairs overnight when you haven't done it before, you'll undoubtedly get resistance.

Make sure you:

  • Clearly explain why you're introducing this rule
  • Make it clear this isn't a discussion
  • State what the new rule is as a fact
  • Be willing to keep enforcing it, always remembering the greater good you're trying to achieve with this rule

Over to you

What boundaries do you need to set up in your life and family? Make a list of them and write down why each of them are important to you. If you feel like you need help with setting boundaries and maintaining them, this is one of the key things that comes up time and time again in the parents' coaching calls in The Extraordinaries Club. Check out the club here and join us so that you have clear boundaries in place to support your child's academic success and wellbeing.


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