The Power of Touch

“Touching students… Just don’t do it.”

This was the advice offered by many people in both placement schools and at University during my initial  teacher training (ITT). I understand why. Indeed, as ITT coordinator at my existing school I offer the same advice. However, with any advice that is black or white my gut instinct twinges and I hear myself say, “Yes… but, not ALWAYS!…”

Although, as new arrivals into the teaching profession, not touching student comes as sage advice. However after eight years working in schools and reflecting back on my own experience of teachers, I find myself returning to the importance of teachers being able to effectively communicate and would argue that touch is a key part of communication.

Outside education, touch is an integral part of courtship, comfort and childcare, it has a key role in all our lives and can add emphasis to what we want to communicate. Yet as educators we are told that the sensible thing to do is not touch students, ever. I question if this advice is always helpful in the role training of educators.

When students have achieved, alongside verbal praise I will occasionally offer them a high five. As I read that last sentence back, it does indeed sound like intensely cringe worthy behaviour from a teacher, but context and prior relationships is everything. I don’t force them to hi five me, but 99% of the time they do. The sense of accomplishment, pride and reward is clearly visible in their reaction.  Walks down the corridor at break, lunch or afterschool I am often met with requests to cuff or hi five students. Not prompted by myself, and more frequently that not, from students I don’t even teach.

Why?

What are these students looking for outside the classroom?

Why is a touch the method of communication?

Haptics refers to the study of communication through touching. Positive emotional reactions can be triggered by touch and this has profound implications for education, motivation and communication.

Generally in the UK, compared to other parts of the world, touching is a far less common part of communication. You may recall the Michelle Obama /Queen Elizabeth media drama that spilled out following Michelle’s touching the back of the Queen. Notice the reaction of the Queen to Michelle’s touch in the video. Welcome or not?


I can’t help feeling that in our sensitivity to political correctness, combined with a blinkered view that we are safeguarding young people, we have lost a potent way to connect with others. Sometimes the simple act of touching someone to show support, encouragement, agreement, sympathy or gratitude can add a warmth to our communication that is otherwise lacking.

I can’t think of a single day when I have not needed to communicate encouragement, agreement, sympathy or gratitude. Although certainly not the only way to do so, touching can add a significant asset to our communication toolbox with students and others. So, should the advice we offer to ITT students always be so back and white?

Perhaps not, but it would only be prudent to illustrate times when touching students can lead to undesirable communication. I recall a time in my second year teaching when I saw a student displaying some low level disruptive behaviour. He had his back to me and I touched his shoulder to draw his attention away from his attempts at disruption to refocus him on his work. His response was to loudly shout out “Don’t touch me!” In one masterful verbal communication he was able to expertly distract me from my attempt to refocus his learning and gain an audience.  At the time, I said nothing but shot him a look that told him I felt he was out of line. Although he cracked on with the work, his response troubled me intensely. The presupposition was that he was alleging was that I was in some way physically abusing him. I made it my business to point this out to him when he didn’t have an audience before I saw him again in class. However, this was obviously a strategy that had worked for him in that past and he was going to use it!

However, the bottom line was that I placed myself in that position by touching him on the shoulder and not using a verbal redirection. Indeed, what if he or another student had experienced darker interactions with adults in the past that prompted his response?

Despite this experience, I still hi five students. I believe that context, the values you communicate to students and the relationship you have with your classes allow you as a professional to judge when a touch will add sincere warmth and encouragement to your communication with students. Perhaps the discriminator should be that touch should be used in a discourse of reward rather than sanction (other than in cases where safety is risked).

Even when used for praise, touch can be used to reinforce boss/subordinate power relations and in most cases it is the “boss” that does the touching. It is quite common (and usually favourably accepted) that a manager touches the back, shoulder or arm of an employee while saying “well done”. However, as the episode of Friends reminds us, the place, site, proximity and strength of that touch is everything!

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