Touch is one of the most important senses in our early development. ‘As well as being linked with our emotional development, it is also vital for development of the brain in general,’ says Anne O’Connor, early years consultant and co-founder of Primed for Life, which advocates for a wider understanding of the body as a child’s first place of learning.
‘Being held and cuddled with warmth and affection reinforces early attachment and bonding. Along with stroking, patting, squeezing and tickling, done with sensitivity and tuned into the child’s stage of development and emotional state, this also helps develop strong neural pathways in the brain that support proprioception, a sense of the physical self in relation to others and their environment, and emotional development.’
Despite evidence showing the importance of touch in a child’s development, however, the role of touch in schools is a controversial topic in a society where implications around touch have become negative. Many primary schools have introduced policies that limit touch: preventing staff from applying suncream to children, for example, banning hugging or sitting on laps, or introducing a ‘school hug’ – a sideways-on embrace.
The Government advises against a zero-tolerance no-touch policy, but in many cases the understandable desire to protect staff from allegations of misconduct and children from abuse overrides evidence of the benefits of positive touch.
‘Some primary schools have zero-touch policies, and that bothers me – it is a natural human instinct,’ says Jonathan Newport, managing director of Team Teach, which provides training in positive behaviour management. ‘It is born out of concern, because there is so much negative coverage in the press, especially for men – people say “why does a man want to work in an infant school?”. But I ask teachers who come for training, “If staff are upset, what do you do in the staffroom?” They demonstrate putting an arm around someone, a hand on their shoulder. So, if a four- or five-year-old is distressed, are you are going to stand away from them?’
Lee Prichard is head of UK regional development at Thrive, which provides training in children’s social and emotional development. ‘The difficulty with a no-touch policy is if a child is distressed or hurting themselves or someone else, how do you keep them safe?’ she says. ‘If you have got a no-touch policy, you are not able to congratulate children with a high-five or touch to their shoulder, demonstrate how to do something in music or PE, or even give first-aid.’
BENEFITS OF TOUCH
Touch plays an important role in the development of communication. ‘Children learn to read our body language as well as understand our words, and touch is important to this,’ says Ms O’Connor. ‘It’s also an important way for us to be able to “read” the child and tune into their well-being.’
Rough-and-tumble play in which children and adults touch or are in close physical contact with each other is also an important part of a child’s development. ‘Children are generally good at gauging if it tips over into something they don’t like or are uncomfortable with,’ says Dr Lala Manners, director of Active Matters.
‘Some children love it, some hate it, and that is fine. You can’t say everyone must do rough-and-tumble play, but it can be a significant part of children’s development. For example, children need to work out through experience and continual practice the difference between patting, banging and hitting – it is exactly the same physical movement, but they need to understand the different level of force involved and match the appropriate movement to the relevant context.’
Debbie Garvey, founder of Stonegate Training, adds, ‘It is difficult because people are used to the blame culture and fear of being sued, but the general public and parents need to be educated on why this kind of play is so important for children’s vestibular development and their motor development.’
The positive psychological effects of a hug extend to physical health as well. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in the USA found a connection between hugs and the ability to ward off stress-related illness and infection. Studies of touch-deprived infants – such as those raised in Romanian orphanages in the 1980s – have shown that weight and growth hormones are affected, and in severe cases of neglect, brain size may be reduced, according to the research.
Above all, touch is a vital part of the process of attachment, building relationships with trusted adults that help a child feel secure and safe, giving them a base for further development. ‘Touch lights up that part of the brain that makes us feel loved and cared for, and how can we expect children to learn if they don’t feel loved and cared for?’ says Ms Garvey.
‘It is vital for children that they feel physically comfortable and safe, and being touched, held, cared for, having their noses wiped, all that is critical,’ says Dr Manners. ‘If practitioners and teachers feel they can’t do this, a child will pick it up quickly.’
Hugging releases feel-good hormones in the hugger and ‘huggee’, which can help soothe stress and forge relationships. This kind of touch can help children develop the ability to regulate their own emotions.
