Touch has been an important part of my teaching for the past decade. When I was working as a middle-school teacher, I used touch on a daily basis to both connect with and correct the behavior of my students.
If a student was having trouble focusing, a light touch on the shoulder served as a gentle reminder to get back to work. When parents divorced, grandmothers fell ill, or guinea pigs died, hugs served as a tangible reminder of my emotional support on an otherwise anxious or upsetting day.
Recently, I changed jobs, and have become much more hesitant to reach out and use touch as a teaching tool. I currently teach English and writing at an inpatient drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility, and many of my adolescent students have endured sexual and physical abuse. Consequently, I am acutely aware of the power of touch—both to heal and to harm—and have been thinking quite a bit about the complex emotional messages my well-meant expressions of appropriate social touch could convey to my students.
Positive student-teacher relationships are an important part—I would argue the most important part—of effective teaching, so I wanted to understand the role touch plays in those relationships and how other teachers use this tool in their classrooms.
To understand the basic neurological relationship between touch and learning, I called David J. Linden, a neuroscience professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the author of Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind. I asked Linden what role touch plays in learning.
"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," Linden said. "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."
The sensory experience of touch can’t be divorced from the emotional experience, he explained, because the way humans perceive touch depends on its social context. An arm thrown over your shoulders by a domineering boss is perceived very differently than an arm thrown around your shoulders by a trusted friend, for example. "The sensation is perceived differently because the emotional touch centers in the brain are receiving signals about social nuances, even if the touching is identical," and these nuances, Linden explained, are one of the reasons it’s so hard for schools to create rules governing touch.
When I asked Linden about the move toward no-touch policies in schools, he said, "Anytime you make a rule, you have to think about what’s lost, and what’s lost when touch is forbidden is important." He went on to describe his children’s school, where touch is not only allowed, it’s also an essential part of the school’s philosophy. "One of the things I love about my kids' school is that the kids are all over each other," he said. "The school made it clear from the first day that if we don’t want our children to be touched, this isn’t the school for them. I’m grateful for that, because my children have been raised to understand that touch isn’t just for sex, it’s an affiliative thing you do to bond with other human beings."
I asked Linden about the risks inherent in reaching out to touch students who have been sexually or physically abused and my desire to comfort and connect with my own students in a way that won’t further traumatize them. "Appropriate social touch in school is vitally important to children who do not experience it at home, or for children who are abused. It’s important for kids to realize that there is a role for social touching that isn’t abuse, that’s simply a normal and healthy means of bonding with other human beings."
Cheryl Rainfield, author of several young-adult novels based on her own childhood abuse, agreed with Linden and explained why the social touch her teachers gave her as a child and teen was so important to her survival:
As an incest and torture survivor who was also bullied at school, I had no safe place—not at home, and not at school. But I had kind, compassionate teachers who knew I'd been abused, and all of them gave me safe touch. It's part of what kept me from killing myself. I desperately craved safe touch. I was starved for it on a deep soul level. I was never touched except when I was being abused, raped, and tortured, so to get it from these teachers in a safe way—a touch on the arm, a rub on my head, a hug—met such a deep need to be treated with kindness, love, warmth and humanity, and it helped offset some of the abuse, torture, and cruelty. When I hear people saying that children shouldn't be touched in school situations, it makes me sad, and it worries me. If a child doesn't have any safe touch in their lives, it's easy to get disconnected from people and life, and to not want to live at all, and a compassionate teacher may be the only safety and caring a child has in their life.
For a teacher’s perspective on the role of touch in the classroom, I called Doug Lemov. His book, Teach Like a Champion 2.0, contains of the most well-reasoned and insightful observations I’ve ever read on the craft of teaching.
Despite some initial misgivings about the sensitivities involved, Lemov agreed to speak on the record because he feels touch is not just an essential part of teaching, but an essential part of what it means to be human. "The mark of being in the lowest caste in India is to be called 'untouchable,' so the opposite of that is the naturalness of touch in a classroom, to walk around among your students and let your fingers linger briefly on a shoulder. That is a mark of normalcy."
Lemov acknowledged that the use of touch in the classroom raises the hackles of some educators and school administrators. "It’s sometimes portrayed as disrespectful to touch students. The kids will say, "You can’t touch me," and the adults will agree, but I feel like it’s disrespectful not to be willing to touch students. It says you are afraid of them or think there’s something wrong with them. I believe that it is normal for caring to involve touching in limited, circumscribed ways—a shoulder or elbow, only—to communicate a variety of things, most of them positive, some of them corrective, and it’s counterproductive to circumscribe that from the vernacular of teachers."
Lemov described his process of making touch a normal part of his classroom culture, a process he says has to happen before a teacher tries to use touch to correct students' behavior:
If you want to be able to touch students to correct their behavior, you have to establish the normalcy of touch as a positive, or at the very least a nuanced teaching tool that can convey a wide variety of emotions, way before you get to using it to correct students. So, a week before you tap someone on the shoulder and ask gently to sit up, you practice walking around the classroom, lightly putting your fingers on a students' shoulder as you walk by them in a warm way, to normalize it, like, "Of course I touched you," so that when a student says, "you can’t touch me," it’s almost implausible because touch has been a part of our classroom vernacular for weeks.
Society’s well-intentioned attempts to shelter children from the possibility of inappropriate touching have deprived teachers of an important teaching tool and children of an essential sensory, educational, and developmental experience. The imposition of an invisible no-touch force field around classrooms is misguided and destructive, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children. The organization issued a clear policy statement instructing that schools and other organizations "should not institute no-touch policies to reduce the risk of abuse" and stating that "no-touch policies are misguided efforts that fail to recognize the importance of touch to children’s healthy development."
Every child is different, with varying needs for social touch. Some children, such as those on the autism spectrum, may have a much lower need for touch, while other children may require frequent, close contact. Fortunately, teachers are well-equipped to adapt to the diverse needs of the 20 or 30 different children in their care, and, save for parents, may be in the very best position to understand how, when, and in what contexts children should experience the benefit of touch.