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Touchy subject: physical contact between teachers, kids a fraught topic

Four-year-old Jack’s parents are separated, and he lives with his father two days a week. As his father drops him off at preschool, Jack asks, “Will you pick me up when it’s time to go home?” His father replies that his mum will, and that Daddy needs a big hug because he won’t see Jack for a little while – not until it’s his turn with Jack again. Jack responds with a gut-wrenching wail. His father, silent but equally upset, leaves Jack with the teacher on playground duty.

Jack’s teacher is now in a quandary. Should she pick up the distraught Jack and give him a soothing hug, or should she adhere to the preschool’s ‘no touch’ policy?

Jenna*, a preschool teacher in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, would not have to confront this dilemma. At her preschool, it’s not only acceptable for a teacher to hug a distressed child, it’s encouraged. “Research says kids need physical affection to develop emotionally, particularly younger children aged 1 to 4”, she explained. “It’s part of our job to hug them.” While nothing ‘below the belt’ is allowed, determining the propriety of all other forms of touch is “a commonsense thing”, she continued. And she’s not concerned about her colleagues overstepping touch boundaries. “If anything, it’s parents who ask us to do inappropriate things, like apply nappy-rash cream,” she mused.

Jenna further suggested that teacher touch goes beyond the psychology of comforting cuddles to include the practical. Preschool teachers have a duty of care towards the children. Therefore, in a situation where a child has soiled himself, for instance, the teacher has to wash the child for health reasons.

Amidst the practicalities and the empathy, there are teacher safeguards, she explained. One is the fact that there are enforced child-to-teacher ratios that ensure a child is never alone or out of sight of another teacher. There’s also the prerequisite child protection course that teachers have to undergo, and the working-with-children check for childcare workers. “There’s enough in there to protect children and teachers,” Jenna said. “There’s little reason for our school to have a no-touch policy.”

On the other hand, some schools do have protective touch policies. For example, Jasmine Preschool in rural NSW mandates that prior to a child’s enrolment, parents must consent in writing to teachers giving a child a “good old-fashioned cuddle if a child is upset or feeling lonely”.

While Jasmine regulates physical contact between children and teachers, such regulation is not a legal requirement. The Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority, a national body that helps administer the Education and Care Services National Law, governs teacher-child touch boundaries only insofar as they relate to physical discipline and corporal punishment.

As there is no governmental, state-based moderation in this area either, touch policies are left solely in the hands of individual childcare centres. One centre, which requested anonymity, forbids a teacher from holding a child’s hand. Said a parent with a child at that centre: “It’s sad that a 3-year-old can’t share affection with someone he obviously adores so much.” The parent may have been onto something: the centre’s policy runs contrary to research that suggests touch is essential, especially at a child’s early developmental stage.

Dr Tiffany Field, founder and director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami, Florida, has an empirical perspective on the importance of touch. Her article “Preschoolers in America are touched less and are more aggressive than preschoolers in France”, was published in the journal Early Child Development and Care. In it, she described the positive link between touch and good temperament in young children. Furthermore, in an article titled “Touch for socioemotional and physical wellbeing: A review”, published in Developmental Review, Field articulated how touch, regardless of the age of the subject, can stimulate positive physiological and biochemical responses. Her research showed that touch can decrease a child’s heart rate and increase oxytocin, the ‘cuddle hormone’ that’s thought to encourage bonding. So, Jenna’s thought about touch as developmentally advantageous is research-affirmed.

Back to crying Jack and his bewildered teacher: what’s she to do? While some might argue for a no-touch policy, it seems that human empathy and research are in agreement. In the words of a Jasmine Preschool manager, she should probably give Jack, a warm old-fashioned cuddle. Not only will he be comforted, his development will be enhanced. What’s more, his separated parents, far from being aggrieved, will probably thank her for it.

*Not her real name.


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