You can’t care for kids unless you touch them

Under new guidelines, teachers can be chastised for patting a boy on the head or for putting a plaster on a girl’s knee. A stirring new book says these mad anti-touch measures are killing the spirit of teaching and caring.

Josie Appleton

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I cannot remember whether my teachers at school touched me. They must, I suppose, have held my arm to show how my hockey swing could be improved, or moulded a wrist to demonstrate violin vibrato. There must have been pats on the head or shoulder for good work, playful clips for cheek. You would have noticed touch if it was ‘pervy’, but nobody thought much about everyday normal touch.

Such unconsciousness would now be deemed inappropriate, verging on negligent. The question of how teachers touch children is a subject of intense regulation and scrutiny, and knowing how to touch appropriately is as important as knowing your subject curriculum.

In Britain, there are now precise guidelines on what, exactly, qualifies as ‘safe’, ‘secure’, or ‘acceptable’ touch. One nursery has a four-step ‘toileting policy’, to be enacted if a child soils themselves (the policy started with calling the parents and asking them to come and change the children, and failing that, gaining parental consent for changing and enquiring about the child’s allergies). Another organisation recommended ‘proper training’ for teachers in the restraint technique of ‘leading a student by the hand or arm’.

Staff are given lists of no-go behaviour (‘don’t place bobbles or clips in children’s hair’), and special techniques for avoiding touch (‘If in doubt, put hands in pockets’). Other guidelines list the parts of the body that may be touched, and in which manner and circumstances. One said that children could ‘touch a child from the shoulders up’, another that ‘staff may place a hand on a child’s shoulder as a means of congratulation, but not for any sustained period’; yet another specified only ‘light’ touch on the shoulder.

In the new book Don’t Touch, Manchester University academics Heather Piper and Ian Stronach analyse the insanities and alienations that have led to this pass. Touch, they argue, has been detached from the relationships of guidance, discipline and caring that give it meaning. Guidelines mean the ‘micro-regulation of professional behaviours’: teachers’ actions are viewed as if through an alien eye, regardless of context or intent. The result is a sterile and dehumanising approach to professional dilemmas, they say: ‘Crucial and life-affirming elements of humanity have been abandoned.’

Clearly, it is good for child professionals to be self-critical, to consider what are the best ways of doing things and to have guidelines on ‘best practice’. But Don’t Touch gives a view into a new and strange form of self-scrutiny – which at base is about the sacrifice of professional autonomy and the teaching relationship itself.

The key thing in the delineation of ‘appropriate touch’ is not whether it helps the child, or whether it is actually ill-intentioned. The definition of safe touch is merely that it can be traced to some or other guideline. ‘Appropriate’ means, simply, officially sanctioned.

One childcare worker describes the controversy that gripped her nursery after a ‘Quality Assurance Officer’ visited and noticed plasters in the first aid box. The officer quoted the guidelines, which specified that workers were ‘not allowed to put plasters on children’. The nursery worker quoted back the ‘guidelines I was given at college’, and her first aid tutor’s words that: ‘Blood spillages must be covered, and plasters are quite effective if it is just a small spillage.’ The Quality Assurance Officer retreated to confer with her fellow officers (‘they’d had a big debate about it’), and came back with the judgement that ‘as long as we get parental permission we can use plasters’. Plasters were duly added to the parental consent forms.

What is interesting here is that at no point did they consider the merits or otherwise of plasters; the concern was purely with what was laid down in guidelines and procedures. The question was not whether something was the sensible thing to do, but whether it can be traced to an edict. A simple matter faced by every parent – how to deal with a scratch – becomes for child professionals a tortuous question, since it is not about what ‘makes sense’ but what ‘is allowed’. This is a professional dispute born of self-doubt, of the mistrust of professional judgement, and so the simplest things become controversial and irresolvable.

Guidelines are supposed to sum up a social norm, or outline the best of professional practice. Touch guidelines come not from the profession, but from without – they are codes and rules that sit pristine above social life, produced perhaps in some antiseptic laboratory of ‘best practice’. The guideline or procedure has an otherworldly authority, and it is only this that is ‘safe’; the rest of social life is contaminated and risky in comparison. Decisions that are made by a professional using his head are deemed downright inappropriate. The very definition of ‘safe touch’ means that all other touch – normal touch by normal people – is deemed unsafe.

For child professionals, it becomes ethical to take an ‘outside’ view of oneself – to view one’s actions, not as they were intended, but from the view of the worst possible interpretation. Staff start to hear accusations ringing in their ears. One nursery nurse imagined a child going home and telling her mother that ‘Claire’s been cuddling me’ – ‘and I’d be thinking: “Oh God it wasn’t like that”, because you can’t explain, can you? It’s the words and the way they sound.’ Staff see their actions not through their own eyes, but rather as they might ‘sound’ or ‘look’ to a hostile observer.

Piper and Stronach report how one male teacher responded to a girl crying at the death of her grandfather by putting his arm around her. Afterwards the teacher panicked, and ‘immediately went to “report himself” to a female member of staff regarding what he had done and why’. The confession is about the surrender to authority, seeing one’s own thoughts and instincts as potentially risky and seeking absolution from authorities above.

Don’t Touch is an important step in regaining professional autonomy and good sense. Piper and Stronach call for an ‘inside-out’ form of practice, with child professionals making decisions about appropriate touch by using their own judgement, going on what they meant by a word or a gesture, rather than on how something ‘would look’ to someone else.

They also call for ‘a more ethical practice’, for ‘professionals not to slavishly follow no-touch guidelines but to put touch back into context (ie, relationships) and take accounts of trust and friendships’. Touch should not be ‘fetishised’, they say, but seen in context, as a way of guiding, disciplining or comforting the children in our care. The result of this is to humanise touch, as was powerfully shown by one description of a primary school teacher’s use of touch in the classroom:

‘A girl approaches [Mrs Atkins] to ask for a crayon and touches Mrs Atkins’ arm to attract her attention. Mrs Atkins puts her arm around her shoulder and bends down to listen to what she wants. She keeps her arm there as she walks the girl back to her seat…. Another boy, Ryan, is misbehaving – he won’t share any of his crayons – and he is made to stand in a corner…. [Mrs Atkins] bends down so that her face is level with his and there is no touching at all while she disciplines him. After his “talking to” as the boy walks back to his place, she gently touches his back with both hands…. [Later] Ryan is misbehaving again, this time lying all over the table. Mrs Atkins pulls him up by the arm and holds him firmly by the forearm while she tells him off…’

Here, appropriate or inappropriate touch becomes a human and professional matter, a question of what is best for teaching the children concerned. Touch is one teaching method – along with the tone of the voice, or position of the body – that can be used to steer and discipline children. Children are not yet creatures of reason, and persuasion cannot use words alone: particularly with very young children, touch is extremely important to reinforce a message, or to indicate what you want them to do. To not touch them – or to touch only like a computer – is not to relate.

It is Mrs Atkins and her ilk who should be the guides for new child professionals – and the piles of guidelines and consent forms should be shown up as the inhuman impostors they are.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club, a humanist campaigning network. She leads the club’s Campaign Against Vetting, which opposes over-cautious child protection regulations. Email her {encode=”” title=”here”}.

Don’t Touch!: The Educational Story of a Panic, by Heather Piper and Ian Stronach is published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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