This week’s Behavior Matters looks at how you can use body language to support and encourage students


Personal space, defined by the Oxford Dictionary of English as “The physical space immediately surrounding someone, into which any encroachment feels threatening to or uncomfortable for them” is often thought of solely in terms of negative behavior: “He was invading her personal space.” Personal space, however, can be used as a positive and highly effective strategy in a variety of settings:

  • when reinforcing verbal or non verbal praise
  • when demonstrating to an individual that you are listening to them and paying attention

Clearly, if the intention is to invade the personal space of an individual, then that invasion will be perceived as negative, or even threatening behavior. The practical tips in this article will give you some suggestions of how to make positive use of personal space in order that it will not be viewed as threatening, but more as supportive, encouraging and non-threatening. For the majority of people, personal space lies somewhere in the area between their fingertips and elbow of their outstretched arm, approximately 40 to 90 centimeters. This distance may vary depending on many issues:

  • If the two people involved know each other.
  • If they are friendly towards one another.
  • The context of the involvement.
  • The perceived reason for entering the personal space.

Remember also that personal space is not just an area in front of an individual. Personal space is all around – from the side and behind. There are many examples of the positive use of personal space that can be readily observed both in schools and generally in society. The modern trend of greeting a close friend is now either the kissing or brushing of cheeks or even giving a friendly hug. Both techniques most certainly use personal space to a positive effect. The once simple handshake has now, among many young people, developed into a linking of hands together with a form of embrace. Again, strong evidence of the positive use of personal space. The above examples may be appropriate among friends and acquaintances, but they would be wholly inappropriate in the classroom between teacher and pupil. It is possible however, to take the concept from these actions and use it in a positive manner in the classroom.

Practical Tips

Possibly the simplest and most regularly used example of making positive use of personal space is physical proximity. This is a particularly effective and non-threatening strategy for managing the student who is both off task and non-disruptive. Simply pausing and standing near to the student (no speaking is necessary) will often be sufficient positive incentive for him or her to get back on task. Remember you are using personal space as a positive technique, therefore your overall body language is of paramount importance. You will most certainly project completely the wrong message if you lean over the student, hands on hips while glaring at them with a disapproving expression! Just a brief pause, close by the student while you are circulating the classroom will often be sufficient.

Proximity praise is also an interesting technique that can prove highly effective in managing off-task or low-level difficult behavior. When you have given an instruction or made a request of the whole class, instead of reprimanding the student who is not following the instruction, try giving verbal (or non-verbal) praise to a student who is following and who is seated close by the non-conforming student. Linking the positive use of personal space with other behavior management techniques is perhaps the best and most powerful use of such a strategy. When giving recognition of good work or behavior it can be far more effective if you use the following simple technique. Wherever possible when you are giving verbal praise, and sometimes non-verbal praise in the form of a privately understood signal (thumbs up, etc), it should be linked to personal space. Rather than remaining stationary, behind your desk, or with another group of students, take the opportunity to move towards the student you are directing the praise at. Use an area of their personal space when giving the verbal recognition. So the situation may look something like this: You notice a student who is generally off task, but at that particular moment he or she is on task and working well. The temptation is always to think: “If he is not bothering me, then I won’t bother him!” and leave him to it. Use the personal space to register your approval and give a positive message to the student.

  • Move in towards the student, remembering speed and appropriate body language.
  • When you are within the student’s personal space give your verbal message while touching a part of their table gently with your fingertips.

Do not remain in the space. The technique relies on both the verbal message, physical contact with the table and your fleeting presence. The technique is powerful and demonstrates a feeling of sincerity and individuality to the recipient.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in May 2008

About the author: Dave Stott has nearly 30 years’ teaching experience including seven years as a headteacher. He has worked in mainstream and special schools and Local Authority Behavior Support Services, and is now a writer, consultant and trainer.