Touch in International Primary Schools: A Practical Approach with a Cultural Lens
Dallin Bywater, International School Counselor
An international school community breeds a complex system of influences on touch behavior, where each culture has its own unspoken rules about appropriate touch. There is a spectrum of high and low contact cultures (Dibiase and Gunnoe, 2004), as well as high and low context cultures (Meyer, 2014) that often coexist in a single school. Although complicated, it is both possible and necessary to develop touch guidelines and policies in international schools.
Touch between teachers and students has been a feverishly debated topic for years (Johansson, Aberg, and Hedlin, 2021). Researchers have written extensively about touch in the early years context (Blackwell, 2000). A robust amount of research indicates the emotional, physical, intellectual, and social benefits of touch (Owen and Gillentine, 2010). For example, touch can decrease aggressive behavior (Diego et al, 2002), can promote positive behavior and social interactions (Dobson et all, 2002), and even encourage cognitive development (Hart et al., 1998). However, there is a notable lack of research about the effects of touch in an international school community where touch is interpreted from many cultural viewpoints, and community members have a wide range of expectations about appropriate teacher behavior.
In place of this research void, some schools around the world have adopted “no-touch” policies in efforts to protect employees from accusations of abuse. Some schools have left the issue up to teachers without giving guidelines, in a nebulous ignorance that renders teachers and students vulnerable. Other school communities have embraced touch and even encouraged it during school in many forms.
Whatever school policies exist, many teachers believe or are aware of the research that indicates appropriate touch is positive for child development (Johansson, Aberg, and Hedlin, 2021). Nonetheless, a significant number of educators, especially male teachers, are apprehensive about touching in school (Clyde, 1994; Piper, 2014). Following a number of high-profile cases in the media, many educators are fearful of abuse allegations. Fear of touch creates a significant chasm between research and practice. An international school with teachers from various cultures will have some teachers who are afraid to touch students, and others who are oblivious to the risks because of their cultural or educational history. The ambivalence, discomfort, or unawareness that many educators have could be alleviated by a clear understanding of the community culture in addition to explicit school expectations and guidelines. With such diverse teacher backgrounds, and due to the ease by which misunderstandings can occur, school leaders cannot afford to be unclear or neglect to have guidelines and policies about touch.
Depending on local regulations and the course of the COVID-19 pandemic in the area, many schools may have no choice but to return to temporary “no-touch” policies in efforts to limit transmission of the virus. In this case, teachers and educators must find other ways to appropriately express their support and affection for students. Alternatively, this may be an optimal time to reevaluate touch culture at school, and thus the following recommendations are provided to assist international schools which are reviewing guidelines or entering a phase where touch would not put students or teachers at risk for infection.
Developing Guidelines by Starting with Questions
School leaders can concurrently avoid the paranoia of “no-touch” policies and the danger of nonexistent guidelines by finding a middle ground where children are safeguarded and teachers supported with clear boundaries of touch in school.
For School Leaders
School leaders must assess touch culture from multiple lenses: a community lens, teacher lens, and student lens. The following meta-questions should be considered:
What is the host culture?
What are common touch behaviors in the host culture?
What is the cultural makeup of the school?
What are accepted touch behaviors in the cultures represented at the school?
Are there any host-country laws about touch in schools?
What has been the culture of touch at the school in the past? Have there been issues with it?
Are there already some written school guidelines for educator-student touch? Is the focal point student wellbeing or avoiding allegations?
Is the community aware of these guidelines? Are all staff aware of these guidelines?
Do you model appropriate touch behavior for the school community?
For Teachers and Staff
It is essential as part of the development of appropriate touch culture in school teachers and staff are involved and trained regularly. Teacher turnover can be frequent, and they may come from diverse cultural environments and training. From an individual teacher perspective, the following concepts should be explored:
Before the School Year Begins
What is your personal culture, and how is touch between adults and children viewed in that culture?
What is your personal experience with touch?
What are your beliefs about touch in school?
