How to Teach Kids About Personal Space as They Return to In-Person Learning

This fall, millions of kids across the country will return to school. Some will be eager to greet their friends with hugs, but not all of these friends will be ready for physical contact.

It’s a learned skill to respect personal space, something that younger children might not have yet — especially after a year at home.

You can create lesson plans to help students better understand the personal space of their peers and how to advocate for themselves. Here is what you need to know.

What is Personal Space?

Before you can teach about personal space, it helps to have an idea of how it is defined. Personal space is the area around us that creates an invisible barrier from others. When that space is invaded, you can feel uncomfortable.

The team at Your Therapy Source says there are four zones of personal space:

  • Intimate space (0-18 inches).
  • Personal space (18 inches to 4 feet).
  • Social space (4 to 10 feet).
  • Public space (more than 10 feet).

Different behaviors are acceptable in each of these zones. For example, a friend whispering in your ear involves letting someone into your intimate space. While a student might not want someone in their personal space, other kids have the right to be in their social space or public space.

Social and cultural factors will impact the personal space level of students, says etiquette writer Debby Mayne. For example, the gender of the person invading the space versus the gender of the person whose space is invaded can determine comfort levels — especially in older students who are more aware of gender differences. The culture or the country that a person is from will also affect how comfortable they feel inviting people into their space.

Your personal space is your safe zone. After a year of remote learning and social distancing, you may find that your personal space needs have changed. Your students might also require more personal space.

“We space ourselves from others so that we feel safe from physical threat and to reduce sensory overload (the closer people are, the more sensory input they provide),” writes Dr. Shawn Burn, psychologist and professor of psychology. “Even in ‘normal’ times, personal space invasions are uncomfortable. Depending on the person and the situation, they can be downright anxiety-provoking and stressful.”

There have been increased calls to teach kids about personal space (and for parents to respect them). Just because a student is young doesn’t mean they are okay with strangers or friends touching them.

“I understand that feelings can be hurt when hugs are denied, but isn’t it better to raise children who feel they’re in charge of their own bodies?” asks playwright Rachel Bublitz. Inspired by this concept of personal space and consent, she developed the show “Presenting: Super Cat and Reptile Robot.” It was created to put kids in charge of their own bodies.

By teaching kids to respect personal space and speak up about their needs, you can help them become advocates for themselves as they get older.

smiling child play alone with blocks; personal space and in-person learning concept

The Pandemic May Affect the Space Needs of Students

Every parent had different policies for social distancing and engagement over the past year. Some students only saw their families for more than 12 months, while others likely attended summer camp or visited friends. You may find some students who have high levels of anxiety when returning to the classroom.

Dr. Melissa Santos is a senior pediatric psychologist at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center and has been working with parents who have germaphobic children. In some instances, the condition may have been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As an educator, you may notice that some of your students exhibit compulsive behaviors to prevent germs or feel anxiety about staying clean. Santos recommends limiting how often you talk about germs and the pandemic as long as students are already following CDC best practices. Kids model their parents and teachers, so if you remain calm and set an example for what is right, then your students will follow.

Kids who are scared of germs might want more personal space while also feeling like they are left out. They might want to hold hands with friends during a game of Red Rover but worry about the spread of germs.

“I’m working with kids who are super conflicted,” says child psychologist Dr. John Duffy, author of “Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety.” “They don’t want to miss anything, they don’t want to seem weird, and yet they are very focused on fear of transmission. And there isn’t much space for them to express that.” He says the number of his patients experiencing OCD-like symptoms has tripled during the pandemic.

By learning about personal space, kids can create their own body autonomy without spreading anxiety or feeding into their fears. They can clearly state what they feel comfortable with from the start of the school year.

“Reducing anxious behaviors associated with COVID-19 is trickier than overcoming other phobias because of social pressure, social responsibility, laws, and the vast number of people living with fear and/or doing anxious behaviors in public,” says psychotherapist Ken Goodman. “Negative feedback loops maintain a system and can occur across all types of systems on a micro and macro level, including with the coronavirus.”

