Theme: Critical incident management for international students

DRAFT Manage your professional boundaries


1. Introduction

Knowing and understanding your professional boundaries enhances your relationships with students and stakeholders, adding to the student experience. By managing and applying professional boundaries you will improve your competency, ensure that your support is professional, transparent and appropriate whilst enjoying better work/life balance.

2. Why do you need professional boundaries when supporting international students?

Professional boundaries protect us and our students. In our everyday work of supporting students, you need to look after yourself, as well as meeting the needs of your students. Having a professional boundaries framework will guide your decision making for everyone’s benefit. 

Mark Rainier, Manager: Student Counselling & Care, Massey University, outlines the critical importance of having professional boundaries: 

“We are caring people who enter these student support roles, and our training reinforces this. We are then faced with so many really sad situations and meet so many struggling students that we tend to reach out, possibly beyond what we should do professionally. We need to be clear on what is, and what is not, part of the pastoral brief. Which functions should be attended, and which are best not to attend? If we can help students to help themselves – if we can empower them and help them feel engaged in the institution, then we are being most ‘helpful’”.

A principle for knowing your professional boundaries: Teu le vā

Teu le vā represents a commitment to ethical relationships, where the relational space between people must be nurtured and respected. In this way engagement with others shows commitment, trust and respect for each other (Anae, 2016). From the international student support perspective, it means that the relational space between the student and the practitioner is ethical and founded on mutual trust and respect, to achieve the best outcomes for each other. 

“When you share a relational space with someone you therefore have a responsibility, a duty of care and nurture for them. Teu le vā means you will endeavour to do what is right for the other – for the mana of the other. This means if you are not a qualified social worker, then find someone who is – that is your responsibility in this relationship. Knowing and sensing the knots in your stomach when the issue is rising above your capacity and ability.” (Whetuu Nathan, 2021).

What do professional boundaries provide? 

  • An understanding that if you are a practitioner working with international students, you are not a trained social worker or counsellor. You know the limits of your professional capability and when to hand over to a trained professional. 
  • A system of imposed limits and expectations so that you and your international student know the rules around your role which provides a level of safety for you and your student.
  • Less anxiety for you as you know the limitations on the service and advice you can provide.
  • Legal and ethical regulations around privacy and disclosure of student information.


So what is the difference between a professional boundary and a personal boundary?

It is imperative that you know the difference between professional and personal boundaries when supporting international students. 

The difference between professional and personal boundaries is explored through the table below: 

Professional relationships Personal relationships
Paid – paid work forms the basis for the relationship. Unpaid – no payment involved in the relationship.
Timebound – the relationship lasts as long as the job needs it. Can take place anywhere at any time between individuals in a non-work environment. 
The practitioner holds the power in the relationship. There are no power differentials in personal relationships, and individuals are equals. 
Transparency – professional roles and areas of responsibility are open and transparent. There are no hidden agendas. No formal requirements for transparency. It is up to individuals as to what they reveal in a relationship.
Structured – relationships are bound by professional boundaries. Unstructured – relationships have no structure.
Professionals are trained and supported to provide a service according to their role. There is no special training for personal relationships.
Decision making is objective and based on the evidence at the time.  Decisions can be subjective, emotional and intuitive based on personal feelings at the time. 
Being friendly means that the relationship is not a friendship but is a relationship between acquaintances.   Being friends is personal, develops over time as individuals get to know each other and it feels good.
Interactions between practitioner and student take place in a professional setting to avoid risk between the parties. Interactions can take place anywhere at any time.
Practitioner personal information is not shared and is not relevant to the relationship. To share personal information changes the balance of power in the relationship. Personal relationships are based on openness and sharing personal information.


Georgia’s dilemma: A case study

Georgia, a tutor at an ITP, is very worried about one of her international students, Alita, who hasn’t been attending her courses and is not responding to the institution’s follow-up non-attendance emails or texts. Georgia has complied with institutional protocols around reporting attendance to administrative staff members, who are putting the regulation follow-up steps in place. Georgia believes that she relates well with Alita, as they have a good practitioner-student relationship which Georgia believes is friendship based. Before Georgia contacts international student support to express her concerns, she wants to go around Alita’s flat to check that she is okay.

Question: Is Georgia maintaining her professional boundaries if she goes to visit Alita to check on her non-attendance? 

Answer: No: Georgia is contemplating an emotion-based response to friendship and is stepping outside her professional boundaries. A good practitioner-student relationship is not a friendship. Georgia needs to contact international student support to express her concerns so that they can follow up. 


