I’m a teacher and I cuddle.
Does that sound strange? Hear me out…
In every classroom and age I’ve taught, I’ve always put a heartfelt emphasis on the value of touch – whether it’s a hug, holding hands, cuddling, putting my hand on the arm or shoulder, and even gently moving hair away from the eyes or wiping a tear.
During reading times, I’m that teacher that lets the kids lay all over me. It’s cozy, and they love it.
I feel it’s a strength on the giver and the receiver to offer and accept nurturing in the form of human touch. I’ve connected with the toughest of kids in this way just by simply making the subtlest of physical contact.
This tells the child, You are safe. You can relax your guard. And very importantly, I care about you.
Rick Chillot from Psychology Today says,
Touch is the first sense we acquire and the secret weapon in many a successful relationship (4).
Science and Experience Agree…
Creating a safe and peaceful environment in the classroom is absolutely essential to building healthy relationships with the students and it’s a practice that never ends. If the children do not feel a trustworthy connection with the teacher, then it will be nearly impossible for social-emotional and academic productivity in the classroom.
David J. Linden is a neuroscience professor at John Hopkins Unversity School of Medicine and the author of Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind. He emphasizes that,
It’s not so much that touch is a useful tool in teaching facts and strategies – it’s not as if, while stroking 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 state, and anything you can do to encourage the student is going to make learning better (9).
Blaire Lent is owner and lead teacher at The Complete Student in Beaufort, South Carolina. Her small, private educational facility focuses on enrichment and online academics for homeschooled middle and high school students. Many of the students here have had a rough time feeling a sense of belonging at traditional schools so their parents have opted for a different, more personal experience for their children to feel successful. Lent’s feelings toward touch are similar to Linden’s in that,
I make sure to pat students on the back and to put a hand on their shoulders for multiple reasons. It’s a great way to help students direct and maintain attention, and sometimes it’s a helpful tool to remind students that I’m a real human being and that I’m here for them. Touch helps students and teachers bring a little humanity back to teaching (10).
She continues by saying how so much of school feels esoteric and nonsensical to middle and high school students, but, my heavy hand on their shoulder is undeniably real and I can lighten the mood, deepen the mood, or encourage the mood just through the simple act of touch (10).
In one large study of American teens done in 2004, the single most important predictor within the school that helped 8th-12th-grade students’ growth in mathematics was… can you guess?… The student’s perception of feeling connected with the teachers (5).
Another study measured and analyzed elementary kids’ daily cortisol levels (the stress hormone), as the students went through a typical week at school. The researchers learned that the kids often began the school week with normal stress hormone levels, but started showing fluctuating and increased stress levels throughout the week. This was a huge sign that the kids were under strain and above average stress for a small child. But by contrast, this study also revealed that,
…a subset of children – kids in supportive, secure student-teacher relationships – maintained normal, healthy stress hormonal patterns throughout the week (5).
In 2012, a study involved 120 six-year-old children. The scientists wanted to see if the children’s student-teacher relationships affect the way they think and solve problems. They were all asked to take a computerized cognitive test on shapes, patterns, and analogies. So, just before a new problem would come up on each computer, each child was flashed an image of their teachers’ faces on the screen. It was split-second and subliminal. The researchers found that the kids who have an affectionate and close relationship with their teachers ended up solving the problems a lot faster and with more ease (5).
Physiological Benefits of Appropriate Touch
As multitudes of studies and experiences have suggested, affectionate, positive, supportive touch is one of the best ways to create a healthy and successful student-teacher relationship. So, how does it benefit physiologically and what kinds of touch are we talking about here?
When writing my thesis in college on the effects of natural and complementary medicines on anxiety and depression, positive human touch repeatedly came up. Fascinatingly enough, there are huge physiological shifts in the body when human touch is brought into the equation.
One example is the simple act of… hugging.
Lauren Suval from PsychCentral explains that,
Hugging induces oxytocin, the bonding hormone that’s renowned for reducing stress, lowering cortisol levels, and increasing a sense of trust and security (12).
