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Students’ Personal Space


Over the past two years, I’ve had three boy students in various classes (of different ethnicities) who all had issues with me “always checking up on them.”

In my classroom, I am constantly moving around, kneeling down looking at student work, trying to be helpful, checking-in. I also tend to use “touch,” primarily with boys — a quick tap on the shoulder, a high-five, etc. I don’t think, though, I’ve “checked-in” with these boys that much more than I have with others — maybe a little bit, because they seemed to find the work a little more challenging.

In each case, I asked our extraordinary counselor (I haven’t asked her if she’s comfortable with me writing her name here, so I’ll leave it blank until I get her permission) to meet periodically with them and to help them and me figure out how we could work together more effectively. I tell ya’, it’s a gift to have one counselor dedicated to only the three hundred students in our Small Learning Community. We’ve been able to make things better, but it’s never worked out great.

Until now.

Our counselor came to me and, after numerous conversations with students, found the common thread was that none presently had a male adult presence in their lives and that, when they had before, when that male adult was physically close to them it usually resulted in a physical abuse. It wasn’t my “checking-in” with them that was the issue — it was how I was doing it and how close I was physically getting to them.

I recently spoke with one of the students and said I had been speaking with the counselor, and wanted to find out from him how close he was okay with me coming to him to give feedback. I think he was surprised by the question, but we quickly came to an agreement, and it really wasn’t that much farther away than I had been coming. He clearly felt good about the conversation, and has been very receptive to my feedback on his class work since we made that “deal.”

I’ll be sharing this experience with my colleagues, and thought it might be useful for readers to hear it, too. I wonder how often something like this might be the source of tension in classrooms?

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. You’re lucky to have such a good counselor.
    I’ve never had or heard (from co-workers) of problems regarding students’ personal space, but I did have a student -he was 3 at the time- whose reactions worried me. He’d either clutch his toy really hard or cover his face with his arm -as if to guard himself physically- when I’d tell him something about his behaviour in class. During their free-play time he wouldn’t play much with the other kids but he was OK with playing with me, but the games always seemed to involve some fighting between the toy action figures he usually brought from home.

    I told the Head of the school and she said she suspected there was some violence going on at one of his parents’ homes. I was a sub then and there wasn’t much I could do about it, but the memory stuck.

  2. Wow. Would have never considered something so simple being the issue, but it certainly makes sense. I’m glad I read this post. I start student teaching next semester and I’ll have to take this into consideration as I walk around the classroom. It’s a heavy community and this school is in an area of the city that is heavy with enlisted families and single parent families. Not to mention the whole issue with deployments. My military background will come in handy with that, but I appreciate hearing how you took care of this issue.

  3. Thanks for sharing this. A sign of a good teacher is being able to understand that there is usually an underlying cause to an unusual behaviour. Kudos to getting your counselor involved as well. You’re very lucky to have a counselor able and willing to work as a partner with you. I’ll be keeping your experience in the back of my mind as I interact with my students.

  4. this could often be problem in our school. Both with staff and students. My students live in very crowded situations and have much less personal bubble space then you see the general public. So when a child has a history of abuse they will feel threatened by the other students.

    I work with students to get them to understand that they need to leave about a foot and a half between them and the next person. I have X’s on my floor for them to line up on. In the cafeteria I make them leave a square of floor between them. It is an on going process.

  5. It works wonders to understand what is behind students’ behaviour in many situations. I feel as though it is really important to gain an understanding of the person behind the student. While it can be difficult at times, I’ve found in my own personal experience that you can get a lot more interest and respect from students if you work to their personality. Being very strict with one student may work to get them on task, yet with another it may cause the complete opposite effect. All of this is part of the teachers’ learning curve! We are constantly learning!

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