Do you see any blurred areas around your own professional and personal boundaries? 

Responding to your self-check: Know your own vulnerabilities around personal boundaries

When your personal belief systems influence your professional boundaries, they can impact on objective decision making.

  • Reflect on what personal values, beliefs and previous life experiences that you have which may impact negatively on you applying professional work boundaries.
  • What type of student, situation and issues may cause you to become over or under-involved with your student? Identifying scenarios means you’re more self-aware and ready to seek assistance from others in making balanced objective decisions. 
  • What behavioural changes do you need to make in order to separate your personal and professional boundaries?

No individual is the same. We all bring our own personal experiences, cultural values and beliefs to any life experience, both personally and professionally. Our relationship with our students can be located on a continuum of professional boundaries.

3. How to find your ‘zone of helpfulness’

Health professionals describe a ‘zone of helpfulness’ which lies at the centre of a continuum of professional behaviour. This ‘zone of helpfulness’ represents where the majority of health practitioner/patients’ interactions occur and where maximum benefit occurs. The same is true for international student support staff. Our ‘zone of helpfulness’ is where we provide effective, efficient student support.

To achieve balance, various caring professions such as social workers and nurses have agreed professional standards including codes of conduct that clarify professional boundaries. While international student support staff presently do not have such a code, Davidson’s (2004) Professional Relationship Boundaries Continuum (PRBC) provides one approach which can be applied to international student support. 

The PRBC Continuum is a conceptual framework for understanding professional relationship boundaries in the context of child and youth care social work. The framework is equally applicable for understanding and applying professional boundaries in an international student support context. 


Source: The Professional Relationship Boundaries Continuum, Davidson, 2009

In a professional work context, the balanced point on the continuum represents interactions with students that are safe and effective. Moving away from the balanced zone blurs the boundaries. Becoming personally entangled in personal relationships or becoming rigid is where most transgressions knowingly or unknowingly occur.

The Continuum identifies four areas of professional boundaries:

  1. Entangled boundaries – over-involvement
  2. Rigid boundaries – under-involvement
  3. Blurred boundaries – grey areas with potential for breaches 
  4. Balanced boundaries – zone of helpfulness.

Let’s look at each of these in turn with respect to providing international student support. What do these relationships and boundaries look like?

A. Entangled boundaries – over-involvement

The potential for over-involvement is ever present when dealing with a student in distress. Consider the following risks of over-involvement:   

  • Entangled boundaries are represented by over-involvement with your student. You may be placing more importance on this student’s needs above those of other students.
  • As a caring person you are meeting your own emotional and social needs to the detriment of the student.
  • Your over-involvement creates over-dependency on you by the student, as they are not given the life skills for self-dependency and the tools to work through their own problems. This creates an unnatural power imbalance.
  • You are placing yourself at risk of burnout by trying to be all things to all people.

Quote: Naturally our colleagues are kind but… 

Naturally our colleagues are kind, caring people who want to see good outcomes for students. But this can often lead to “overreaching” their roles and their decisions become clouded by compassion. This is not always in the best interests of students, who need to develop their autonomy as independent actors in their own development.” (Mark Rainier, 2022).

Case study: See Li’s boundaries 

As a first language student support advisor, Li has students who come to her as they feel they will be listened to and understood as she shares the same language and cultural knowledge as them. They think of her as being their friend. They can become upset and unsupported if Li cannot ‘bend the rules’ to help them. Li has found that she must clearly tell students from their first meeting that, although they share the same language, any help that she gives them is according to her institution’s policies and guidelines. Li has found that when students know what boundaries are in place, it reduces students feeling unsupported and unhappy with the advice that she gives them. 

B. Rigid boundaries – under-involvement  

Sometimes we put up barriers around our interactions with our students and become under-involved with them. These are represented by the following:

  • You are not listening or meeting your student’s needs. You are driven in meeting your own objectives, values and beliefs irrespective of your student’s needs thereby 

creating low levels of trust. 

  • Your student will not feel valued or listened to, so they are less likely to share information.
  • In protecting your own mana, you are sacrificing the mana and dignity of your student. Teu le vā cannot operate when there is no respect for each other in a relational space.
  • Recognise that you do not need to be in control, sometimes it is okay to let go and let others help.
  • You may be putting up barriers to protect yourself from becoming too emotionally involved with your student and, in so doing, you become emotionally detached, distant and disconnected.


