Proxemics - Understanding Personal Space

Helping Children with Disabilities Understand Appropriate Use of Space

Children in personal space. Getty Images/Sesameelis

Proxemics are the study of personal space.  First introduced in 1963 by Edward Hall who was interested in studying the impact of individual personal space on non-verbal communication.  In the years since, it has brought the attention of cultural anthropologists and others in the social sciences to the differences between different cultural groups and its impact on population density. 

Promexics are also important for social interaction between individuals but are often difficult for individuals with disabilities to understand, especially individual with autism spectrum disorders. 

Since how we feel about personal space is partly cultural (taught through constant interactions) and biological, since individuals will respond viscerally, it is often difficult for individuals with disabilities to understand this important part of the "Hidden Curriculum," the set of social rules that are unspoken and often untaught but generally accepted as the "standard of acceptable behavior."

Typically developing individuals will actually experience anxiety in amygdala, a portion of the brain which generates pleasure and anxiety.  Children with disabilitieis, especially autism spectrum disorders, often don't experience that anxiety, or their level of anxiety is high over any unusual or unexpected experience.  Those students need to learn when it is appropriate to feel anxious in another person's personal space.

Teaching Proxemics or Personal Space

Explicit Teaching:  Children with disabilities often need to be taught explicitly what personal space is.

  You can do that by developing a metaphor, like the Magic Bubble or you can use a real hula hoop to define the space which we call "personal space.

Social stories and pictures can also help understand appropriate personal space.  You might stage and take pictures of your students in appropriate and inappropriate distances from another.

  You might also ask the principal, another teacher and even a campus policemen to show examples of appropriate personal space, based on relationships and social roles (i.e., one does not enter the personal space of an authority figure.)

  You can demonstrate and model approaching personal space by having students approach you and use a noise maker (clicker, bell, claxon) to signal when a student enters your personal space.  Then give them the same opportunity to be approached. 

Model, as well, appropriate ways to enter another's personal space, either with a handshake, a high five, or a request for a hug. 

Practice:  Create games that will help your students understand personal space. 

Personal Bubble Game:  Give each student a hula hoop, and ask them to move about without overlapping another's personal space.  Award every student 10 points, and have a judge take points away each time they enter another's personal space without permission.  You can also award points to students who enter another's personal space by asking appropriately. 

Safety Tag: Put several hula hoops on the floor and have one student be "it."  If a child can get into a "personal bubble" without being tagged, they are safe.

  In order to become the next person to be "it" they need to get to other side of the room (or a wall in the playground) first.  This way, they are paying attention to "personal space" as well as being willing to exit that "comfort zone" to be the next person who is "it." 

Mother May I:  Take this old traditional game and make a personal space game out of it:  i.e. "Mother, May I enter John's personal space?"  etc.