Teaching Personal Space to Special Needs Students

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Some students with special needs really struggle to understand what it means to give other people personal space and take the space they need. This lesson gives you some ideas about teaching personal space to these students.

What It Means to Take Space

Ms. Roberts is a fifth grade teacher in an inclusive classroom, and she loves her class this year. She has students with so many different strengths and learning styles! However, she also notices that several of her students with special needs are struggling in the group setting because they do not have a strong understanding of personal space, or the physical distance different people need from others to manage and thrive. Some of Ms. Roberts' students with special needs get close to others in ways that make other students uncomfortable consistently. Conversely, some of Ms. Roberts' students with special needs get easily overwhelmed by proximity to others but do not know how to manage this stressor. Ms. Roberts decides to devote herself to helping her students with special needs learn more about personal space.

Visualize a Bubble

Many of Ms. Roberts' students with special needs are visual learners, those who benefit from images and graphics as they learn about new ideas and concepts. She teaches all of her students that when they are moving through space, they can picture a bubble around themselves. She even has some of her students draw pictures of themselves in bubbles! Ms. Roberts explains that everyone's bubble is a slightly different size, but that everyone feels uncomfortable when their bubble is popped. Therefore, it is their responsibility as community members to respect one another's bubbles. Both the imagery of the bubble and the related language help Ms. Roberts' students with special needs.

Body Language Clues

Ms. Roberts also knows that some students with special needs, particularly those with social challenges and sensory challenges, are not naturally attuned to body language. Therefore, she takes the time to explicitly teach them about the body language clues others sometimes use to show that they need more space. In separate lessons, Ms. Roberts uses photographs, videos and role plays to teach the following concepts related to body language:

  • If someone is slowly backing away from you, they probably need more space.
  • If a person is avoiding making eye contact, they may need more breathing room.
  • If you are touching someone and they stiffen, they probably do not want to be touched.
  • If a person has a stiff posture or crossed legs and arms, they may need extra personal space.

Ms. Roberts also stays alert to the body language that people in her class really show when needing or offering personal space, and she uses these examples as springboards for lessons.

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