9.4 Professional Boundaries

What Is It?

Professional boundaries are often described as limits that protect the space between the professional's power and the family's vulnerability. This definition is very important when the service provider is seen as having more power (even in a general way) than the family receiving services. For EHS home-based services, establishing professional boundaries requires the first step of clarifying the roles and responsibilities of the program, the home visitor, and the family. This step may need to be repeated frequently.

The unique situation of a professional visiting a family in their home—as opposed to the family coming to the professional’s place of work—automatically blurs the relationship, because visitors to a home tend to be friends or family. And the home visitor is doing relationship-based work, which sometimes looks and feels like friendship.

Reflective supervision (RS) is also relationship based, and professional boundaries may be crossed to the detriment of the process.

Here are some signals that indicate that a home visitor’s or your professional boundaries are blurring or getting crossed:1

  • Treating a child and family or home visitor differently than others
  • Losing objectivity in your work
  • Thinking of them as friends
  • Keeping secrets about them from colleagues or your supervisor
  • Telling them confidential information about others
  • Feeling uncomfortable
  • Borrowing or lending money
  • Offering gifts you wouldn’t offer others
  • Feeling as though no one else cares about or understands them as well as you do
  • Feeling as though no one but you can help them
  • Feeling responsible for their success or failure
  • Confiding personal or professional problems to them

  1. Katherine M. Roberts and Bobbie Lesesne, Code of Professional Conduct: Clarifying and Establishing,Boundaries in SCDMH Peer Delivered Services (Columbia, SC: South Carolina Department of Mental Health, 2009), http://www.state.sc.us/dmh/client_affairs/establishing_boundaries.ppt

How To

Here are some principles for establishing, maintaining, and repairing professional boundaries:

  • Start with the Standards. The Head Start Program Performance Standards (HSPPS) require programs to establish clear roles and responsibilities for staff and set standards of conduct that include attention to confidentiality.

  • Understand the value and importance of professional boundaries. Professional boundaries protect the well-being of children, families, and staff. They define the work that staff and families or supervisors and home visitors do together, honor the differences in the roles they play, and preserve the objectivity of staff.

  • Acknowledge that boundaries can be fuzzy! While professional boundaries are vital, they are not always clear—to children, families, staff, or supervisors. Supervisors and home visitors have a responsibility to define them, and, in relationship-based work, it can be challenging to recognize and maintain them.

  • Start with the personal. Many people have trouble setting boundaries, even at home! Consider how you define and maintain boundaries in your personal life.

  • Celebrate your profession! The supervisors and home visitors in EHS programs are knowledgeable, skilled professionals. By setting and maintaining boundaries, you honor your expertise and the value of your work.

  • Define roles early and often. The supervisor and home visitor in a program are colleagues and may be friends. Together they need to articulate the professional boundaries in the work.

Learn More

Describes competencies for supervisors in a self-assessment format. Aligns with the HSPPS and the Parent, Family, and Community Engagement Framework

This audio conference focuses on the importance of setting and maintaining professional boundaries in work with expectant families and infants, toddlers, and their families. Panelists offer tips and practical strategies for defining roles and maintaining boundaries in Early Head Start programs.