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Teaching Relationship Boundaries to Kids With Special Needs

by Tanya Konerman

Many children with special needs struggle with boundaries, and the ones that affect their social development most are boundaries on interactions with family members, teachers, other children and strangers. Helping your child recognize limitations will help her strengthen her connections with others while keeping her safe, both physically and emotionally.

Circle Boundaries

All children must learn limits on the appropriate levels of interaction with others. To teach these skills, Marklyn P. Champagne, RN, MSW, and Leslie W. Walker-Hirsch, IMEd, FAAIDD, have devised a method called Circles®. First, talk to your child about the different categories of people with whom she interacts such as family members, close friends, friends, people she knows casually and strangers. Create a visual showing family members are at the heart of the circle by putting this word inside a small circle on paper. Then draw concentric circles going out from this category, one for each category of person she might experience. Use this diagram to talk to her about the appropriate types of behaviors for each category, such as giving hugs and kisses to those in the family circle, but not to those in the strangers circle.

Personal Space

Helping your child learn about the limits of personal space will help her to express her feelings while respecting the comfort level of others. First, have her hold her arms straight out to her sides, as in the game of Airplane, while you stand just beyond arm’s length. Have her begin to turn around slowly. Explain to her that this is how much space she should keep between herself and others, unless the other person is a family member, teacher or close friend who has given permission for her to stand closer. Cue her to remember the concept of personal space in new situations by saying “Airplane” as a reminder.

Non-Verbal Cues

Facial expressions, body posture and tone of voice are three ways we communicate feelings, yet many children with special needs have trouble reading these “hints.” Help your child learn how by practicing various expressions, stances or tones of voice and helping her decode your meaning. Have her practice her new skills by watching a TV program with no sound, then asking her what the people onscreen might be feeling based on their expressions and movements.

Situational Adjustments

Teaching your child boundaries is not a one-time event, but an ongoing lesson she will need to practice every day. One popular way to help her is through your own version of Social Stories™, a method developed by Carol Gray, Director of The Gray Center for Social Learning and Understanding and used with children and adults with all levels of social skills. With this method, your child hears or reads a story, often with pictures, which is geared toward teaching her about a specific social environment or behavior and possible appropriate responses. The story can cover anything from visiting the library to acceptable behavior while eating out. You can create it on your own or find great samples online.

About the Author

Based in Bloomington, Ind., Tanya Konerman is a writer/editor with more than 20 years of experience. Her work has appeared in "At-Home Mother," "Parents," "Career Woman," "Employment News," "Bloomington Business Network," "Bloomington Monthly" and the "Herald-Times." She also worked in advertising and public relations for 10 years. Konerman holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and psychology from Indiana University.

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