Challenging Behaviors-Personal Space

Okay, I want to prefice this post by telling a quick story:
When I first encountered my first special needs child in my classroom (she was diagnosed with Pervasive Development Disorder-Not otherwised specified or PDD; basically one of many forms of autism). Anyway, my brother works with people of all ages with all sorts of special needs and is very well known in his field; so of course I turned to him for some help. When I asked him what I needed to do he replied, "Follow her lead and start from where she is at developmentally. Sit back and observe and give her the tools she needs. Find how she learns best and start from there." (okay, that isn't word for word, it was over 5 years ago, but it is pretty close). My response (which is exactly word for word), "Okay, but what do I do for her that is different that what I am already doing for everyone else in the classroom." We went back and forth in our conversation until we finally came to the same conclusion: what he does for special needs children is what I do for all young children: take them for who they are, appreciate them for that, and follow their lead in providing learning opportunities for them.

As you know by now, I will do what is best for one individual child, even if I wouldn't do it for all; but I would do the same things for any of them. Does that make sense when you read it? It makes sense when I say it; but looks odd in writing. Maybe I need to record the message.

Now on to today's challenging behavior:

We have a child (let's go with Katie, remember I use different names for confidentiality). Katie likes to have her own space and gets very aggressive in behavior when people come in to the space that she doesn't know or possibly trust. She allows her parents and her teacher to come into her space frequently. The assistant teacher has just recently been able to break this space barrier without her losing control. Some of the other classmates are allowed in her space, but not everyone; actually it's only a rare 2 or 3 that are consistently allowed in. The frustration with the teacher is that she never knows which child will be let in or what is going to make her lose control.

By lose control, the teacher means: pushing them away to throwing things at them. It seems to escalate as it progresses. She'll start with a simple motion or even a disgruntled sound but if the other person doesn't read this clue, then she will escalate until she gets her message across.

I want to note here that there are no stressors in her life that would show cause for her to need her own space. This just seems to be part of her personality. And, though she may have other developmental problems (autism, or other such diagnosis) those haven't been diagnosed nor do they come into play in how to help her; as I mentioned above, it is the same thing I would do for any child.

Katie needs to be able to function in a classroom setting in order to be successful. She is four and will be going to Kindergarten in '09; so there is some work to be done, but it is possible. If Katie can be successful in Kindergarten in a group setting, she will be successful in life. So how do we help her?

First, I would teach all the children about personal space and allowing others into their space as well as how to let other's know to get out of their space. Do some role playing at circle time. Have two children sit in front of everyone very close together. Instruct one child to turn to the other and say, "You are too close to me. I need more space. Please move over." When they move over try a new group of children. This time, the other child doesn't move; instruct the speaking child to move themselves. If you practice it at circle, they will be able to practice it in the classroom. This will also give Katie some visual help in how to better deal when someone doesn't listen or notice her subtle cues. Make sure that Katie is one of the volunteers to practice at circle time.

Katie may not join circle, and that's okay. Give her a space just outside of circle if she can handle that, or even set up a quiet activity at the table for her to do during circle. Keep an eye on her, she will be participating just at a distance. I had one child who would sit at the table during circle with some puzzles and books. One day, while asking questions about the book I was reading, he piped up the answer. So, even though she isn't right there, she will be benefiting. If you allow her to join circle when she is ready to handle it, there will be much more success.

Obviously small spaces are a problem as well. If things are getting too crowded at the sensory table, put some of the supplies in a smaller tub at the table. This will allow her to participate but have her own space. And yes, if other children want too do this as well, it is just fine. Maybe as she progresses she will be able to share this smaller tub with one other child.

As the teacher, you also need to be aware of her smaller cues. Can you be with her 100% of the time? No, you have too many other's that need your attention as well. But any successful teacher is able to keep an eye or ear on everything; I call it global awareness: the ability to close your eyes in a classroom and know exactly where every child is and what they are doing and where you need to go first. So, when you begin to see or hear these cues, tell the person: "Sally, Katie is pushing you with her hands, that means you're in her space. Katie, remember to say you are in my space please move." Just as Katie needs to learn these words to use, Sally needs to learn the cues. These are cues that people need in order to be successful. Do you know when a good time to ask your boss for a day off is by her body cues? I'm guessing you do. It's a social skill.

Don't just remind children, remind adults. If your assistant teacher needs it, just mention, "Miss J, I see Katie is pushing your leg away, this is a cue." Or, even the other parents, "Mrs. Smith, Katie is asking you to move away from her chair. Please move, she needs some more space." When Mrs. Smith rolls her eyes or makes a snide comment be sure to call her out on it. "We are teaching all the children to respect every ones space and to read other people's body cues. It's important in our environment that they know that others will respect them."

This situation with Katie will be fixed and pretty easily with very little effort; but it will take time...and space. Allow her to have her own space; we all need our own space. Allow all the children to have their own space.

One last note: Create several spaces in the classroom where children can get away. A refrigerator box to crawl into to get away, a table for one set up in a corner to be able to turn your back on the room and get involved in your own task, large pillows set up in a corner with a personal CD player with headset...

What are some personal space ideas you use at your centers?

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