Case study: Breaking rigid boundaries 

Claire is a homestay coordinator at a high school and is responsible for homestay students and hosts. As part of her role, she keeps in regular contact with both students and hosts to ensure that all is well. When she first started in her role, she noticed that one of her students was looking a bit sad. When she asked if everything was okay in her homestay, the student told Claire that they were unhappy with their homestay as the homestay hosts ignored her and were happy for her to eat in her room on weekends when they had family around. The previous homestay coordinator had told the student that she wouldn’t be moved and to discuss her concerns with the homestay family. When Claire followed up with the homestay host, they told her that the student was withdrawn, and they were happy for her to eat in her room and not interact with them as they saw the student as a boarder in a boarding arrangement. Claire immediately recognised that her predecessor’s rigid boundaries and under-involvement had been detrimental to the student’s welfare. Claire arranged for the student to be moved to a new caring homestay environment and observed the student subsequently blossom.

C. Blurred boundaries – grey areas with potential for breaches 

What are the consequences of having blurred professional boundaries?

This project helps you address potential grey areas so you can address potential grey areas so you can ensure you operate within your ‘zone of helpfulness’. International student support practitioners are highly committed to caring for their students. However, sometimes boundaries can become blurred, despite the best of intentions. 

  • Blurred professional boundaries lead to confusion for you and your student which causes unsafe practice. Student support staff are not trained social workers, nor counsellors. They need to know when to hand over care to a trained professional.
  • Stress and anxiety levels increase for everyone when you over promise and under deliver as you can’t deliver what the student needs, and you are not showing integrity around your own work values. 
  • When you treat your international students as family members your decisions become emotionally based instead of objective. Recognise and understand that you are not your student’s mother/father/aunt/uncle/ sister or brother. When you treat students as family members, you meet your own caring feeling needs which can lead to ongoing behavioural transgressions in the future.


D. Balanced boundaries – zone of helpfulness 

Finding balance on the professional relationship continuum is best exercised in the context of a supportive team with clear policies and guidelines:

  • Balanced boundaries represent the zone of helpfulness. You know where you can help, what your boundaries are, and you work within your boundaries. 
  • Your decisions are objective, responsible, based on evidence, good judgement and self-reflection.
  • You understand the level of power you have in the student / practitioner relationship so that you do not exploit your students’ rights as individuals.
  • Your student is at the core of your decision making. Their needs are respected within the context of Teu le vā.


Case study: A team approach helps balanced boundaries 

Sarah is a team leader of a national tertiary international student support team. She recognises the importance of maintaining balanced professional boundaries within her team. As part of her role, she arranges for fortnightly check-ins with each team member, in addition to weekly national team meetings. In this way she can check-in with individual team members by Zoom or face-to-face to see where additional support and training is required. Working with a national team, she recognised the importance of weekly Zoom team meetings to build up trust between team members so they could learn about each others’ strengths and where to go for help if Sarah was unavailable. This proved extremely useful during Covid lockdowns, when the team was working remotely and they could call upon each other’s assistance as and when needed to support their students. In this way the team members maintained their balanced professional boundaries despite working from their home environments.

In any caring support role, there is the potential for professional boundaries to be breached. This can happen in exceptional circumstances such as critical incidents. The main thing to acknowledge to yourself is that your decisions were based on your professional resources at the time and were made for the good of the student. These resources should include well-established team/institution protocols for spreading the load thereby mitigating risk when dealing with a critical incident. These will include ongoing support for you and team members. 

Balancing professional boundaries: an example

Massey University’s Student support and advising framework has been designed to take into account the needs of both students and support staff. The Tier levels are based on the different levels of student support provided according to the different skill sets of staff roles. Each Tier has structured professional boundaries whereby increasing levels of complexity are escalated to the next Tier level. 

Building your own bespoke Professional Boundaries Framework

The Professional Relationship Boundaries Continuum (PRBC) provides a foundation for developing a theory-to-practice framework for balanced professional boundaries. How might you adapt the PRBC Continuum to meet your organisation’s needs? Try using the schema in the Professional Boundaries Framework (McDonald, 2022) to build a bespoke professional boundaries framework for your institution.  

Frameworks come in all shapes and sizes. They need to be relevant and usable by everyone. The schema in the Professional Boundaries Framework provides a template for your team to build a professional boundaries framework which meets the needs of your students and accentuates the importance of staff self-care. You can build a framework to meet the needs of student practitioner roles within and external to your institution and identify areas of risk of over or under-involvement, together with areas for upskilling, training and professional development.

Now that you have built your bespoke framework how do you go about applying its principles to your educational setting? 

