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Educator: Should Teachers Be Able to Touch Their Students?

Educator: Should Teachers Be Able To Touch Their Students?

When it comes to connecting with students in the classroom, some teachers may find it difficult to decide whether or not "touch" is a good idea. Whether it is a hug or a pat on the back, touch could be a gentle reminder for students that educators can provide more to their lives than just teaching.

For Jessica Lahey, English teacher, touch has been an "important" part of her 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," she said in an article on TheAtlantic.com.

In her article, Lahey said that "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.

Lahey wrote that positive teacher-student 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," she wrote.

According to Lahey, Linden 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."

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.

Lahey wrote that when she asked Linden about the "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," she wrote. "'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.'"

Read the full story and comment below. 

Article by Kassondra Granata, Education World Contributor

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