This is why it is important to manage COVID-19 fears on a classroom level. If a few kids have high levels of anxiety around it, then their peers will pick up the fear and take it on themselves.

group of children color independently; personal space and in-person learning concept

Activities to Teach Kids About Personal Space

It is possible to teach kids about personal space from the kindergarten and pre-K levels through high school. Consent is something that children will need to learn as they grow older, both in how to give it and ask for it. You can introduce the concept of personal space through these activities.

If you don’t already, the team at Brain Balance Centers encourages using carpet squares to teach personal space. Have students sit on their own carpet square during group activities. Challenge them to stay on their carpet squares throughout the activity (you can even make a game of it). This teaches students how to identify their personal space and the spaces of others.

Donna Miazga, speech pathologist and creative director at Badger State Speechy, suggests using a personal space target to discuss how you can get close to different people. In this case, the student is at the center (you can draw a bullseye with a picture of the student in the middle of the target). The first ring is family members — people the student can hug and get close to. The next ring is friends, then other students and teachers, then acquaintances. Strangers fall outside of the ring. This target shows how it is okay to interact with people close to you, but it’s not okay to hug strangers or even touch people who are just acquaintances.

You can also turn personal space discussions into a game. The bloggers at Socially Skilled Kids suggest a “red light/green light” style game where one student moves towards another until the other gives them the red light. This activity demonstrates how each student has their own personal bubble and limits how close others can get. What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another.

Antoinette Steyn at EQ4Kids encourages parents and teachers to give students a “cue word” whenever someone is about to break into their personal space. This could be as simple as saying “personal space,” but it alerts the other student that they might need to back up. This is a nice way for students to let people know that they need more room.

There are also different types of media you can use to introduce the concepts of personal space and consent. Teacher Sylvia Crunden, author of “Please Don’t Pop My Bubble!”, saw how clearly her book resonated during the COVID-19 pandemic, when parents had to explain to their children that it wasn’t okay (or safe) to get close to others. Her book teaches kids about the personal bubble and what it means to invade it. It also addresses what kids can do if someone ‘pops their bubble’.

“It’s OK to say, ‘You’re popping my bubble but I can use my words and we can still be friends,’” she explains. This book is written for kids from age three to fourth grade. It’s a good way to discuss space in the classroom.

Alessia Santoro, an editor at PopSugar, also created a list of books about consent that are directed at kids. Titles include: “Miles is the Boss of His Body,” “Don’t Hug Doug,” and “Personal Space Camp.”

small child is too close to an older child; personal space and in-person learning concept

Introducing Digital Personal Space

If you work with older students, you may want to set aside some time to discuss digital personal space, a relatively new concept developed because of the “always-on” nature of the internet. Digital personal space is the process of creating online boundaries for yourself. It means setting hours when you won’t check notifications and determine what information will and won’t get shared online.

“Today we increasingly live in cyberspace, which has no physical, personal dimension to it,” says Michael Graziano, professor of neuroscience and psychology at Princeton University. “It’s so much easier online—when you’re not in or near someone’s personal space—to fire off insults or to be incredibly undiplomatic or destructive.”

Teens often have their digital personal space invaded which can involve everything from cyberbullying to peer pressure to be online late into the evening.

“Teens feel pressure to participate in their physical world and the online world every day,” says psychotherapist Barb Shepard. “When you pick up your phone, you’re bombarded with notifications of all kinds: friend requests, likes, comments, and fast-disappearing photos through various apps that all require an immediate response.”

After a year of remote learning, your students likely understand the pressure that comes with having an online presence. Now may be a good time to talk about setting digital boundaries and online personal space.

Almost everyone has had their space invaded without their consent. This often occurs in innocent, accidental ways — like someone bumping into you at the grocery store or standing too close when talking to you. However, these interactions are uncomfortable and sometimes unsafe. By teaching students how to ask others to take a step back you empower them to protect their bodies and emotional health without hurting those around them.

Images by: kaew6566/©, lightfieldstudios/©, CDC, klimkin