A kaupapa for balanced professional boundaries

Your bespoke Professional Boundaries Framework highlights the importance of international student support and provides a kaupapa for a balanced approach. It needs to become part of your institution’s culture, i.e. “It is the way we do things around here”

How can you achieve an understanding of balanced professional boundaries in your institution where everybody knows, understands and plays their part in cultivating the culture?

  • Enlist staff engagement by asking for their feedback on your Professional Boundaries Framework to elicit ‘buy-in’. This shows that you value staff views. 
  • Ensure that policies and guidelines are easily understood and applicable to all staff roles.
  • Encourage staff collaboration so that they have a shared understanding of each other’s roles and how they can help and support each other. ‘It is okay to ask for help.’
  • Provide workshops, staff training and professional development opportunities around professional boundaries to reinforce your Professional Boundaries Framework.


Peter’s induction: An exemplar

When Peter first started his role as an international student advisor at his institution, he was given a very thorough two-week induction and handover into his new role. He was given training around his institution’s international student support framework. This included learning what his professional boundaries were when interacting with international students and also the importance of recognising that he was not a trained social worker or counsellor. He learnt what situations to look out for and when to hand over care to his team leader and trained professionals around the university, so that the student could be given the support they needed. Staff were encouraged to take advantage of the institution’s health and wellness lunchtime sessions to practice self-care. As a result of this training, Peter felt supported in his work as he had the support systems in place to make objective decisions to best meet the needs of himself and his students.

4. How to achieve professional boundaries through intentional self-care

We need to look after ourselves first and practice self-care before we can help others. What do we mean by this? “You have a duty of care to both yourself and your students in practicing self-care. The risk of not looking after yourself is burnout.” (Cooper, 2012)

The Professional Relationship Boundaries Continuum recognises the need to take intentional actions to look after ourselves. International student support is a caring profession which can mean putting the needs of others before our own. It is imperative that self-care is incorporated into both work and personal routines. 

Put on your oxygen mask before helping others (Rainier, 2022) demonstrates the need for you to look after yourself before helping others. In this way you are strong mentally and physically to help others. The Powerpoint shares the GREAT DREAM ten step keys to happier living you can use in your work and everyday life to achieve balanced professional boundaries.

Tips to maintain wellbeing in the workplace

You can maintain balanced boundaries in the workplace by adopting a variety of workplace practices including:

  • Taking breaks throughout the day to keep refreshed. Avoid working through lunch and sitting at your desk. Try and find time to get outside for a walk to get some fresh air and clear your head.
  • Take annual leave throughout the year to take time for yourself to recharge your batteries. 
  • If you are feeling sick, then stay at home and rest.
  • If you are not keeping up with your workload, then talk to your manager to look at ways to manage your workload. 
  • Talk and share feelings with trusted colleagues and friends. If you need additional support then you may be eligible for the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), which provides an employee wellbeing service. 
  • Separate your personal life from your work life. This means not checking work emails and texts when you are out of the office. Have clear guidelines for sharing responsibility for the 24/7 phone with your team

Practitioner experience provides ‘the voice of experience’ in how we can learn and apply self-care theory and put it into practice. By putting something into practice we learn what works and what doesn’t work in a variety of situations. 

Read about some self-care workplace strategies used by practitioners:

There are naturally blurred edges working with international school students when you are required to support your students 24/7. You need to have someone else to share the load with, or a team, so that the 24/7 phone can be rostered.” International director, High School 

“We tell our homestay caregivers to phone the emergency 24/7 phone, only in emergency situations. In the first instance, in an emergency, they need to phone the appropriate emergency service before contacting us. If the situation is out of hours but not an emergency, then they are told to send us a text and we will respond to the text the next day. Staff who are rostered on 24/7 duty have the emergency 24/7 phone forwarded to their phone and we pay an additional allowance for those rostered on duty.” Homestay coordinator, High School  

“Student support can be stressful as we take on our students’ problems. Our team has weekly meetings where we can share our problems and get advice and support each other. Sometimes we go off campus to have a coffee and catch-up, which gives us the chance to step back and connect with each other.” Team Leader, international student support and accommodation, PTE 


Burnout and compassion fatigue – the cost of caring too much

The Professional Relationship Boundaries Continuum recognises the importance of self-care in maintaining balanced professional boundaries and avoiding burn-out or compassion fatigue. 

