Although we all have boundary issues to some degree, most of the time we’re able to maneuver ourselves into our comfort zone. When we can’t, we might get a feel for the anxiety some students feel when anyone unfamiliar gets close to them.

Physical contact:
Suppressing our natural tendency to express feelings with touch is challenging for most of us. We may never feel right about not touching during communication, despite years of practice. Too bad. Get control of it or get another job.
Humans have lost an unhealthy amount of social interaction during our evolution away from troupes where copious grooming was enjoyed. Our transition from tribal families to modern industrial societies alienates us further. It’s no wonder emotional distress afflicts so many of us.

Although the area from shoulder to elbow is generally considered a safe contact area, we can’t assume physical contact of any kind will be acceptable for a student we don’t know. We might want to convey approval or reassurance, and a “pat on the back” may seem natural to us, but approval should be verbal or signaled unless we’re certain they appreciate the contact.
Schools develop subcultures, influenced by both the societies the students come from and administration policies. Some schools have a “no physical contact” rule for everyone. At the other end of the spectrum, hugs abound among students and staff. We are guests, expected to adapt to whatever subculture we find ourselves in. Being authority figures in someone else’s subculture presents a special challenge.

I think we all know that physical contact for control is only appropriate when safety is an immediate concern, but if not: it is.

Boundary issues and proxemics:
When assessing a student’s personal space comfort zone, we should ignore any perceived cultural clues and focus on the individual. Our default distance should leave ample space, though classroom size often interferes. If they seem uncomfortable with our proximity, respect that. If they get closer, and you’re comfortable, that’s the best distance—generally.

Some students have special boundary issues: they either can’t stand anyone close or they don’t understand what an appropriate distance is.

If we’re sensitive, we’ll perceive a student’s discomfort with the former, and back off until they seem comfortable. Often, they’ll appreciate a straight-forward question. “Am I too close?” “Do you prefer more distance?”

Students who have been sexually abused are likely to be extra sensitive to older males’ encroachment. We won’t know a student’s history, and in the short time we’re with them it doesn’t really matter—sensitivity to individual reactions is the key.

Most of us like more distance from someone behind us than in front, so it’s best to approach a student at their desk from the front. Try not to stop moving too close behind a student. Hovering should be avoided except selectively as proximity control. Length of time, chronemics, may be as important as how close we are.

Keeping in mind where our posterior ends up while helping someone at their desks is a courtesy which will be appreciated by those behind us.

The other boundary issue which requires our special attention is when it’s lacking. We might be given a heads-up from other staff in a Special Ed class, but not always. Also, the student may be mainstreamed into our class with no mention of this concern. It helps to recognize and deal appropriately with this emotional and/or mental difference.

Women subs might be recipients of the “bosom dive” from very immature students, particularly boys. This can seem like an ordinary, though enthusiastic, hug due to the height difference, but needs to be discouraged for their socialization skills. New people may be targeted because we haven’t established a boundary yet.

Diverting or, if we’re not quick enough, converting the hug to a side-hug and keeping it short may be effective. Clinging almost always needs to be discouraged, ideally with sensitivity to feelings of rejection. We might not know if autism is a factor, so a concrete statement covers a wider range of needs.

Student you’ve never seen before tries to give you a hug. Divert to side hug and/or move back.
“Thank you for the greeting, but when we don’t know someone, we have to get permission before we hug them.” (Or substitute “you” for “we”).
They may then ask permission, and a judgment call is needed. We’re teaching social skills so this isn’t about us personally, it’s who we represent.
“Thank you for offering, but I think we need to get to know each other better first.”
“Thank you for asking. Yes, I would like a hug.” Side, short and sweet.
“Thank you for asking, but I’m not a person who likes hugging until I know someone really well.”

A hug request from them when parting means they’ve absorbed what we said and should be reinforced in some way. Although students’ needs are our priority, our own comfort level may be legitimately considered.