We often here the following words, “If you have any problems, then don’t hesitate to get in touch.”
But actually, touch is about the last thing you would do.
In a risk society, contact with children is closely aligned to ‘child abuse’ and this has led to virtually all physical contact with children being a definite no-go and no-no.
As teachers we are engage and interact with children professionally, safely and compassionately and this sometimes involves touch. Perhaps this is a hi-five, a pat on the back, a helping hand, a reassuring tap, a nudge for attention, a comforting hug, using a musical instrument or physical assistance using equipment.
But then again, it is more likely to be none of those because teachers want to protect themselves from any accusation or situation where they could be a teacher one day and not the next. Hands-off is the norm and not just for PE teachers.
Professional unease is a common trait of teachers but it’s not exclusive. Living in a risk society means we all share a general anxiety about hazards and threats and we have become obsessed with risk and safety.
However, schools have become the focus for intense anxiety in relation to child protection and teachers are advised to be super-cautious. Teachers are a group under huge suspicion (Jones, 2003).
Teachers have more to cope with than most as physical contact is seen as the riskiest part of the job. In fact, teaching, especially for male teachers, has become a risky job and many people don’t apply because of the risk anxiety.
Some argue that risks to children have reached a state of paranoia and the ‘avoidance of danger’ mindset has become disproportionate.
The risk of abuse from teachers is minimal but the political, social and cultural systems of schools have now made physical contact truly remarkable and unusual events that can cause some red flags to be raised – welcome to reflexive modernisation (Beck, 1992).
But risk anxiety and a no touch policy is unhealthy for school communities and detrimental to classrooms. Psychologists say that teachers who withhold touch are actually guilty of psychological abuse because it can harm and hinder children’s wellbeing and development. Some children can display ‘touch hunger’ and crave affection (Field, 2001).
Touch is important to us all and it can be an integral part of the teacher-pupil relationship according to psychologists and so we therefore need to change our approach towards physical contact and see it as a positive. Interpersonal touch is powerful non-verbal communication and ten times stronger than verbal communication and “body contact (and gestures) form an important part of the information exchange in our everyday interpersonal experiences” (see Gallace and Spence 2010).
Professor Francis McGlone is the head of the Somatosensory & Affective Neuroscience Group at the School of Natural Sciences & Psychology, Liverpool JM University (www.somaffect.org), and Professor in Neuroscience at LJMU. He says that physical contact with students is absolutely essential for children’s brain development and says that denying it was like “denying a child oxygen.”
The following video is a fascinating insight into his work and looks at a little known group of nerve fibres which are critical to mammalian social development.
If we don’t engage in physical contact then we are creating barriers and distance that isn’t humane because as social beings, touch really matters.
Touch as a sensory modaility has been criminalised in school environments and imbued with negative connotations linked to child abuse.
Physical contact in school has become a dangerous activity and akin to Marco Brambilla’s science fiction film Demolition Man which envisions a futuristic society where every tactile contact is prevented and heavily sanctioned.
Well the future has arrived and we already have ‘Demolition Classrooms’ as expressive touch has effectively been outlawed in schools.
Touch deprived children are a result of out of touch schools focused on risk. Despite all the focus on well being, schools are too afraid to normalise physical contact because the risk society has made touch a taboo.
An anti-touch culture is damaging children’s perception of social affection and harming their physical and mental well being. Humans are social creatures and physical contact is unavoidable and necessarily needed as a fulfillment for psychosocial needs.
Teachers should not be afraid of tactile communication but should embrace the idea that touch is vital for children’s well being. As Owen and Gillentine (2010) note, we need to restore human touch to our classrooms and
teachers must be given the freedom to safely and appropriately touch children; children have a basic need to be touched.
The politics of touch needs to change so teachers aren’t petrified to be hands-on and children can see that touch equates to warmth and compassion not abuse. Instead of seeing their teacher as a threat if they place their hand on a shoulder, they can see this as a sign of encouragement and care.
More than anything else, what touch conveys is ‘I’m an ally, I’m not a threat. Touch puts the recipient in a trusting mental state, and anything you can do to encourage the student to trust the teacher is going to make learning better.