When we think of touch, we usually think of a message being quickly sent to our brain, telling us we have touched something or someone has touched us. However, research by Francis McGlone, professor of neuroscience at Liverpool John Moores University, focuses on a relatively recently discovered type of nerve fibre that is preferentially activated by gentle stroking and has more long-term effects on our well-being. When stimulated, such as during nurturing care, this fibre feeds into the development of a child’s emotional regulatory systems, encouraging a trusting relationship and creating a feeling of safety and security.
‘This gentle touch-sensitive nerve has evolved to respond to the pleasant and rewarding sensations we get when we are cuddled,’ he says. ‘If this touch system is not engaged during the early life of a baby or child, whether, for example, through neglect, such as the Romanian orphanage babies, or as a consequence of post-natal depression, it can lead to neurodevelopmental conditions where children have not developed an essential sense of self.’
A 2010 study found when US basketball players touched each other more, through fist-bumps, high-fives and group hugs, for example, their team performed more strongly. Jean Barlow, founder of A Child 2 Child, says touch can help children perform well in school in a similar way. Through the A Child 2 Child programme, children are taught ‘peer massage’, with a strong emphasis on permission and consent.
These nurturing touch sessions can draw a class together as a community, ready to learn, and can also be incorporated into literacy and numeracy sessions: children might draw numbers on each other’s back while learning the times table, for example.
Ms Barlow developed her approach as she felt other school massage programmes were excluding some children. ‘The more people I trained and children I worked with, the more I recognised that a good percentage of children were not taking part, and they were the very children I was trying to reach,’ she explains.
The introduction of hand massages aimed to help children who shied away from other forms of contact to build feelings of friendship and control. ‘In one school, a little boy with autism came running up in the playground after two sessions to tell me he had loads of friends now!’ Ms Barlow says.
Professor McGlone is against the introduction of draconian touch policies in schools. ‘The very fact that you are categorising touching as something that needs a policy means you have opened a can of worms,’ he says.
Others, however, feel that in the modern climate, schools need such policies to protect staff from allegations of misconduct, or even to give them the confidence to incorporate touch into their practice. ‘It is sad, but it is safeguarding the men working in settings particularly,’ says Dr Manners. ‘If you are going to try to attract more men into early years, which we do need to do, then it is important to safeguard them.’
‘We have created societies rightly concerned with safeguarding, but that has created a great anxiety for some people,’ says Mr Newport. ‘We need to equip teachers with a toolkit so they feel confident on a daily basis, rather than hope we will all just get it instinctively.’
Positive or safe touch policies can be a place for a school to set out how it uses positive and nurturing touch to promote child development (see Case study). Thrive, for example, provides licensed practitioners with a suggested policy, underpinned by neuroscience, which can be adapted for their own setting.
‘We talk about the benefits of safe touch, meeting the needs of the individual child, and practitioners are informed how touch can help children to progress,’ says Ms Prichard. ‘The key is that schools agree a policy with all stakeholders – parents, governors, staff – so everyone understands the way touch is being talked about. Schools need to adapt policies to the needs of their own setting – one size doesn’t fit all.’
Touch policies need to include a school’s approach to children who may pose a danger to themselves or others. The Government has issued guidance on use of reasonable force in schools. Team Teach develops bespoke training for schools depending on the challenges they face, and this can include physical interventions.
‘We might look at guiding a child simply from one situation to another,’ says Mr Newport. One such touch is ‘Caring C’, a hand above a child’s elbow, allowing them to be guided along using their own momentum. ‘Sometimes moving them so they physically can’t see the other child any more can make all the difference,’ says Mr Newport.
Touch policies should make clear the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touch, and touch that is beneficial for the child and touch that is only beneficial for the adult. They should also acknowledge different approaches for different age groups. ‘What you might do for a nursery child when they are distressed might be very different to a 15-year-old,’ says Ms Prichard.
Policies also need to include an awareness that not all children want to be touched. ‘This is an important thing to be aware of and why getting to know children well and tuning into them, perhaps through a key-person approach, is so crucial,’ says Ms O’Connor.
‘Sensory processing issues may affect how a child feels about being hugged or the kind of hug that works best for them. Some children might find a light touch or caress very distressing and much prefer a strong hug or a squeeze. Other children may react in exactly the opposite way and can only cope with light touch.’
