No-contact policies in schools doing more harm than good, finds study

Hugs in class ... do we need more affection, not less?
Hugs in class ... do we need more affection, not less? Photo: Getty

I recently read this article that talks about a study by The Touch Research Institute where researchers compared behaviours of children in Paris with children in Miami.

The study showed that in the USA, teachers and care-givers have strict guidelines against hugging or touching students but in France, children receive much more physical affection from their teachers, peers and parents. The researchers' findings were that the French kids were less aggressive, physically and verbally than the Americans.

Like in the USA,  physical affection at school is often frowned upon in Australia. In 2012, a Western Australia school and Mt Martha Primary School in Victoria both made headlines when they enforced no physical contact policies that had students, parents and mental health professionals a bit touchy.

The lack of positive touch at school is actually doing more harm than good says Brooke Batchelor, a paediatric registered nurse and primary school teacher. "All the behavioural issues we keep seeing in the media about kids [behaviour] in school is definitely part of the lack of touch and affection at school.

"Kids, especially that first year of school, really need a lot of cuddles and reassurance and without that you end up having behaviour issues. From a teacher's perspective, you feel uncomfortable because you question how the parents or other teachers are going to feel if they see you giving the child a hug," says Batchelor.

This 'to hug or not to hug' discussion was brought up in a private social media group based in Argentina, where the practises and views are very different to Australia.

The parenting group, which I've kindly been invited into, is made up of a mix of locals and expats and the topic got them talking.

"I have been a parent and a teacher in both Argentina and the UK... the bond I had with my students and their parents here has always been stronger than when I used to teach in the UK. Here [in Argentina] you are encouraged to be super affectionate with the children," says group member Romina.

And Flor says, "I´m a teacher here (I´m Argentinian) and I can´t imagine my profession without kissing and hugging my kids! I love them and care for them and that's the way I relate to them, how I build a bond of trust and affection."

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Affection and positive touch gives us a boost of the hormone, oxytocin. "We know that when we touch one another appropriately we increase oxytocin, a bonding hormone. Boys need approximately 2-3 times the amount of touch as girls to get the same oxytocin boost," says clinical psychologist and family therapist Andrew Fuller. "Kids have higher anxiety levels than ever before and often what helps kids be to comforted and lower their anxiety is touch."

Positive touch opens up parts of the brain that are responsible for emotions and learning. Hugs and touch not only makes children more resilient, it can also improve their grades.

"The key to the limbic system (emotional centre) and the cortex of the brain (learning/intelligence areas) is to build connection. Touch is a powerful way of building that connection with a child. When they have off-track behaviour, they need connection. Once they have connection, their limbic system in a sense, relaxes a little and allows the free flow of information back and forth up to the cortex. The power of touch can break down those barriers that are causing a child trouble. Children learn and have better thinking/cognitive skills when they have a connection with a caring adult," explains Batchelor.

Current Mt Martha Primary School principal, Martin Page says the school no longer has a no-contact policy nor have they since 2012.

"I believe our current practises reflect usual, supportive contact between two people. I don't have a problem with giving a student a high-five or a pat on the back but there's a bit of a stretch between that behaviour and "at risk" behaviour. What we have to do as a profession is ensure that our staff is aware of what's appropriate and what's not: what's crossing the line and what's not," says Page.

So, what is healthy touch and how can we express it without crossing a line?

"It's a discussion worth having because if we're not bold enough to have it and we just distance one another, the cost of that is loneliness," says Fuller.

What do you think? Would you like to see more affection in the teaching profession between students and teachers or would you rather limit the amount of touch to ensure safe boundaries?

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