One particular research done at the University of North Carolina showed women who were hugged more often by their partners showed higher levels of oxytocin and lower levels of blood pressure and heart rates (12). Plenty of research shows that when oxytocin levels are low and blood pressure and heart rate are high, the breath becomes more shallow and doesn’t reach the brain as easily. This, in turn, creates anxiety… something that too many children and young adults are experiencing in school.
Mindbodygreen.com says hugging can actually boost the immune system.
The gentle pressure on the sternum and the emotional charge this creates activates the Solar Plexus Chakra. This stimulates the thymus gland, responsible for regulating and balancing the body’s production of white blood cells, which keeps you healthy… (12).
Holding hands is also a calming way to increase healthy brain activity and to boost relationships. The act of clasping hands (I visualize a child on the playground whose feelings are hurt, misses her mommy, or just has a loving nature), reduces stress-related activity in the hypothalamus, which is in charge of the amount of cortisol coursing through the body (6). It also helps to reduce anxiety in the part of the brain that registers pain… and helps the body from even feeling the pain as much (6).
It makes holding the hurt child’s hand a lot more worth it, don’t you think?
The behavior and emotions of infants and children are very similar when it comes to how much positive human touch they are receiving. Studies have shown that infants who receive extra touch become more organized, better sleepers, are less fussy during the day, and respond better to the interactions with a caretaker or teacher (11). Dr. Sears explains that when a baby or child is touched often in a way that shows nurturing, care, and love he is more likely to build better self-esteem as it gives value to his being a person (11).
Putting a hand on the shoulder or arm is another way of promoting healthy relationships, and is most often used for older children, too. Christopher Berglund reports from Psychology Today that studies done on affective touch, such as putting a hand on the arm or shoulder, show that it improves proprioception (sense of self) and literally helps to make someone comfortable in their own skin (1), which is the opposite of what many students feel if there is little to no supportive touch from a teacher or loved one.
If this is the case, then,
It sends the message that you are afraid of them or there is something wrong with them,
says Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion 2.0 (9). This is not a feeling that any teacher would want to convey to a student, which brings me to another point: Communication…
Touch helps to build and speed up communication between two people. Laura Guerrero is coauthor of Close Encounters: Communication in Relationships and also researches nonverbal and emotional communication at Arizona State University. She says, We feel more connected to someone if they touch us. If you’re close enough to touch, it’s often the easiest way to signal something (4).
Think about it… this can give the teacher a huge advantage because through touch, a great deal of information about the child’s state of mind can be revealed. Matthew Herenstein is a DePawn University psychologist who has done numerous studies on the effects of touch on emotions. He emphasizes that,
You can sense stress through muscle tightness and contraction, and this kind of information can guide our behavior with that person – it influences what we think, how we perceive what they say (4).
And what’s even better? According to the Touch Research Institute, hormonal and brain activity analyses have revealed that we reap all the same benefits as those we are touching (4), meaning that when you give someone a hug, you are receiving just as much benefit as the person being hugged.
Doesn’t that make you want to go out and hug everyone you know?
Not so fast… Unfortunately, it’s not always that easy.
When It’s OK, When It’s Not OK.
So, here’s the tricky part. There are plenty of physiological and emotional benefits of supportive touch, but when is it OK to actually put it into practice? Honestly, it depends on the scenario.
Besides the fact that some administrators and parents have deprived their children, based out of fear and hype, of essential developmental experiences by banning touch in schools (9) (we aren’t going to go there, here), there is a large population of kids who have learning differences that inhibit their social and sensory abilities, and others who may react indifferently to touch because sadly, they have never experienced nurturing touch.
Maralee Bradley wrote the article, The Kids Who Don’t Say Hi, based on children who are deeply struggling with language and social interaction. She says,
… obviously for some kids touch will not be appreciated, so you’ll want to ask first or offer something like a handshake where they can engage if they feel comfortable (3).
The child may not immediately answer or respond, but it doesn’t mean he didn’t hear you. If you are already a trusted adult in that child’s book, then a light pat on the back with an I like you, and leaving it at that gives the child relief at not being required to talk and can allow him to really absorb your interaction (3).
