Touching, has the power to enrich lives but also to ruin them and touching children is a potentially thorny issue and one which can cause difficulties across cultures.
This article looks at various aspects of the way in which teachers and children can interact and how this works teaching English as a foreign language.
“Hands Off” Approach
Due to a number of high profile cases in the US and UK (as well as many other Western countries) teachers are becoming increasingly reluctant to touch children in any way for fear of being accused of inappropriate sexual behavior.
Whilst the “hands off” approach might be fine in theory, the situation has sometimes gone too far and in recent years we have seen:
- teachers instructing small children to put plasters on small wounds so they would not have to touch them
- teachers changing young children’s nappies in open areas so they could be seen at all time and there was no risk of accusations against them
- teachers taking young children to the toilet in pairs so avoid possible accusations
- music teachers unable to touch a student to show correct playing technique
- crying or distressed children not being hugged to make them feel better
- teachers not able to push back against a student, even when being attacked
Studies and research have shown that rules between different schools and councils were often contradictory and almost always put in place to protect the teachers rather than the children. Note, however, that in most countries there is no legislation in place which actually bans teachers from touching children.
This means that many Western TEFL teachers have been taught, wherever possible, to avoid any physical contact with their students. Whilst this might be fine in some countries, in many cultures this is regarded as somewhat strange and awkward behavior.
In many countries people are far more tactile than in the US or UK and it is by no means uncommon for young children to come up and hug their teacher at the end of the lesson. If they do this with a local teacher then all goes well; but if they try with a foreign teacher who perhaps stands back and avoids hugging then this can often lead to misunderstandings: a child may feel rejected and remote from a teacher who is not as tactile as the other teachers in the school and likewise, the school owner may feel the teacher is “stand offish” in their behavior, possibly even arrogant or snobbish.
If you are concerned about what constitutes appropriate or inappropriate touching in school then firstly talk to the school owner or DoS and, if at all possible, try to get some kind of written guidelines from them. Give specific situations and ask them what is ok and what is not: The children want a hug at the end of the lesson… is this ok?
Only touch when necessary. If, for example, you are dealing with a very young child who needs to visit the toilet then it is entirely appropriate to help them as far as is needed; if an older student is messing around in class and you playfully help lift them from their seat to to another seat then this is not.
In the end it is a matter of judgement; you will almost certainly know in yourself whether the touch is appropriate or not but you have also to look at the student’s point of view and err to their views. The bottom line is perhaps, if in doubt, don’t and if you find yourself in a situation where you need to touch but feel it isn’t right then ask another teacher to help out.
a PDF file from Australia examining the issue of touching in schools.