“What is “most helpful” for our students? When we care too much it is at our peril both because it can be less than helpful for students but also because it can leave us feeling overwhelmed and ‘burned out’ resulting in our withdrawal from the most useful ‘help’ we can offer.” (Mark Rainier, Manager: Student Counselling & Care, Massey University).

What are the warning signs of burn-out and compassion-fatigue that you need to look out for?

  • When you keep on giving and put others’ needs before your own, or when you become over-invested in your students’ needs and you believe that you alone are responsible for looking after everyone at all times, then you run the risk of burnout and compassion fatigue. 
  • You no longer have any mental or physical energy to give to others. 
  • You may feel emotionally drained and experience feelings of helplessness or become cynical. 
  • You feel that you are giving your ‘all’ to everyone but no one is giving back to you. 
  • Other signs may include feelings of overwhelm, detachment, anxiety and the inability to ‘switch-off’ from how you can help your students. 

It is the nature of the pastoral care role to become over-involved in caring for your students, with the potential risk of getting burn-out or compassion fatigue. Identifying the warning signs gives us the opportunity to take steps to manage ourselves through incorporating self-care into our daily lives.

Personal lifestyle practices to support self-care

Whatever you choose to do ensure that it nurtures you, makes you feel good, and separates you from thinking about work related things. 

Consider these tips to aid your wellbeing: 

  • Make time to schedule regular activities into your daily and weekly routines to give you something to look forward to, e.g. learn a new hobby or take up a new interest.
  • Take up a new health and wellbeing activity such as yoga, meditation or mindfulness to help your mental wellbeing.
  • Prioritise time for friendships to connect with others and avoid feelings of isolation.
  • Schedule some form of exercise into your daily routine to alleviate stress thereby promoting good physical and mental health. 


Staying on track – How can we maintain balanced boundaries?

Our values, beliefs, life experiences, emotional state and patterns of behaviour all have an impact on our decision making and our potential to compromise our professional boundaries. Practicing self-awareness gives us an understanding of our needs and patterns of behaviour. This provides us with the ability to recognise our areas of risk around maintaining professional boundaries. Take some time to look at the following questions to reflect on what you have learnt, learn more about yourself and how to identify and separate your needs from those of your students.

  • What have I learnt?
  • What do I need to change in order to manage my personal and professional boundaries?
  • How can I prepare myself emotionally and physically to manage supporting students in a critical incident?
  • What boundaries do I need to put in place?
  • Who can I ask for help?
  • How can our team support each other to maintain our professional and personal boundaries in a critical incident?
  • What does my institution need to do to inform, train and manage risk if boundaries are not understood, transgressed or maintained?


5. Summary 

The provision of international student support is multi-faceted and encompasses a range of skills, professional training and expertise. Inter-meshed with these attributes are the practitioner’s own values, beliefs and emotional state which can impact on objective decision making. This topic Manage your professional boundaries explored the understanding and application of the Professional Relationship Boundaries Continuum in the context of international student support.

You learnt that balanced boundaries on the continuum represent the safe area for student and staff interactions and a zone of helpfulness. Moving away to either side of the balanced zone blurs the boundaries ranging from the extremes of entangled boundaries or rigid boundaries.

You were introduced to the schema of the Professional Boundaries Framework so that you could design your own framework to put balanced professional boundaries in place in your workplace. This places boundaries around the skills and levels of expertise tied to student support roles to protect both the student and practitioner. Having recognised boundaries in place allows for the managed escalation of student support.

Self-care is an often neglected area in managing balanced professional boundaries in a caring profession such as international student support. You explored ways in which you could incorporate self-care into your work and everyday life routines. 

Finally, as part of understanding the Professional Relationship Boundaries Continuum, you learnt the importance of being self-aware and reflecting on what professional boundaries mean to us and how our values and beliefs impact on our own practice of applying professional boundaries. In this way you can minimise risk both to ourselves and our students. 


Learning from the voices of experience played an important role in this topic. Special thanks to the following people for their generous contributions – Terry McGrath, Whetuu Nathan, Mark Rainier, Colleen Steyn, respondents to ISANA NZ’s ‘Critical Incident Management Questionnaire’, and Massey University. 




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Davidson, J.C. (2005). Professional Relationship Boundaries: A Social Work Teaching Module. Social Work Education, 24:5, 511-533. 

Davidson, J.C. (2009). CYC-Online Issue 128 October 2009.Where do we draw the lines? Professional relationship  boundaries and child and youth care practitioners. Retrieved from 

Massey University (2021). Student support and advising framework

McDonald, L., (2022). Professional Boundaries Framework.

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