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Discussing Physical Boundaries with Special Needs Children

By Laura Wise

Special needs children benefit from instruction on maintaining physical boundaries in regard to people and objects. Teachers and aides can help these students learn to respect the personal space of others, avoid being physically aggressive, and to appropriately utilize objects within the classroom.

Some of the physical boundaries special needs children often have trouble grasping on their own include knowing how to maintain personal space when talking to others, refraining from using aggression toward others when angry, and understanding how to move within the parameters of a room, building, or other type of environment. Unlike most neurotypical children, who are able to follow these social conventions without much difficulty, special education students often require assistance in the form of discussions, exercises, and activities. Teachers and paraprofessionals can implement specific ideas for introducing the concept of physical boundaries to special needs children.

Common Physical Boundary Issues

Special needs children may experience issues with physical boundaries both at home and at school. Teachers can watch for the following indications that a student may have a problem with observing proper boundaries.

--The student may lean too close to another person's face or grab a person's face while speaking/trying to get attention.

--The student may have difficulty respecting the play or work space of their peers (pulling toys out of another student's hands, picking up another student's belongings without permission, etc.).

--The student may use physical aggression when attempting to communicate frustration or anger toward others (punching, kicking, pushing, etc.).

--The student may have trouble following instructions such as "Do not walk behind the teacher's desk" or "Do not stand on top of the table".

--The student may be inappropriately affectionate with strangers or acquaintances.

Teaching Students About Boundaries

One way in which teachers can help their special education students to learn about how and why maintaining physical boundaries is important is to plan classroom discussions. Teachers can take the opportunity to talk about the importance of personal space by explaining that:

--people can get scared or feel uncomfortable when someone invades their surrounding physical space.

--children may not want to be friends with other children who are aggressive or physically hurtful.

--classroom rules that involve keeping hands off objects or staying within a certain area are in place to ensure that all students stay safe.

Classroom Activities

Children with special needs may also respond well to exercises and activities that focus on the importance of physical boundaries. These exercises, explained in detail by children's author Kristyn Crow of, include:

--drawing a colorful diagram of five concentric circles (like a dartboard) that depicts appropriate boundaries in relationships. The inner-most circle is labeled "family", and extending outward, the remaining circles are labeled "best friends", "friends", "people we've met", and "strangers". Teachers can use this diagram as a guide for explaining which physical boundaries are appropriate within each circle (ex: kissing family members, hugging best friends, shaking hands with acquaintances, not talking to strangers).

--playing "space spin", during which a student holds his or her arms straight out and spins around in a circle. This exercise shows the student how everyone has a "personal space" area that should be respected. Teachers can explain that the "personal space" circle can be made smaller for people whom the student is close to (such as family members).

When effectively teaching about physical boundaries special needs children should know, instructors can help these students to understand the appropriate ways to interact with peers and adults and move within their physical environment. Lessons on boundaries can be used throughout the school years in order to help special education students improve their social skills.