Meredith Fent, a school counselor at Lowcountry Montessori Charter School has 17 years of experience varying from high poverty environments to children of middle class. Fent also agrees that there are times when you have to judge when not to touch. She says,
I have worked with autistic students and an example is a time when one little boy was overstimulated. He did not want to be touched and he learned to say No either by nodding or by saying No touch. Other times he would come and nuzzle wanting a hug. He would also need a tight hand squeeze when he was afraid of the fire alarm, or if someone misunderstood his words. This made him calm his breathing and feel safe, knowing he was with someone who was not going to leave and could help him (7).
Fent also suggests that for children with sensory development disorder, to refer to the child’s occupational therapist and parents for suggestions on how to touch that particular child, because, as Bradley says, it, may not be a one-size-fits-all solution (3).
Many teachers are keenly aware of their students’ backgrounds – the possibilities of abuse and how it impacts their experience at school and in the sometimes-tedious task of building relationships. But struggling kids do not have to be doomed to poor outcomes.
Linden tells Jessica Lahey from The Atlantic that,
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 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 (9).
According to Parenting Science, studies suggest that at-risk students are more likely than other kids to benefit from supportive student -teacher relationships (5) … but it doesn’t always have to come in the form of touch as Anna Jackson tells us. Jackson has been a teacher for 15 years and has focused her energy mainly in inner city schools. Her method of following her own teacher intuition when working with middle and high school children has given her a very respectable reputation among students, co-workers, and administrators. She says,
I only avoid [physical] contact if the student is uncomfortable with me, doesn’t know me, or if I know something about their background, such as being sexually or physically abused… Some students like hugs, but in middle school, the most effective point to me is what I call Proximity Control. I pull a chair right up to their desks and sit with them. They love that, and the close contact seems to replace physical touching and it reaps the same benefits (8).
There are times to withhold touch, but as Peter Anderson from San Diego University’s School of Communication and author of Nonverbal Communication: Forms and Functions, suggests, there are also safe zones for touch such as the shoulders and arms by giving handshakes, high fives, and gentle backslaps (4).
Many experts agree that touch has to be a part of the normal daily routine and as a positive, for it to be effective. Hari Berzins has been a kindergarten and elementary school teacher for 16 years. She currently teaches kindergarten and first grade at Blue Mountain School, a social-emotional, contemplative-progress school in Floyd, Virginia. Berzins says,
I use touch in the classroom beginning with a high-five. I always invite them to touch first by asking for the high-five. Once that connection is established I might touch them on the shoulder as I’m helping them with their school work. It’s important to sense the children’s body language and note whether they respond well to this encouraging touch. Overtime, this builds comfort and trust. It’s not long before students come to me for hugs or to be held when feeling sad (2).
As so many educators and researchers have suggested, there is an enormous amount of value in the form of supportive, appropriate touch in the classroom. Hugging, holding hands, and simply a hand on the shoulder or arm can give the teacher-student relationship an invaluable boost that will physiologically and social-emotionally reward the giver and the receiver, not to mention benefit the student’s academics. Because, as Lemov reiterates,
… touch is not just an essential part of teaching, but an essential part of what it means to be human (9).
- Bergland, Christopher. Psychology Today. Loving Touch is Key to Healthy Brain Development. 9 October 2013.
- Berzins, Hari. Personal Interview. 3 October 2016.
- Bradley, Maralee. The Mighty. The Kids Who Don’t Say Hi. 5 October 2016.
- Chillot, Rick. Psychology Today. The Power of Touch. 11 March 2013.
- Dewer, Gwen, PhD. Parenting Science. Student-Teacher Relationships. 2013.
- Dworkin-McDaniel, Norine. CNN Health.com. Touching Makes You Healthier. 5 January 2011.
- Fent, Meredith. Personal Interview. 4 October 2016.
- Jackson, Anna. Personal Interview. 7 October 2016.
- Lahey, Jessica. The Atlantic. Should Teachers Be Allowed To Touch Students? 3 January 2015.
- Lent, Blaire. Personal Interview. 3 October 2016.
- Sears, William, PhD. Dr. Sears.com. Touch Benefits. 19 September 2016.
- Suval, Lauren. PscyhCentral. The Surprising Psychological Value of Human Touch. 1 March 2014.