Do you know the policies and guidelines regarding touch at school?
Do your touch behaviors differ depending on the gender or culture of a child in the class?
What are your school touch behaviors, and are these done for the benefit of the student in mind?
How do you protect yourself from allegations and misunderstandings?
How can you mold your touch behaviors to fit the school cultural environment, with the student’s welfare at the forefront?
After the School Year Begins
What is a child’s reaction to and perception of touch from you in various situations?
Does the child seek touch or avoid it?
What is the child’s caregiver’s perspective about touch?
Does the child have any sensitivities to touch, or additional touch needs (ie: sensory integration differences)?
In the Moment of a Potential Educator-Student Touch Situation
What is the school guideline?
Is touch appropriate for the context, and is it necessary?
Is this touch done in the best interest of the child?
How did the child react?
Educators remain weary and afraid of touching students (Piper, Garratt, and Taylor, 2013), therefore in addition to knowing what is inappropriate (i.e. child safeguarding policies), it may be even more important for teachers to receive training that encourages appropriate, supportive, culturally sensitive touch. Generally, physical contact might be appropriate if it is used to assist in skill development (educative touch), is required for a child’s safety (assisting touch), occurs in an open environment, and occurs with the student’s permission whenever possible (Bergnehr and Cekaite, 2018; “Physical Contact with Children”). A culturally sensitive approach requires a teacher to be emotionally available to accurately interpret the effect of their touching and respect student body autonomy.
As common as math and writing levels are to a child’s cumulative file, educators should also be aware of how children respond to comforting, assistive, or educative touch. Much like it would be counterproductive to place a student in a math level group that is too high or too low, creating an unfitting touch environment for a student can be detrimental. Touching one student in a specific way could have a positive effect, whereas touching another student in the same way could elicit negative emotions and have negative implications.
School culture and guidelines about touch would be incomplete without student social and emotional learning (SEL) opportunities regarding touch. Even the youngest students can learn to recognize safe, unsafe, and uncomfortable touches. Shortly after, they can recognize and verbalize which touches are unwanted and nonconsensual. All these ideas taught within a multicultural lens encourages rich conversation and deep thinking about their personal experiences and preferences of touch. Schools have a responsibility to empower students by allowing them to decide what touch is comfortable for them in which contexts. Crucial opportunities are available in school settings for exploring and understanding preferences for touch.
The information elicited from the aforementioned questions and perspectives can allow a thoughtful formulation of touch guidelines and policies. There is no one-size-fits-all list of guidelines or policies for touch at international schools. Each school will differ in the details, but the following general guidelines can be a starting point to protect educators from allegations, and concurrently provide a comfortable environment for staff to render caring and beneficial touch to students at school (Hansen, 2007):
- Limit touching to safe areas of the body (shoulders, hands, upper back)
- Avoid being alone in a room with a student, and not with the door closed
- Before touching students, be an observer – see how students interact with peers and other adults, and what their touch behaviors are and what they are comfortable with
- Ask for permission whenever possible
These guidelines go hand in hand with child safeguarding policies, which further delineate social and sexual boundaries. Touch guidelines and safeguarding policies have congruent principles – to care for and protect children.
Children with pervasive coordination or physical needs will need a higher degree of personal touch to complete daily activities, and this also should be indicated in school guidelines. In activities where touch may be necessary for the safety or teaching of students (i.e. PE, demonstrations for some Arts), differences should also be indicated in school documents.
With the welfare and body autonomy of children as guiding points, school leaders have a responsibility to teachers and children to help the school develop a healthy and culturally sensitive culture around touch, imbuing a caring, nurturing environment. Taking time to wade through the cultural complexities can provide clarity and comfort. The costs for developing well-balanced policies and guidelines are in itself beneficial to the community: thoughtful evaluation, honest and open discussion, and professional growth.
About the author
Dallin Bywater is an international school counselor on hiatus. He has presented for parent and teacher workshops, and has published articles on a range of topics related to student and parent mental health. firstname.lastname@example.org
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