When seven-year-olds became homesick on a school trip, my natural instinct was to cuddle them, but I was too scared...

12th September 2003 at 01:00
...Has caring for children gone out of teaching?

Ted Wragg, former professor of education at Exeter University, answers your professional problems, big or small, every week. Ask him for independent advice - or offer some of your own

Ted says

Child protection legislation has led teachers to believe that touching a pupil is wrong in any circumstances. Yet this is not true. Teachers might occasionally have to restrain one child to save another from injury. The main intention of legislation is to prevent unscrupulous adults harming children.

Many infant teachers are mothers, so it seems natural to hug someone who is sobbing, or who has fallen down. Provided the action is well intended, not excessive, and preferably visible to another adult, there is usually no bother. The problem is that no written words can fully protect teachers from litigation. So it is generally best to use non-physical forms of support.

Children can be reassured by kind words, good-natured humour, re-engaging them in an activity or distracting them from the source of upset. If cuddling becomes the first resort and a regular event, it doesn't produce a healthy state of affairs between children and an adult who is not a parent or relative. Always ask why a child is upset. If the answer is bullying, then a hug is no substitute for dealing with the root cause of the distress.

Fellow pupils can be a great help. Inviting one or two children to give support to a pupil in minor, short-term grief helps develop caring citizenship. In serious cases, adults have to take responsibility, but most events that lead to tears are relatively trivial, though not to the child who is upset.

One of the most difficult things to learn, as a small child growing up, is to become self-sufficient, more able to deal with problems as they arise, and not over-dependent on others.

You say

Rise above your instincts

I wonder if I was your only reader who, on reading this teacher's dilemma, initially thought "she" should give in to "her" instincts, only to be drawn up short by the thought that the teacher may have been a man. I have to say I would not hesitate in saying no to physical contact if it were a man. But surely there should be no difference in the advice, regardless of the sex of the child or teacher. The "maternal instinct" is no more a factor than a "paternal instinct". But I'm afraid we can no longer afford to let our instincts - male or female - prevail.

Anonymous, email

Don't make things worse

When we comfort children by touching them, it sends a signal to the brain which reinforces their experience. Cuddling may tell children, "It feels bad because it is bad". This prolongs their distress, and perhaps encourages them to feel the same distress on similar occasions in future.

Instead, some simple questions might help: "What are you experiencing? How is it for you to be away from home? What are your needs right now? How will it be for you when you get back home safely?" When they have said what they think, a touch on the arm or a smile will be enough to recognise their experience and reinforce their learning.

Dorothy Nesbit, email

Handle with care

As a head in an urban school, I have given hundreds of cuddles to children who are wounded, physically or emotionally. They respond to a calm approach, and often a hug too. But some children cannot distinguish between a well-meant hug and one that is not genuine. Abused children may seek hugs from anyone they meet. So don't give a cuddle if there is no other adult in the room, and make sure it is age-appropriate. Check school policy, make sure that parents are aware of it, and see what your head's view is.

Anonymous, email

There's a time and a place

The right cuddle can make the world a better place, the wrong one can end a career and damage a child. Homesick seven-year-olds probably do need a cuddle, but sixth-form girls weeping over an attractive teacher? Best not.

If you are in any doubt, don't. There are a multitude of ways to express sympathy and concern without body contact.

Phillipa Madams, West Sussex

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