By Adele Bates

Behaviour & Education Specialist, Author and Speaker

There is a myth when approaching behaviour, that routines and boundaries only come with a philosophy tightly knitted together with zero tolerance.

This is false.

There is also a myth that if you approach behaviour from the idea that relationships come first, that connection needs to precede correction1 or that all behaviour is communication, then you are somehow ‘fluffy’ and wouldn’t use routines or boundaries.

Again, this is false.

This blog post is about the importance of routines and boundaries coupled with putting relationships first, connecting before correcting and understanding that all behaviour is communication.

Let me explain:

  • Boundaries and routines make humans feel safe.
  • How many teachers struggled with the lack of routine during lockdown?
  • How many of us felt our mental equilibrium slip as the usual boundaries of work and home (and parent-teacher for some) merged?
  • How many of us realised that the commute and the school workplace help prepare us for our role – to teach and that (for most of us) teaching in our pyjamas somehow felt wrong?

On a wider scale, humans create routines and boundaries in our everyday lives and society to create safety and order. We can see this both in secular, cultural ways – any bus traveller will know that the first person at the bus stop gets to be the first person on the bus and Ooooo the tuts and rolled eyes if you get this wrong in Britain; and in religious ways – we celebrate regular events to give our lives shape – Sabbath, Christmas, Harvest, Birthdays etc.

My guess would be that we created this culture as we saw it mirrored in our surroundings naturally – we have seasons, day and night, menstrual cycles, different stages of growth – and so, as Percy Shelley states in his poem Love’s Philosophy:

No sister-flower would be forgiven, If it disdained its brother

And so this shape is naturally followed in our schools. We have lesson times, playtimes, lunchtimes. We have timetables and rules that (if we’re lucky) are for the safety and order of all within the school community.

These are good for behaviour -for everyone’s behaviour.

What you discuss in the staffroom or department office might not land so well with the pupils in your classroom; as a Secondary English teacher I don’t have to worry too much whether my pupils can use a drill (thank goodness), and my pupils know that throwing a ball in my class will have very different consequences to doing so in their PE lessons – and we all know that the rules on a Christmas or Wintertime staff party are very different to Monday morning back in school…

  • Boundaries and routines help us know what our roles are and what is required from us.
  • Boundaries and routines make humans feel safe.

So when it comes to behaviour that is challenging the adults, the boundaries and routines need to be clear. Often, in fact, a change in these things can be the very thing that does cause the challenging behaviour – ask a supply teacher about that.

So why do we have these myths?

Because boundaries and routines do not mean we ignore what is going on in the moment and above all common sense.

An example:

You have decided that there should be no talking during the register (except for answering, do make that clear too – there’s always one smarty pants).

Any pupil who does so, receives an automatic stay-in-at-break detention with you. It is a sensible rule that creates a boundary around the safeguarding issue of attendance. It is also a great way to ‘cleanse’ the start of a lesson, by allowing pupils to settle quietly and transition from any playtime frolics and be ready to learn. Once they get used to this it becomes a routine that helps them focus (safety and order).

One day, during the register a child has a nosebleed. They are shocked, they exclaim out loud when they see the blood and immediately turn to a friend and ask for a tissue.

They have talked during the register.

If we put the boundaries and routines as paramount, then we must explain to this student that they will be staying in at break, as per the agreed rules. In addition, whilst trying to find a tissue the friend also talked to try and reassure their bleeding friend. They should receive a detention too.

Of course, this is nonsense. Punishing a child for having a nosebleed, and then having the very-human-reaction of wanting to stop it, is senseless and does not account for what is happening in the moment. I’m sure most of us would help the child and get them what they need, maybe send them to the school nurse – and the other pupils understand this. It is highly unlikely in this situation that another pupil (maybe apart from that smarty pants) would have issue with the fact that the nosebleeding child and reassuring friend did not receive a detention – despite breaking the rules.

Another example with behaviour:

You have a rule that there is no swearing in your school.

The consequence is a letter home and a half hour after school detention. The rule is clearly explained in the behaviour policy, and this boundary is in place to ensure discrimination and rudeness is kept to a minimum in our community (safety and order).

One lesson, a Maths teachers asks for the homework. One pupil has not done it, he knows he’s in trouble anyway so swears loudly at the teacher and storms out of the room. The teacher fills in the various (electronic) paperwork to issue the detention – for lack of homework and swearing.

The Maths teacher has reacted to the behaviour in line with the behaviour policy – providing consistency and apparent equality within her classroom.

Unbeknownst to the Maths teacher, recently this pupil became a young carer for their siblings. They are 13years old. They live with Dad who is in and out of hospital with a mental health illness. The pupil is now responsible for themselves and their two 6 year-old twin siblings as there is uncertainty about when Dad will be at home, and even if he is, whether he is able to care for the children. The pupil is anxious about their Dad’s health, concerned what is happening to him when he’s in hospital, and is struggling to look after their siblings. They are not sleeping well and their diet has become erratic. They have not told anyone about home’s situation as they are worried about being taken away from their Dad and being put into foster care, separated from their siblings. They forgot about the Maths homework until the moment the teacher asked.

Should the detention be issued?

Yes, no, as well as – maybe there is something better.

This pupil has suddenly had all their home boundaries and routines taken away. They are feeling unstable. School has become their safe space. Whilst they may find it difficult to maintain the expectations of school at the moment, at least there is a consistent in this pupil’s life.


On a larger scale than the child with the nosebleeding child, we also need to consider what is happening in the moment.

So, whilst holding the boundaries and routines – the very things that are giving this pupil any sense of normality – we also need to connect. Find out what is going on. Understand what this outburst of behaviour was trying to communicate.

It might be that the detention sends the pupil over the edge – if they are responsible for picking up their siblings from another school, they are likely to see their siblings’ safety as more important than the detention.


They may not be able to communicate this with school directly – remember, they are scared of being taken away from their home if adults find out what is going on. The situation could easily escalate to more than missed homework and swearing.


If we think, oh well, not sure what’s going on there but issuing the detention will just cause more hassle, let’s let it go – then we are doing the pupil a disservice, because then we lose the opportunity to dig deeper. We are doing them a disservice because we are giving that pupil the message that we don’t care that they missed their homework, we don’t believe in their education in the same way as we do to the others anyway.

So what do we do?

We keep consistent with our kindness.

We hold the routines and boundaries of school (their only safe place) whilst taking time to understand what the behaviour is communicating.

In this case, we have a serious safeguarding issue at home which needs supporting – but we need to take time to find this out from the pupil in the first place, by asking why –  and this is going to happen if we have a positive relationship with the pupil in the first place. We need to make them feel safe enough to share the cause of the behaviour.

Once we know what the situation is then we can provide the boundaries, routines, support and possibly consequences that will best support the pupil in their education right now.

If a pupil does not have a safe, quiet space to do homework, that is something that we can provide at school. It might be that instead of an afterschool detention that would leave 6 yr old twins with no one to take them home, that you start with a conversation at lunch. It might be that until arrangements are made for the family, that homework is paused for this pupil. And it also might be that there is a discussion or smaller consequence for swearing and missing homework.

  • Boundaries and routines make humans feel safe.
  • 99% of the time it is important to uphold them.

And then sometimes, we must look at what is happening in the moment and remember to be human.

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