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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Personal Space

Q. My 13-year-old son's personal space was invaded by school staff. As a psychiatric nurse with experience in dealing with children and adolescents with behavioral disorders I have taught my son to respect the personal space of others around him.

Recently after a soft drink he opened in the cafeteria spued onto the floor, a male teacher got within inches of his face yelling at him concerning the matter. This incident along with several others has resulted in noticeable negative changes in his attitude and respect toward any teacher.

I believe the act of invading one's personal space is an act of aggression. As I understand the laws in my area concerning the matter, it is legal grounds for reactions of self defense, retaliation and possibly physical assault. I believe this to be an outward sign of total disrespect toward my son or any other student and therefore creates disrespect for the teachers (as adolescents have a tendency to stereotype all teachers by one's poor judgement). It also instills more stress and generates problems with dealing with anger for the adolescent.

Parents and teachers should be positive role models, but how can we teach adolescents to respect each other or authority figures when we set poor examples as discussed herein? I feel teachers should be utilizing as well as teaching appropriate assertiveness instead of aggressiveness in such situations.

I would like the opinion of a professional regarding such matters and resources of research regarding the issue; before proceeding forward with an official complaint toward the teacher. Any advice in the appropriate handling of this incident, by myself would be greatly appreciated.

A. I agree with you: invading another's personal space is an aggressive act, and can certainly be very distressing. However, if your son's attitude or behavior has changed with respect to other teachers, and is part of a pattern of similar incidents, I would also wonder whether your son's situation is more complicated than simply a reaction to the one incident you describe.

If he is showing signs of a more generalized disturbance in mood or behavior, perhaps counseling would be helpful. As far as how to handle the matter of the teacher in question: I can't give you legal advice, but I would suggest proceeding with care, unless you are convinced you have all the facts surrounding this episode.

I don't mean to doubt your son's account--but one person's "yelling in my face" is often another person's "firm verbal intervention". In any case, I certainly agree with the need for both teachers and students to learn ways of managing anger, and showing respect to one another. Bullying, as you know, is a major problem in many schools, and it is not always restricted to the students.

Perhaps, as a mental health professional, you might approach the school administration or guidance counselor and offer to do a workshop on anger management--or on appropriate ways for teachers to respond when they perceive that a student is misbehaving (they may not always be right, of course).

You may want to check out the website www.keystosaferschools.com, which describes a variety of related programs and resources. Another website, www.positivediscipline.com, presents material on helping teachers respond appropriately to students. Developed by Jane Nelsen and Lynn Lott, this site also provides workshops that train teachers in ways of promoting positive discipline.

I hope that some good comes out of this unfortunate episode, and that your son's faith in his teachers is restored.

March 2003

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