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Invisible Fence Boundaries

Article By Brooklyn Raney, Guest Expert and author of the book One Trusted Adult

5 Minute Read 

In my last few blog posts, we have dug deep into practices, discussions, and considerations for bettering boundaries and sustainable safeguarding for the protection of youth and the protection of you. We have covered four types of boundaries:


Brick Wall Boundaries prevent illegal acts, violations, and termination-warranted and trauma-inducing offenses. 


Chain-Link Boundaries are an added layer of responsibility and obligation for adults in professional and formal volunteer roles with young people. 


Baby Gate Boundaries are the contextual agreements that rely on setting, culture, space, and time, and can be adjusted as relationships change. 


Invisible Fence Boundaries are not always seen or spoken, but they are silently agreed-upon norms that impact how we behave and relate in a group setting. 

Today we will discuss the fourth in the framework. Invisible Fence Boundaries are unconscious agreements that impact how we behave and relate. In society, they look like social norms, values, beliefs, attitudes, politeness, and stereotypes. In schools and youth-serving organizations, they look like traditions, ceremonies, rituals, expectations, popularity, patterns, and bulletin boards—anything that sends a message to students about what it means to be successful, to be liked, and to belong. Invisible Fence Boundaries contribute to a hidden culture, and are unique to each school, organization, family, and environment. Sometimes Invisible Fence Boundaries send exactly the messages you want sent to young people—and sometimes they don’t. 


In the summer camp world, there is a tale that demonstrates Invisible Fence Boundaries perfectly. It goes like this: On the first day of camp for a brand-new camp director, she asked the returning staff why they had a rotating schedule of two campers always standing in front of a bench day after day. The staff said, “It’s tradition.” This camp director called the previous director to ask, and they said, “Not sure. It’s tradition, so I kept it up. Let me call the camp director who was there before me.” This camp director replied, “Is the paint on that bench still wet after all these years?” 


What “we did once” can quickly become unquestioned tradition in the communities we create with young people. The story of the bench captures many experiences I have had in organizations, especially ones that have been around for many years. Does it resonate with you too? When we are new to a space we are taught to spend our early days and months observing to understand the culture. This, however, can cause unhealthy habits and actions to become unquestioned norms and send detrimental messages to young people.


To ensure that the Invisible Fence Boundaries are positive contributions to our community, we must analyze what it is that we mandate, tolerate, evaluate, and celebrate, because those things—whether we consciously agree to it or not—are what we perpetuate. 


Mandate — What are the rules and expectations we uphold and why?

Tolerate — What is the lived experience of those mandates? What do we let slide and why?

Evaluate — Who and what do we measure? How do we measure these things, and why?

Celebrate — Who gets recognized for what kind of achievements and why?


To uncover the answers to these questions, we must participate in regular climate surveys, invite in outside evaluators, and host internal focus groups with all constituents. And if the answers are not exactly what we are hoping to perpetuate in our communities, then we must make an action plan to change the placement of our Invisible Fence Boundaries.


It is in these four categories that we make agreements (expressed and silent, conscious and unconscious) on the ways we operate that dictate and direct a school, organization, or family culture.


Brooklyn's "One Trusted Adult" Tips:


For Parents and Guardians— The mandate, tolerate, evaluate, and celebrate questions can be asked of home and family communities too. How would you answer for your family? Better yet, ask your children to answer! Do your answers match? Are you in agreement about what you hope to perpetuate in your home and as a family? 


Educators and Youth-Serving Professionals—The big strategy with Invisible Fences is to silently question everything: “Why do we do that? And what message is that sending young people?” The important ones should rise to the top, and you should respectfully bring them to a supervisor or colleague if you feel as though a tradition or habit of a community is not perpetuating the right messages.


Brooklyn is the Founder and Lead Trainer of One Trusted Adult, an organization that provides programming for educators, parents and young people, to ensure that every young person has at least one trusted adult.


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