How to say no and maintain boundaries with yourself and colleagues

How many times have you sat down to eat lunch this week? Adele Bates explains why self-care matters and provides a framework for boundary-setting

Author details

Adele Bates is a teacher, speaker, writer and educator for students with emotional and behavioural difficulties. She is a TEDx Speaker 2020 and forthcoming author of Miss, I don’t give a sh*t with Sage publishing. With over 17 years’...

Nearly every educator I have met goes into the profession of education because they want to make a positive difference to young people. Like our fellow health professionals, this is almost necessary to keep you motivated when the marking is piled high, and Jo has lost her homework for the fourth time this week.

However, the downside to this is that boundaries often become crossed, or in some cases non-existent. ‘It’s for the children’ becomes a well-rehearsed mantra – and hey, your lunch didn’t look that appetising anyway.

Saying no and keeping boundaries are vital to self-care.

Without the discipline or tools to hold our own boundaries of care, we are of little use to a vulnerable young person

Self-care is vital in order to do our jobs. And yet…

  • Pleeeeeeeeaaasse Miss, can I sit next to Sarah this lesson? Just for today? Say yes and Eman will ask you this same question again next lesson: your seating plan no longer exists.
  • You don’t mind if we park your idea until next meeting, do you? John needs to talk about the new visualisers. Say yes, and John’s input will regularly come before yours in meetings.

You have the choice to finish the marking, or to get to bed on time. Choose marking and your proposed bedtime is rarely met.

In my forthcoming book on engaging with challenging behaviour in schools, the chapter on self-care comes first. Without the discipline or tools to hold our own boundaries of care, we are of little use to a vulnerable young person who is on a path to self-destruction and disruption.

Yes, of course there are times we must be flexible to allow for context (yes Dylan did swear, but it’s the first time he’s entered your classroom since he got put into care three weeks ago). But as a rough self-rule, I advocate the following.

Hold your boundaries 99% of the time. The other 1% is for times that we’re flexible, for ourselves, for an easier life and for others’ ease. It’s your judgement call, but be warned: if that percentage creeps past 1% of the time there will be consequences; will you still be able to reinforce the previous boundaries, or not?1

So how do we do it?

There are three parts to this: how we hold boundaries with ourselves, with our colleagues and with our pupils. In this article I explore the first two, which are not as frequently discussed.

Holding boundaries with ourselves

1. Assess

Start by finding out what’s actually going on – not what you intend. If you know the reality you know how far off your ideal you are. Here are some questions for starters.

  • How many times did you eat lunch this week?
  • How many times did you leave school before 5pm?
  • How much sleep are you getting?
  • How often do you get to do non-school related activities?

2. Vision

Choose an area that you’d like to improve, and imagine how it would look in an ideal world. For example: ideally I would eat lunch every day(!), and it would be nutritious.

3. Support or new learning

Is there something or someone you need to know more about in order to do this? A staff food pass that you’ve never got around to signing up for? A new lunch box? New inspiration for lunch on the go?

4. Take the first step

Whilst you might have big plans, identify the first step and start there. With the lunch every day intention, it might be that you begin with Mondays and Wednesdays as your focus. You have clubs the other days and are not sure how it will work out.

Practising maintaining a self-boundary with small things ‘builds the muscle.’ To maintain this boundary, you may have to say no to people when you usually say yes (more on this below), or you may have to forfeit other activities, such as having a phone scroll, to give you that extra 10 minutes to get to the staffroom microwave and back.

Ever noticed how you regularly get asked to do the extra clear up after parents' evenings but Geoff never does?

It is a new habit, so building it up step-by-step means you’re more likely to stick to it, then you’ll feel a sense of achievement and are more likely to build on it. Next week you add Fridays and so on.

5. Try and team up

If possible, get some accountability by sharing your goal with someone else. We are much more likely to stick to new habits if we are sharing the process with others; whether they are working on their own boundaries, or providing a helpful check in point, it can motivate us. Alternatively, put reminders in your phone with an image linked to your desired outcome.

6. Re-assess and repeat

As you try actioning a new self-care boundary, you’ll gain new information, which can help you to adapt to make things work. So you had the intention of a freshly cooked homemade meal every lunchtime? Through the process you realised that that doesn’t work well with Thursdays because of lunchtime basketball club. So Thursday lunch becomes a quick sandwich from the canteen, but Thursday night you spend time cooking a nice dinner.

Re-assessing and adapting keeps things realistic and attainable.

Holding boundaries with others

It can sometimes feel that we don’t have control over how others treat us, and it is them stepping on our boundaries. However, this is not true. Ever noticed how you regularly get asked to do the extra clear up after parents and carers’ evenings but Geoff never does? We are in charge of what we say yes and no to.

1. Assess

Start small: in what area, or with who, do you feel that you need to (re)-establish boundaries?

  • What has happened in the past?
  • Why did it make you feel bad?
  • Can you identify the moment in which ‘it all went wrong’?

A common one for teachers is getting roped into extra tasks. For example, your line manager sees you in the corridor and asks ‘can you just’ do Sue’s Year 8 data as we don’t know when she’ll be back from her sick leave and you’ve covered a few of their lessons… and last term you were asked to cover Vic’s.

2. Vision

In an ideal world, what would you like the situation to look like? Is it that you never get asked again, or just less often, or with more time to complete a task? What specifically are you looking to change and how?

3. Support or new learning

So you’ve decided that you don’t want to help with anyone else’s data for the rest of the term. You also know that you are likely to be asked by your manger to cover Sue’s other Year 10 class.

Observe others and listen out for their “no’s”.

  • How do they do it?
  • Why aren’t they asked as often?
  • What negotiation skills do you need to freshen up on?

Leadership development coach and founder of Inspiring Women Changemakers, Anj Handa, has a useful free resource on setting boundaries that outlines further steps. Would a coach help? Some leadership CPD that you could access through school, or a chat with a friend or colleague who you know is skilled in this area?

4. Take the first step

As with self-care boundary setting, identify the first step. For example, you know you always get asked things at the end of meetings when you’re tidying up – set the intention to leave immediately and don’t offer to tidy up next time. Or, agree to doing the extra data, but it will be done at a later date that’s convenient for you.

5. Try and team up

Setting up a new boundary is tricky, because the old one is so ‘normal’. Sometimes it can even feel that the new one is ‘wrong’ – even though you know in the long run it will help you do your job better. Get that accountability again or set yourself a reward. Every time you hold a ‘no’ at an extra request, you put aside £5 for that concert you’d like to go to.

6. Re-assess and repeat

Is it working? Is all of it working? Are you still getting tripped up? Holding a new boundary is different to hoping everyone likes us. Initially people may be surprised or upset, because they’re not used to this boundary – it wasn’t there before.

Is initially getting negativity from others about your new boundary enough of a reason for you to go back to the old way? Sometimes it will be, sometimes it won’t. Speak to trusted colleagues and friends for different perspectives and support.

In summary

Setting boundaries and working out how to say no is more of an art form than a set-in-stone rule, but it does get easier the more we do it – and ultimately, it makes us calmer and happier to be doing our jobs, enabling us to be the best teachers we can be, for when those kids start to push the buttons…


“Miss, I don’t give a sh*t” – Engaging with Challenging Behaviour in Schools, A Bates, Sage, 2021

Last Updated: 
12 May 2021