Exclusive: Refusing to touch pupils is a form of child abuse, psychologists say

17th February 2017 at 07:07
physical contact, touch, child abuse, psychologists, british psychological society, wellbeing
Teachers who avoid physical contact with pupils could be causing them harm, according to members of the British Psychological Society

Refusing to touch pupils during day-to-day classroom interactions is a form of child abuse, psychologists have said.

Members of the British Psychological Society (BPS) have said that teachers who do not touch children when they are happy, upset or worried could cause harm, hampering pupils’ development.

“What’s missing is a recognition of how important touch is,” said child psychologist Sean Cameron. “And that withholding touch is, in itself, a form of psychological abuse.”

The psychologists said that they wanted schools to change their attitudes towards physical contact with students. In particular, they have called for schools to explain to parents that touch is not only necessary, but an integral part of the teacher-pupil relationship.

The demonisation of touch

Touch plays a vital role in children’s brain development, according to Professor Francis McGlone, head of affective neuroscience at Liverpool John Moores University.

“Touch isn’t just good – it’s absolutely essential,” he said. “Denying it is like denying a child oxygen. I get very exercised about the demonisation of touch. It’s cruel, in my mind. It’s another form of abuse.

“The scientific evidence is incontrovertible. I’m not just talking psychononsense; I’m talking about proper, evidenced neuroscience.”

Physical contact between teachers and pupils is not currently illegal. Government guidelines state that there are occasions “when physical contact…with a pupil is proper and necessary”

In practice, however, many schools, either explicitly or implicitly, discourage teachers from touching pupils.

Tool for controlling teachers

Last week, the BPS held a conference on the use of physical contact in schools and children’s services. Mr Cameron led the discussion.

He said that many heads and teachers saw touching a child as an unjustifiable risk, citing the case of a secondary teacher who put his hand on a boy’s shoulder to calm him down. The boy responded with: “Take your hands off me, you paedo.”

“By discouraging touch, you’re depriving a young person of a very humane reaction,” Mr Cameron said. “But you’re also setting up a situation where a young person can use this as a tool to put down or control a teacher. It’s a double whammy, really.”

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL teaching union, said her union acknowledged that a humane relationship with pupils involved occasional physical contact. But she added that she would always advise teachers to be cautious.

“Don’t put yourself in a dangerous position,” she said. “Don’t put yourself in a situation where a child can accuse you of inappropriate contact.

“Of course, children must be protected. But teachers also have a right not to have their career ruined by false accusations.”

This is an edited article from the 17 February edition of TES. Subscribers can read the full article here. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. 

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