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.