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Personal Space

Photo of child and teacher exploring personal space

Personal space is all about how close you can come to people in different situations without making them feel uncomfortable. The rule about personal space can be very difficult for some children to understand as it is a rule that is unwritten and unspoken.

There are different rules for different situations, like keeping a certain distance away from others when standing in line, or knowing that you can be closer to some people than to others.

Many children learn about the rules of personal space without actually being taught. However, for some children, the rule about personal space is unclear. These children might be accused of crowding others because they stand or sit too close. On the other hand, some children might want more personal space than we typically expect and get upset when they feel that others are invading their space.

Helping your Child Respect Others’ Personal Space

As a parent, teacher or early childhood professional, you can help your child learn about personal space using the following ideas.

  1. Talk about it

    Start by talking to your child about the specific skill. Ask him questions like:

    “How close to other people should you stand or sit? Show me.”

    “How does it feel when someone stands too close to you?”

    “Are there times when it is OK to stand very close to other people?”

  2. Teach

    Teach your child a rule that will help him understand and use the skill. A Social Script can be helpful at this stage. It is a way of teaching children how to behave in specific social situations. It might include suggestions of specific things your child can say or do in response to the social situation.

    Note: Depending on your child’s skill level, you can write a Social Script using words only, or you can add pictures or photographs to help describe each step.

    Here is an example of a Social Script written to help a child learn how to “respect other people’s personal space”:

    When I am talking to someone, I should not be in their personal space.

    I should stay one arm’s length from people when I am taking to them.

    I should keep my hands to myself when I am talking to them.

    Sometimes it is OK to be closer than one arm’s length to a person. These times are when it is crowded or when the other person is a close friend or family member.

    Review and practice the script at least once a day with your child, especially when you first introduce it. As your child begins to understand and use the new skill, you can practice the script less often and refer back to it to remind him what to do in specific situations. It is not a good idea to try using the Social Script while the situation is happening. Instead, review it at the beginning of the day and then, when the situation actually occurs, you can remind your child of the strategies he has learned.

  3. Role play

    Role-playing consists of acting out various social interactions that children would typically encounter. Puppets or other toys can also be used as “actors” in the role-play. Role playing teaches children the actual words they can say and the things they can do in specific situations. It also gives children an opportunity to practice these new skills with their peers.

    In the beginning, you should play all the ‘parts’ to show your child what he can do or say in certain situations. You can keep him interested by using characters from his favourite television shows. Be sure to speak in an animated voice and use words that your child can understand. Try to act out situations with both positive and negative responses, as this will help your child understand that other children are not always willing to share or play with him. Here are some ideas on using role-playing to teach children listening skills.

    • Model the skill – Two or more adults model a situation in which one asks the other to join him/her in play. The specific phrases and behaviours that your child needs to learn are modeled.
    • Select role players – At first, it is best to have older children or ones who are more experienced at the skill do the role-play and have your child watch and comment. If possible, give all interested children a turn to do the role-play. It is especially important that your child who is learning the skill has a turn to be part of the role-play.
    • Children do the role-play – A small group does the role-play and the other children watch and comment. After seeing a few examples, your child can be part of the role-play, he should play many different parts in the role-play.
    • Provide feedback – Everyone can give feedback to the role-players. Remember, you are modeling how to give positive feedback. Give specific, positive feedback to all children involved in the role-play. For example, “I liked how Joshua asked Amelie if he could use some of her crayons.”
  4. Reinforce

    Tell your child that you will be watching for this skill for a week. Reinforce your child when you see him respecting other people’s personal space and remember to label the behaviour that you want to see.

    “That’s great, Mohammed! You are standing one arm’s length from Sandra.”

  5. Review

    Talk about the skill for a few minutes each day so that it is fresh in your child’s mind. This also helps him understand the importance of social skills. You can also point out how other people maintain personal space when you and your child are in different environments (e.g., in line at the grocery store, at the doctor’s office, at school).

    When children are taught the unwritten rules about personal space, they will become more aware of how their behaviour (such as crowding or touching) affects others. When you clearly teach them how to respect other people’s personal space, you create a more pleasant environment where everyone can work, play, and learn comfortably. Here are some tips to help you be most successful:

    BE PATIENT – Some children might need more reminders, more support, and more time to learn and use the skill.

    BE CONSISTENT – Make sure that you and any other adults in your child’s life have the same expectations of the child.

    BE POSITIVE – Remember to look for your child using the skill and reinforce him as much as possible.

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