Sensory seeking and sensory avoidance may also be evidenced in the way children choose to hug others, and those who need strong bear hugs may find themselves getting into trouble for being over-enthusiastic when hugging other children.
‘Children at both ends of the sensory-processing spectrum can be helped to modulate their sensory reactivity over time and with careful tuning into their needs and stage of development,’ explains Ms O’Connor.
Teachers should always bear in mind that some children’s experience of touch may not always be positive, or there may be an absence of affectionate touch in their lives.
‘This should be handled carefully, following the child’s lead and tuning into what feels safe for them,’ says Ms O’Connor. ‘Over time it is possible to address this and build up their confidence, but practitioners should seek guidance if a child’s anxiety around touch is a cause for concern.’
Professor McGlone hopes to produce a report through the Fit and Healthy Childhood All-Party Parliamentary Group, making the case that touch is a right, and something that children require for their development. ‘My view is that not touching children is a form of abuse,’ he says. ‘Touch is not a nice addition, it is a necessity as much as food. What we are doing is removing an essential experience for young children.’
CASE STUDY: Ashleigh Primary School and Nursery
Teachers at Ashleigh Primary School and Nursery in Wymondham, Norfolk, recognise the importance of positive touch in a child’s development, and have built it into the school’s daily routines as a way of creating a nurturing, warm, caring environment for children. ‘The principles of safe touch are about building relationships and connection,’ says deputy head Danni Lacey-Scane.
Ashleigh staff have undergone Thrive training, a developmental approach to working with children that supports their emotional and social well-being, drawing on research in neuroscience, attachment theory and the role of creativity and play in developing emotional resilience.
‘Our ethos is very nurturing, we invest a lot of time in ensuring there is a secure base for children,’ says Ms Lacey-Scane, who created a comprehensive touch and physical contact policy for the school after attending the Thrive training.
‘During the training we reviewed different policies and talked about not just safeguarding but the benefits of safe touch, such as hand massages and face painting for children who are taking part in such interventions as Thrive,’ she says. ‘I drew up a policy that I felt reflected the needs of the school, the children and our practitioners, putting it together with best-fit principles of positive touch but also absolutely safeguarding teachers and children.’
Ashleigh’s policy talks about different types of touch. Casual, informal or incidental touch is used as part of a normal relationship, such as comforting a child, giving reassurance and congratulating. General reparative touch is used by staff working with children who are having difficulties with their emotions as a means of calming, soothing and containing distress for a worried, angry or sad child.
The school’s policy is aimed at all staff but especially those who may be working with more vulnerable children, for example in the school’s nurture group. ‘It links to affirmation and validation of children and addressing their needs as a whole child, as opposed to being worried about touch,’ explains Ms Lacey-Scane. ‘The policy is ultimately in place to keep both children and staff safe – it is a clear document of what takes place in school.’
Ms Lacey-Scane advises schools looking to put together their own policy to talk to staff as well as carrying out research into the positive effects of touch. ‘Understand the principles of what you are trying to achieve – why do you want a policy?’ she says. ‘Think about the areas you feel vulnerable in, whether that is children with SEND, or nursery provision. Talk to people – rather than having a theoretical policy, you want something practical.’
- The Professional Love in Early Years Settings (PLEYS) research project, led by Dr Jools Page, was set up to examine how those who work in early years settings can safely express the affectionate and caring behaviours which their role demands of them. The website includes a set of professional development materials, the Attachment Toolkit. https://pleysproject.wordpress.com
- Nurturing Personal, Social and Emotional Development in Early Childhood: A Practical Guide to Understanding Brain Development and Young Children’s Behaviour by Debbie Garvey (Jessica Kingsley, 2017) draws from neuroscience and includes a focus on the role of touch in a child’s development.
- A Child 2 Child ‘Peer Massage’ in schools, www.achild2child.co.uk
- Sensory Processing series by Anne O’Connor and Dr Kath Dickinson, www.nurseryworld.co.uk/features/article/sensory-processing-part-1-making-sense