The Needs of Children: Balancing Emotions and Boundaries

by Nicole Pappas Ferrin, Director of Barrow Street Nursery School

Originally featured in NYSAIS NOW, the official newsletter of the New York State Association for Independent Schools (NYSAIS)

Nicole Pappas Headshot

When hiring teachers, I often look for those that have strong “warm boundaries.”

I’ve found preschool teachers tend to lean into either warmth or boundaries. Finding those who can straddle the middle, providing structure and limits while also genuinely being responsive and emotionally in tune with children, are rare. The same is likely true at every grade level in NYSAIS schools.

It is these teachers who spring to mind when I’ve been speaking with parents who describe feeling overwhelmed and who struggle with how to set appropriate limits and at the same time be a responsive parent. Rules have gotten a bad rap as they have been mistakenly interpreted as a lack of attunement to children’s needs. Yet responsiveness has been remade to look like over-emphasis on talking about feelings.

Why must it be one or the other?

This concept of being responsive to children’s needs is rooted in an earnest desire to be an empathetic adult who meets children’s emotional needs. In concept this is great! In practice, it appears to promote an unattainable goal of perfection: That if you don’t validate a child’s feelings, every single time, you will screw them up. This overemphasis on responsiveness inadvertently promotes a child-centric approach to family (and sometimes classroom) dynamics, where needs and desires of individual children are prioritized above others – both adults and children — in the group.

Psychologists and researchers have long shown that children need appropriate limit setting to differentiate themselves as independent from adults. To develop this, a young child begins to think “I want to be my own person but how am I going to do that? Oh I know! I’ll practice being not you! You want something? No, I want the opposite. You don’t want something, I want that now.”

Of course, this process doesn’t work if children aren’t allowed to express negativity through responsive approaches. Conversely, if the adult keeps coming over to the child’s side of the fence, talking about how these rules make them feel, changing the rules, negotiating everything, it all becomes quite confusing to the child. Without developing a clear autonomous self (along with empathy and gratitude) children cannot develop resilience. Children who lack this sense of self more easily become inconsolable or reactive, likely to retaliate before the teacher knows what has transpired.

While it’s important to consider children’s perspectives and involve them in decision-making processes, it’s equally important for adults to maintain their authority. Sometimes, when adults over explain, thinking they are being emotionally responsive, they can increase anxiety in young children. Children need acknowledgement and reassurance that adults will keep them safe, they don’t need long-winded technical explanations. When adults are confident role models, guiding children with love and respect, while also setting, and upholding, age-appropriate boundaries and expectations, children begin to understand that while all feelings are welcome, all behaviors are not.

We can add the “emotion support vs healthy boundaries” debate to the long list of age-old queries, like “nature/nurture” or “experiential/instructive.” As in so many of these, the answer lies balanced between the two. And we’re lucky to find those educators who can find the balance.

For more information about Barrow Street Nursery School, please visit