Should teachers touch students?

Dilemma: Touch can be integral to teaching; Israeli policy calls to refrain from touch in schools.

Hands 300 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Hands 300
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Lara, a delightful student of mine, is writing her seminar paper on the topic of “teachers touching students,” and suggested I write an op-ed about it because it seems to be a very important and controversial topic of great interest in Israel. My interest in this topic was heightened with a discussion with Abi Moskovits, a wonderful high school teacher and friend who said, “As a high school teacher, I never touch any of my students because the issue is very complicated and I fear negative consequences and pressure, but I would never send my children to a teacher who refused to touch them.”
THIS ATTITUDE sums up very clearly the dilemma of Israeli teachers. Good teachers know that touch is an important part of teaching and research strongly indicates that touching is strongly related to learning. Yet the policy of Israeli schools is not to touch. Of course when I say touching, I am excluding the hurtful kind; physically abusive, sexually intended and violations of religious doctrine. Yitzhak Kadman, executive director of the National Council for the Child says, “Clearly any physical contact of a sexual nature between teachers and students is unequivocally forbidden.
It is also clear that the use of violent physical contact – corporal punishment [or what is mistakenly called ‘an educational spanking’] is unequivocally forbidden.
“However, it is also unacceptable that the relationship between teachers and students will be distant and sterile due to the fear of what is forbidden and that all physical contact will be forbidden including a teacher’s hand on his student’s shoulder, a pat on the back in support of a student excelling in sports, and even a hug for a student in tears.
We should not go from one extreme to the other – from all permitted to all forbidden, and it is better that those who are not able to distinguish between the two avoid all contact [or perhaps avoid work in education].”
Twice in my life, I was asked to participate in this discussion for the record.
The first was when the National Education Association (NEA), an American teachers’ union, took a firm stand on the issue in 1993. It came out with the following policy and I was interviewed on national television to comment.
Teach but don’t touch (NEA Today September 15, 1993 Simpson, Michael) Terrified by the risk of being accused of child molestation, NEA members nationwide are changing the way they interact with students.
“We tell teachers, ‘when in doubt, don’t hug, don’t touch them, because you just don’t know.’” My comment was “If you don’t touch, then don’t teach. Children can’t learn without touching.”
Of course, my comment was loved and hated, depending on the critic’s point of view.
Years later, I testified in court as an expert witness commenting on whether or not it was okay for a teacher to grab a student by the neck and throw him in a closet. When I said “No, absolutely not,” the defense attorney asked me why I previously said touching by teachers is necessary for learning.
In Israel, although the stated policy is not to touch, there is wide variation among schools and teachers on enforcement of the edict. When the dangers of inappropriate touch including inaccurate accusations of teachers, is weighed against the advantage of positive touching, a change of policy is required. We cannot let the harmful few force the vast majority of students to lose an important benefit any more than we can prevent all from driving because a few are dangerous.
Here’s my suggestion. It’s not perfect but definitely better. The policy should reflect reality and make decisions based on the needs of individual schools. Any student who has been physically abused, or has religious objections, should not be touched. Touching should never be part of any form of punishment. Teachers should be protected against accusations without real proof by the school so that teachers are free to touch appropriately without fear. Touching should be defined as handshakes, a hug, pat on the back and other supportive choices. Any parent who does want their child touched should sign a form, with those that don’t implicitly giving the school permission. Finally, teachers need inschool training in the appropriate use of touching including how and when touching can be helpful. Training should also include how to recognize the danger signs for special circumstances that indicate touching is not appropriate for any individual student. These may be due to past experiences, emotional issues or simply strong discomfort at being touched.The author is the head of the graduate program in behavior disorders at David Yellin College in Jerusalem and the author of Discipline With Dignity.