Should teachers be allowed to touch students?

As more schools revise their "no touch" policies between teachers and students, Emma Waverman wonders what all the fuss is about.

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Photo: iStockphoto

A light pat on the back can draw a young child’s attention back to the task at hand, and sometimes a hug will help the hurt go away. But are these gestures appropriate coming from an educator? A teacher’s touch can be encouraging, corrective and, in some cases, inappropriate. But I wouldn’t want my kids in a school that banned it outright.

I’m comfortable with my kids’ teachers giving them a hug goodbye or placing a quieting hand on their shoulder when they are talking too much in class. I think of gentle physical contact as just another tool in a teacher’s arsenal—one that can often go beyond words. But that’s not the way everyone feels. Many school boards have unwritten “no touch” policies, while others have created rules against touching of any kind to appease concerned parents.

Jessica Lahey, a middle school teacher, thoughtfully addressed the issue by writing about the connections between touch and learning in The Atlantic. She asked David J. Linden, a neuroscience professor and author of Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind, about how a teacher’s touch can spur learning. He said:

“It’s not so much that touch is a useful tool for teaching facts and strategies—it’s not as if, when you stroke a student’s arm as they practice algebra, they will learn algebra better. 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.”

According to an Elementary Teacher’s Federation union newsletter from 2012, the Toronto District School Board has an “unwritten” policy of no touching between teachers and students. The union is unequivocal in their warning to teachers to keep their hands off students:

“There is no safe touch in the relationship between a teacher and a student no matter how innocent or well-meaning your intentions. You cannot anticipate either the reaction or interpretation of the child or their parent. The stress on a member who faces an allegation cannot be overstated. Don’t put yourself at risk. The only safe place for your hands is in your pockets.”

In our super-vigilant helicopter culture, the tendency for teachers to touch a student may indeed be waning. But two elementary teachers I spoke to are not allowing political correctness to stand in the way of sending positive messages to their students. My friend is a kindergarten teacher, and her teaching partner called her out for her propensity to dole out hugs to crying children. Her answer was that she was making an informed choice, and takes into account the child, the parents and the situation before embracing a child. She believes that children need to be touched, to feel comforted and safe.

A male teacher I spoke to said that he would hate to see the day where any physical contact between teachers and students were banned, saying that for some students a rewarding pat on the back may be the most reassurance they get that day. The zeal to protect our students from inappropriate touching may be costing them important lessons as well. What do we lose when we divide people from each other? Is the sense of security we gain worth it?

I ask these questions as the parent of a daughter who went to a nursery school where one of the teachers was charged with inappropriate actions towards an older student. So I understand the fear. But I prefer to be an optimist and know that my kids’ teachers have their backs, literally. Teachers aren’t just teaching our kids mathematics, they are teaching them a little bit about what it is to be human. And human touch is an important part of that equation.

Do you think teachers should be allowed to touch students? 

Emma Waverman is a writer, blogger and mom to three kids. She has many opinions, some of them are fit to print. Read more of her articles here and follow her on Twitter @emmawaverman.

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