One of the first things you must learn about all people is personal space. For a child with a behavioral, social, or emotional disorder, personal space will become your ally or your enemy, depending on how well you understand it.
I like to picture an invisible bubble surrounding every person I encounter. These bubbles are different sizes, based on the owner of the bubble. Some people have small personal bubbles: they thrive off of pats on the back, hugs, holding hands, etc. Others own extra-large bubbles: to them, affection is shown through words, giving space, and respecting strict boundaries. Of course many individuals fall somewhere in the middle.
How big is your personal bubble? How close can someone come to you before you begin to feel uncomfortable? Which types of physical touch are calming to you, and which produce anxiety or tension?
Personal bubbles are determined by three main factors: 1. Individual Personality, 2. Culture of Origin, and 3. Past Experience.
This one is pretty straight-forward. Some people are very touchy-feely; others are not. It’s crucial to be aware of a child’s personal bubble space. Watch for non-verbal signs and cues. Often a student who enjoys physical touch will initiate that sort of relationship. Do they often give you hugs throughout the day? Do they want to hold your hand when they are upset or afraid? Do they lean toward you as if for reassurance or comfort?
Others will be the opposite. Do they cringe when you try to pat them on the back, or when you touch their desk? Do they seem to keep their distance? For some students, this is more comfortable. Physical closeness will NOT reassure these children, but will instead trigger anxiety-based behaviors.
The best method is to ask first, and let a child invite you in to his or her bubble. An example of this would be: “You seem upset. Do you want me to sit next to you?” or “If you feel you need a hug, let me know.” or “Will it help for me to give you more space right now?”
Think again of your own personal space, then imagine someone much bigger than yourself invading that space. That is how a child feels when we invade their bubble!
Culture of Origin
We live in an extremely diverse society. This is both a gift and a challenge, as it is natural for humans to place their own cultural expectations on people around them. We must remember that we do not know the cultural background of each new person we meet.
Children grow up in two layers of culture: the culture of society, and the culture of family.
Societies around the world view personal space differently. In some places, it is normal and expected to shake someone’s hand when you meet them; in others, a kiss on the cheek is an everyday experience; in still other cultures, even looking straight into the eyes of a new acquaintance may be an insult. If you are working with a child of another nationality, take time to research that nation. What are their cultural norms?
One cultural piece that I see overlooked often is the touching of hair/heads. Many, many people around the world–and especially African-Americans–consider hair as an intimate part of the body. It can be belittling and insulting to stroke a child’s hair or pat a child on the head. ALWAYS ASK FIRST, and respect the child’s response! Understand that certain parts of the body hold different meanings based on where a person is from.
The second layer of culture is that of family. Some families are more physically affectionate than others. A child who is used to getting high-fives or pats on the back at home may expect the same from you as a natural expression. On the other hand, a child who is used to only receiving verbal praise at home, or who is less connected to certain family members, may expect only verbal praise from you. Again, the way to avoid confusion is simply to know the child, and to ask first: Can I give you a high-five for that?
Unfortunately, many children in today’s world have experienced more than they deserve. Even at very young ages, many have been exposed to death, violence, physical abuse, sexual abuse, trauma, divorce, and much more. All of these circumstances have a massive effect on a child’s mind and how they view their world.
Although this is the saddest aspect of “the bubble theory” to consider, it is also the most important. It is so easy to act in a way that will trigger a child’s traumatic memories. Standing a certain way, using a certain tone of voice, touching a certain part of their body. For example, you may tap a child on the arm; this may have been a place where a family member struck them, a sexual perpetrator first caressed them, or their first spot of impact in a serious car accident. Be aware of what you’re doing and how a child is reacting. Again, always ask.
If I can stress one thing over and over, it’s this:
A CHILD’S NO MEANS NO.
If you are engaging in horseplay, a game of tag, a dance break, a teaching moment, a disciplinary moment–IT DOES NOT MATTER. If a child says no, it means no. Failing to respect that “no” is continuing the cycles that are triggering this child. Disregarding their “no” shows them that they cannot trust you, and that their consent is not valuable, when in actuality, it is.
When in doubt, adopt a “hands-off” policy. There are many other ways to show children that you care.
Ask questions. Be observant. Get to know the children in your life. Listen to them. Show them that you are a truly safe place.
Respect the bubbles!